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‘Boy in the Box’: The history of the notorious Philadelphia homicide case

A look at how The Inquirer and Daily News covered the “Boy in the Box” story over the years, since the boy's body was found in 1957.

Reconstructed photo of the little boy found dead and in a cardboard box on a trash strewn lot in Northeast Philadelphia
Reconstructed photo of the little boy found dead and in a cardboard box on a trash strewn lot in Northeast PhiladelphiaRead more

In February 1957, police discovered the body of a young boy just off Susquehanna Road in Philadelphia’s Fox Chase section.

The boy, likely between ages 4 and 6, was wrapped in a faded plaid blanket, and his body was placed in a large cardboard box that once held a baby bassinet. He was nude, covered in bruises, and had been dead two to three days by the time he was found.

With his identity unknown, the child became known as the “Boy in the Box.” And despite decades of investigation, the case remains one of the Philadelphia area’s most enduring unsolved mysteries.

Until now.

Philadelphia police on Thursday will reveal the boy’s identity, the department said in a statement this week. Authorities identified the boy through detective work and DNA analysis.

After nearly 66 years, that update stands to bring some closure to a story that has gripped the region for the better part of a century.

Here is a look at how The Inquirer and Daily News covered the “Boy in the Box” story over the years:

How was the Boy in the Box found?

Investigators found the Boy in the Box at about 10:20 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 1957, according to an Inquirer report from the following day. His nude body was wrapped in a torn blanket emblazoned with “something resembling a Navajo Indian design.” It had been recently laundered.

The box itself, investigators found, was the packaging from a bassinet sold just before Christmas at a JC Penney store formerly on 69th Street in Upper Darby.

The boy, police said, was “a very nice looking child,” and was “slender and thin-faced,” weighing 35 to 40 pounds. He had been “apparently molested and beaten by a sadist,” his head, legs, and arms bearing significant bruising. Investigators later determined that the beating had ultimately killed him.

His dark brown hair was shorn into a crude sort of crew cut — almost “home-made,” or the type that might be given to a child living in an orphanage or foster home, Chief Inspector John J. Kelly said. Hair covered his body, indicating the hair cut was likely done “shortly before or directly after he was killed to confuse his identity,” Kelley later told The Inquirer.

During an autopsy, authorities found that the boy had a full set of baby teeth, and still had his tonsils. There was no evidence of bone fractures or past surgeries. His finger and toenails were clean and clipped. He had never been vaccinated, so he “apparently never attended school,” according to an Inquirer report from a week after the boy was found.

“[He] came from a home where the parents gave him loving and tender care,” Kelley said at the time. “The parents were at least neat and clean.”

Who found the Boy in the Box?

Frederick Benonis, a junior at La Salle College, first saw the box the Sunday before police found the boy’s body. He had been driving on Susquehanna Road when a rabbit ran in front of his car, causing him to get out and chase it, but losing it in the underbrush off the road. There, he noticed several unset muskrat traps, and decided to set them to “see what happened.”

And that’s when he saw the box, as well as the boy’s face — which he mistook for that of a doll.

Benonis returned the next day, finding the traps untouched, and again ignored the box. But the following morning, Feb. 25, he heard a report about a missing girl from Bellmawr, N.J., and realized that maybe the figure in the box wasn’t a doll, but a child’s body. He contacted police, and was never considered a suspect in the case. He passed a lie detector test, Kelly told the Inquirer.

But Benonis wasn’t the first person to see the body. High school student John Powroznik, then 18, spotted it a day or two before Benonis, according to an Inquirer report almost a month after the story broke. He never went to police, and investigators didn’t find him until much later.

“He tells us he was so startled and scared he was afraid to mention it even to his parents,” Kelly told The Inquirer.

What did police do to identify the boy at the time?

In the months after the boy’s body was discovered, investigators received hundreds of tips from Philadelphians and out-of-towners. By April 1957, more than 50 people from outside the city, as well as 85 city dwellers, attempted to identify the boy, and police received 500 letters in relation to the case.

Police took to sending out circulars with photos of the boy and the blanket he was wrapped in, as well as a detailed description of his body and where he was found. The week he was discovered, police sent 4,000 circulars to city physicians, and 10,000 more to police departments throughout Pennsylvania and other Eastern states. A few days later, they prepared 25,000 more.

Police then sent out 300,000 circulars alongside Philadelphia Gas Works and Philadelphia Electric Co. bills in what The Inquirer called “the greatest circularization in the history of this city.” The handbills also appeared in area grocery stores, drug stores, and train stations.

And by April, state liquor stores throughout Pennsylvania were displaying posters of the dead boy, marking the first time in the history of the Liquor Control Board (then only 24 years old) that police were permitted to use their facilities in such a way. The Inquirer printed the posters “as a public service,” according to a report.

Those efforts led to hundreds of tips, but none panned out. As soon as a week after the boy was found, the investigation was at a “virtual standstill,” The Inquirer reported. And it would remain that way for decades.

How was the Boy in the Box buried?

By July 1957, they boy’s identity was still unknown and his body had laid in the city morgue for months.

So, detectives held a funeral for the boy, taking up a collection to pay for the associated costs, and receiving help from the Funeral Directors Association of Philadelphia. The Mann Funeral Home handled the service.

The boy was placed in a small white casket and buried in a potter’s field in Holmesburg. Detectives Samuel Powell, Robert Bilton, and Andrew Widger, as well as Alan Ressa of the Medical Examiner’s Office, served as his pallbearers. As The Inquirer reported on the day of the funeral, “no grieving kinfolk” were in attendance.

Captain Warren F. Guthriell, chaplain of the Fourth Naval District, spoke, remarking that “in this City of Brotherly Love, they were unwilling to have [the boy] buried without appropriate service.”

A marker for the boy’s grave was later installed at his burial site. It read “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy.” For years, it was the only plot with a marker in the burial ground, which was typically used as a graveyard “for executed prisoners, unidentified bodies, and body parts,” The Inquirer reported in 1998.

When was the boy’s DNA tested?

The boy lay in his initial grave for 41 years before his body was exhumed in November 1998. Investigators dug him up to perform DNA testing on a tooth, but it’s not clear if the testing was successful or led to any additional information.

After the DNA testing, the boy was reburied in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Mount Airy. The Vidocq Society, an association of professional sleuths who work on unsolved cases, covered the costs of the boy’s second burial — and Craig Mann of Mann Funeral Home, whose father handled the first burial, did the reburial, and even donated a casket. Ivy Hill Cemetery donated the gravesite, The Inquirer reported.

About 100 people attended the graveside service on Nov. 11, 1998. And the boy received a new grave marker, this time reading, “America’s Unknown Child.”

“Today, we are re-interring him and calling him America’s Unknown Child as a Symbol of our nation’s abused children, missing children, and murdered children,” said William Fleisher, head of the Vidocq Society. “We are validating this little boy’s life. Our mission is to go forward from this day and put a name on that tombstone.”

Were there ever leads in the Boy in the Box case?

In 2002, 45 years after the boy was found, investigators got what seemed like a promising lead. An Ohio-based psychiatrist told Philadelphia authorities that a patient known under the pseudonym Mary claimed that her mother and father purchased the unknown boy from a human-trafficking ring in Kensington, according to a 2017 Inquirer report.

Vidocq Society members traveled to Cincinnati, where the woman resided, and spoke with her and the psychiatrist, the Daily News reported in 2002. The boy, the woman said, was physically and sexually abused, and malnourished for months before his death. His name, she said, was Jonathan.

One day in 1957, the woman’s mother was struggling to bathe the boy, and beat him to death, the woman claimed. She had told the psychiatrist that she accompanied her mother to the spot where the boy was found, and watched her wrap him in a blanket and place his body in a cardboard box.

Investigators, however, were unable to conclusively verify what Mary told them. And she later refused to cooperate in the case, The Inquirer reported in 2017. Her real name was leaked in the media, and she stopped talking. Ultimately, she reportedly left the country.

The Vidocq Society’s Fleisher, though, told The Inquirer in 2017 that he believed the woman and her doctor were telling the truth. Even if she studied the case, Fleisher told The Inquirer that year, her testimony checked out to such a degree that he put the odds at “8,000 to 1 that she’s lying.”

But still, nothing conclusive emerged. And now, with Philadelphia police set to release the boy’s identity, some sort of conclusion appears to be on the horizon.

“I think it’s going to happen when it was meant to happen” Fleisher said in 2017. “Hey, I hope it happens when I’m alive.”