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America’s Unknown Child: The Boy Found in a Box

As you walk through the imposing gatehouse of Philadelphia’s Ivy Hill Cemetery on a summer’s afternoon, just about the first thing you see is a blaze of colorful flowers at the left-hand fork in the road. These annual blooms grow so high, they almost cover the black granite gravestone behind them. You’ll usually see more bright color along the top of the stone, in the form of teddy bears, plastic toys, and silver coins.

It seems as though everyone who stops by and sits on the memorial bench near the monument feels

compelled to leave some tribute to the departed. And they do this because the poor soul beneath the stone died without anything. He didn’t even have a name. His grave marker calls him America’s Unknown Child, but for forty years, he was better known by the sordid circumstances of his death. He was referred to as “the boy in the box.”

In February 1957, this boy was found dead, clothed only in a threadbare sheet and stuffed in a large cardboard box. The box had been shoved in the undergrowth beside Susquehanna Street in the Fox Chase part of town. In those days, Susquehanna Street was a weed-ridden semi-rural street, and a popular dumping ground. The box would have aroused no suspicion there, and the boy might have stayed there undiscovered for weeks, except that a student out for a walk became curious and opened the box.

Inside he found a bruised and frail-looking boy no older than seven. His hair had been hacked clumsily off after his death in an effort to make him harder to recognize. Except for the box and blanket, there was no other evidence at the site. By following a path trodden through the undergrowth from the box, investigators found a blue corduroy cap, but this was so generic, it did nothing to help the investigation. Other odds and ends dumped by the roadside, including a child’s pair shoes, turned out to be unconnected with the case.

Postmortem examinations on the boy revealed that he had died of blunt force trauma, and was bruised in many places, but none of his bones had been broken. The boy had a healed hernia operation scar on his groin, and intravenous cut-down scar on his ankle, both of which showed he had received professional medical care. Over the next few months, the media and police cast the net wide: Photographs of the dead boy appeared on newspapers and posters throughout the area. Doctors were asked about young male patients treated for hernias and blood transfusions. But despite intensive investigation, no solid leads appeared. More than 45 years later, the boy’s identity and his killer’s are still a mystery.

But the investigation continues. The boy was exhumed in the late 1990s for DNA testing, and around that time, the case appeared on America’s Most Wanted. This TV profile turned up more leads, some of which didn’t pan out, some of which are still under investigation.

Around the time the story appeared on television, the Boy in the Box got his new name and burial ground, courtesy of Philadelphia’s unsolved crime club, the Vidocq Society. This exclusive club consists of more than 80 professional investigators and forensic experts, and many of them have a personal stake in the case. Some of the original investigators involved with the crime are now prominent members of the Society. Until 1998, the boy was buried in a potter’s field under a plain stone with the simple inscription “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy,” followed by the date his body was found. This stone now sits at the front of the plot where the boy now lies.

The Vidocq Society has held annual memorials at the new burial site in an effort to keep the case, and that of all missing and abused children, fresh in the minds of the public. In the background, quietly and efficiently, they continue to work at solving the case. At one of the services held at the site, the Commissioner of the Vidocq Society, William Fleisher, explained the group’s position.

"We are validating this little boy's life," said William Fleisher, "Our mission is to go forward from this day and put a name on that tombstone."

In early 2001, the Boy also became the subject of a serious and exhaustive Web site at www.americasunknownchild.net. If you have any clues or leads, check out the huge amount of evidence at this site. After all these years, it would be good to have a name on that stone.

You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s other creepy crypts, unusual interments storied tombstones in Weird Pennsylvania.

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