This is an excellent article that was published in the Saturday Evening Post magazine one year after the unknown boy was buried:
SATURDAY EVENING POST
JULY 26, 1958
A BOX, a BLANKET
and a SMALL BODY
A year and a half after a shocking murder, these mute
pieces of evidence still hold the secret of Philadelphia's
most baffling crime. by EARL and ANNE SELBY
Spring sometimes comes early in Philadelphia, but by late February of 1957 there was still no sign of warm weather. In the last week of that month, the temperature ranged from the chilly twenties to the brisk forties. In Philadelphia's most incredible murder mystery, that tiny fact may be the most important clue of all. When the thermometer stays in that range, human bodies do not decompose rapidly. And, as a result, there was no telling how long the body of a little boy had lain in a box in a rubbish-strewn field.
The boy - perhaps four, maybe five years old - had been beaten to death, but the police have never determined when, where or by whom. In a big city, murder is commonplace and seldom an enduring puzzle. In the usual course of their investigation, police rapidly learn the name, home address and cronies of the murdered. Rarely do they lack a suspect. In this case the mystery is so complete that detectives have never been able to identify the body.
This is a mystery almost without parallel. How is it possible for a murderer not only to escape justice, but even to shroud the identity of the victim?
Somewhere in his life the boy must have been known, not just to his parents, but to their friends. Somewhere he must have had playmates. Somewhere there must have been neighbors who knew he was alive - and now around no more. Somewhere there must be a person who neatly trimmed the nails on his fingers and toes. Somewhere there must be a barber - professional or amateur - who gave him a bowl-like haircut shortly before his death. Somewhere the boy's fingerprints - or footprints - must be on file.
That is - all these people - and these things - "must be" in the logical course of events. It is, or so it would seem, impossible for a child to be murdered and have no persons come forward to claim him as their own or, at the very least, identify him.
But in this case, fact defies logic. The police sent out 400,000 circulars to be posted in police stations, post offices, and courthouses all over the nation. The FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin alerted investigators; the American Medical Association circulated a complete medical description in the hope that some doctor, somewhere, might recognize the boy. In a dozen states, from California to Maine, leads have developed - and all proved futile.
More than a year has now gone by. The Philadelphia police have three filing cases bulging with reports of investigations. But nothing has happened to alter the simple statement of fact on the white marble slab over the boy's grave: HEAVENLY FATHER, BLESS THIS UNKNOWN BOY.
There is no telling how long the boy's body might have gone undiscovered in the community of Fox Chase, on the northern outskirts of Philadelphia, had it not been for a rabbit. On February 11, 1957, a LaSalle College student named Frederick Benonis was driving home from school on Susquehanna Road, west of Verree Road. On the north side of Susquehanna there is a girls' school; on the south, a country field with dense undergrowth stretching back from a line of trees and providing perfect cover for small game. When a rabbit scurried in front of Benonis' car, he stopped to follow it into the brush. He didn't catch the rabbit, but he did find two steel traps for small game. Benonis sprang the traps and then left.
Two weeks later, about 3:15 on the afternoon of Monday, February twenty-fifth, he again drove by and stopped to see if the traps were still there. He looked around for them and saw a three-foot-long cardboard box partially overlaid with vines and brush, about fifteen feet from Susquehanna Road - on a direct line with a footpath made by persons who'd dumped trash.
The box looked new, and Benonis went over to examine it. Inside he found what appeared to be a doll or a small child wrapped in an old blanket. But, as a police report puts it, "He did not notify the police or anyone else for fear of becoming involved in some tragedy."
The next morning, while driving to school, Benonis heard a radio broadcast about a little girl being missing from her home in New Jersey. Could her body be what he had seen in that box? When Benonis got to LaSalle, he didn't go to class. Instead he talked with two faculty counselors and also with his priest-brother. All advised him to tell the police his story. At ten A.M. he telephoned the Philadelphia homicide squad, commanded by Capt. David Roberts.
A routine police check was ordered; and, at the exact point Benonis had described, the officers found the cardboard box marked, FRAGILE, HANDLE WITH CARE. In it was the boy's body, wrapped in one piece of a cheap, well-worn blanket with a faded design of diamonds and blocks in green, rust-red, brown and white. In the box was another piece of the same blanket, smeared with what appeared to be grease. A third piece - to complete the 64-by-76-inch blanket was missing.
The boy was unclothed. His head was bruised with the injuries that killed him. But the body was dry - and clean. The nails had been recently trimmed short and neat. But the palm of his right hand and the soles of both his small feet were rough-skinned and wrinkled in what police called a "washerwoman" effect, indicating that just before or after death the one hand and both feet had been in water. His hair, a medium brown, had been crudely cut, with no sideburns, and short - only about a half inch on top. And on his body, police discovered a spattering of his hair, meaning that the cutting had been made with no sheet around his neck or when the boy was nude - and possibly dead. No man could fix the time of death. The boy could have died two days - or two weeks - earlier.
Those three clues - a box, a blanket and a body - were all the direct evidence the police had. But in the beginning hours of their investigation the detectives had no thought that this would be a crime without solution. The left hand yielded perfect fingerprints. That "washerwoman" wrinkling was not severe enough to obliterate the prints on the right hand nor on the feet. Further, there were scars on the child's body which could mark surgical incisions, on the left ankle, the chest and the groin. On the chin was an L-shaped scar - a quarter of an inch long in each direction. There were three small moles on the left side of the face, a tiny one below the right ear, three on the chest, and still another on the right arm two inches above the wrist. The boy had blue eyes and a full set of baby teeth.
No one believed that a homicide investigator's first job - identifying the victim - would be difficult. What was more, the box itself not only bore the name of the store it had come from - it also carried a manufacturer's serial number, so that it could be pinpointed to one specific shipment. And the stain on that torn piece of blanket could be chemically analyzed; if it turned out to be automobile grease it could be compared with smears that might be found in a suspect's car. Prosecutors like that kind of circumstantial evidence.
There was yet another hopeful item. Fifteen feet from the box, near the footpath leading in from the road, searchers found a distinctive cap, cut in Ivy League style from blue corduroy, with a leather strap and buckle across the back. It was easy to understand how someone who carried the box could have had the cap brushed off by a low-hanging branch - then been unable to find it in the darkness. And, best of all, the capmaker's name and address were clearly stamped on the sweatband.
Detectives took the cap to Mrs. Hannah Robbins, in whose South Philadelphia shop it had been made. Certainly, said Mrs. Robbins, she remembered the cap. Several months earlier a man between twenty-six and thirty years old had bought it. She recalled him because he'd asked her to add the leather strap and buckle. He was in working clothes, spoke without an accent and was alone. What was his name? lt was, said Mrs. Robbins, a cash sale, so she hadn't taken his name. Had she ever seen him before or since? Never, she said. With the cap and a picture of the boy, detectives then painstakingly visited 143 stores and businesses in the area. Not one person recalled either boy or cap.
Meanwhile the fingerprints were checked. Neither the Philadelphia Police, the Pennsylvania State Police, nor the FBI files in Washington produced any match for the youngster's prints. Four thousand doctors in the Philadelphia area were sent special circulars: none remembered seeing the boy. Nothing of consequence developed after the same information appeared in the nationally-circulated Journal of the American Medical Association.
And what of the cardboard box? Printed on it was the name of the J.C. Penney chain's store in suburban Upper Darby - at least fifteen miles from where the boy's body was found. The store officials immediately recognized the box as one used for a $7.95 white bassinet. But Penney's practice is "Cash"-- and although a dozen were sold from that shipment, the store had no records of the purchaser. With the help of newspaper publicity, the detectives got calls from eight buyers, all of who said they had either put the box out for trash or still had it in their homes. The police talked to the trash collectors--they said they had long since burned their loads of refuse. The four other purchasers of the white bassinets were never found.
But Homicide Captain Roberts and his superior, Chief Inspector of Detectives John Kelly, still had hopes for clues from the box. For example, how long had the box been in the field? When the officers had first arrived in that thicket-filled field, the box was dry and without rain stains. This might be a clue - the Weather Bureau said there had been rain on Saturday, the twenty-third, just three days before the investigation started. Yet, here again, the investigators ran into another of those baffling frustrations that have marked this whole case. There is no Weather Bureau station for recording rainfall in the area where the body was found. The meteorologists have no way of telling how much--if any-rain fell in Fox Chase that day. But one thing is certain: The box was there at 1:30 on the afternoon of Sunday, the twenty-fourth, one full day before student Benonis first saw it.
That fact, however, did not come out until two weeks later. A detective, specially assigned by Chief Kelly to make a door-to-door survey of the homes in the immediate area of the field, found the owner of the traps that Benonis had spotted in early February. He was eighteen-year-old John Powroznik, whose family had settled in the Fox Chase community after leaving Poland in 1949. John, a high-school junior, said he had nineteen traps around the death field, but had been checking them only spasmodically because it was close to the trapping season's end. And he told detectives that on Sunday the twenty-fourth, he was bicycling to play basketball in a nearby church gymnasium when he saw the box in the field.
A police report says, "He thought it looked suspicious, got off his bicycle and walked to the box. Approaching it from the rear, he reached down with his right hand, lifting the top of the box up toward him, at which time he saw the body of a baby and a blanket. He immediately dropped the box, got on his bicycle and went back home and never mentioned this to anyone." Why? Many people who have come from behind the iron curtain do not quickly involve themselves with the police of any land.
There was yet another reason for John's silence. Some months before, in another deserted Fox Chase field, John's brother had come upon the body of a suicide hanging from a tree: the mere questioning of him by the police had upset the whole family.
John's admission meant that the boy in the box had been dead at least forty-eight hours before the police arrived at the field. Could the box have been there for a week or even longer? If it had gone unscathed for forty-eight hours, couldn't it have been unmolested for ninety-six hours, or for an entire week? The answer is: possibly.
This is a mystery for which everyone may logically advance his own theory. Could it have been a kidnapping? It could have. But then, wouldn't the boy's parents have reported him missing? In fact, there was a sensational - and unsolved - missing-child case on the books. In the June 9, 1956 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Mrs. Marilyn Damman told the story of how her thirty-four-month-old son, Steven, had been kidnapped on Long Island the previous October. Hundreds of police officials, reading the newspaper and wire-service stories of Philadelphia's unknown boy, immediately thought this might be the body of the Damman child. At first, so did the Philadelphia police. But Nassau County Detective Inspector James Farrell came to Philadelphia and after carefully examining the unknown boy's body said it was not that of the Damman child: "Completely different in facial appearance, coloration and build."
This was not the only kidnapping lead. Page after page in the Philadelphia files is filled with the suspicions of deserted wives and husbands. From the South came a lawyer's letter saying a client thought the unknown boy might be one of his children taken by his wife when she left. The wife, found in New Jersey, produced the children - alive. She explained she simply had no desire to live with her husband. In Cleveland a wife was positive the Philadelphia mystery explained what had happened to the son her husband had taken when he left town. Grandmothers wrote of their no-good sons-in-law; in one case, a young serviceman told police he was sure the body was that of his younger brother. That is, he was sure until the police checked out every one of his fourteen brothers and sisters and found all well. In police files, there are nearly 300 letters and reports in which one member of a family suspects foul play by another; some of these letters are shot through with sad and pathetic stories of marital discord; some are mean and malicious. ("I know my sister must have had an illegitimate baby, and she's the kind that would kill it.") But all had this in common - not one produced a single worthwhile lead to solve Philadelphia's baffling murder.
The possibility of kidnapping was raised also by Dr. Wilton M. Krogman, noted University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, known to police throughout the country as "the bone detective." His specialty is human growth; he reads bones as accurately as certified public accountants read balance sheets. Examining the body of the unknown boy, Doctor Krogman found him to be forty inches tall: in the technical phrase this gave the youngster a "height age" of about three years, eight months. But the boy weighed only thirty pounds, a "weight age" of about two years and two months. This obviously suggested undernourishment, and the bones confirmed that. With x-rays Doctor Krogman discovered scars of arrested growth on the long bones of the legs. This, he reported to police, "may have been enough to have slowed him down six months to a year in his growth progress."
Doctor Krogman estimated that the boy had been in chronic ill health - with the accompanying malnutrition - for about a year. Under what circumstances is a child exposed to that condition? Doctor Krogman said it might be typical of a family on the move. A family of itinerant workers, perhaps; always following the sun and the crops. Or perhaps kidnappers had taken the boy and just kept moving, in constant fear of the police.
But do kidnappers keep a boy's fingernails and toenails neatly trimmed? Not in the police view. So they turned back to Doctor Krogman for other possible leads they could investigate. For example, could he give them any clue to the boy's ancestry? The scientist described the boy as having "a long narrow head, a high narrow face, and a high narrow nose." That, to him, was enough to speculate on Northwest European ancestry - Scandinavia, West Germany, or England or Scotland. But, as Doctor Krogman pointed out, that racial stock had pretty well spread over Europe, especially during and after the Second World War.
Was it possible that the unknown boy was the child of a Hungarian refugee couple admitted to the United States after the great freedom riots of 1956? For a time, Homicide's Captain Roberts and his men thought they had a real possibility in that question. But, once again, the blank wall. From lmmigration authorities came the word that everyone who came during the Hungarian refugee program had been vaccinated. And the boy's body bore no mark of vaccination.
The haircut and the wrinkled "washerwoman" skin on the right palm and the soles of the feet presented another puzzle. That wrinkling comes only from immersion in water. Maybe just before death the little boy had been playing in his bath. But, if that were true, wouldn't the left hand be affected too? And if he had been taking a bath, then why hadn't the water washed away the strands of hair the police found on his body? Why, the detectives asked themselves - why the wrinkling on the soles of the feet?
One possible answer: Whoever killed the boy knew the footprints were on file in some hospital, and was attempting to blur the skin ridges so that the prints could never be traced. But, if that's so, then why is the right hand also wrinkled? Detectives speculate - with no real evidence to support their theory - that this right hand might have been put in water to throw the investigators off the trail, by adding a deliberately misleading clue. And yet all that speculation founders on this point: If the purpose was to conceal the footprints, then why weren't the feet kept in water long enough to achieve that goal. As it turned out, detectives checking sole prints in hospital files found that the hospital prints in a number of cases were too fuzzy to use for comparison. That didn't surprise them, for as most topnotch investigators know, footprints are not always an accurate means of identification.
The peculiar cropping of the hair also attracted close attention. Why was it cut so high on the sides, almost as if it had been shaped with a bowl, then flattened on top in a half-inch-high crew style? And did the strands on his chest indicate that the hair was clipped while the boy was nude - and dead? Captain Robert's men followed this thinking to another strange possibility - that the boy was the son of an unbalanced mother who had raised him as a girl; then, after his death, had cut the hair short to block recognition of the "girl". Certainly the cropping had the appearance of an amateur's work, and the strands on the chest could mean that the cut was made in such a hurry - or panic - that the barber had no time to brush them away.
The "unbalanced mother" thought flowed directly into another theory that perhaps the boy, too, had been mentally incompetent - was, in fact, a retarded child. Doctor Krogman recalls that after the newspaper disclosed his entry into the case, he got a telephone call from a woman with a calm, almost deliberately ridged voice. "Can you tell whether that boy was weak-minded?" she asked. Doctor Krogman asked her name. "Do you know what it is to take care of an idiot?" she answered, the calmness suddenly gone. "Sometimes you get so sick of their crying you can kill them in a fit of anger." Now her voice was loud and angry. "That," she said, "might be your explanation." Abruptly she hung up. She never called again.
Actually, there was no way after death to determine the boy's mental competency. But one thing the investigators could - and did - do. This was to make a head count of children who had been placed in nearby institutions for the retarded. But, in institution after institution, in home after home, the story was the same. All the children could be accounted for. And in not one place was there a blanket even resembling the torn and faded one the boy's body was wrapped in. But there was still something compelling about the retarded child theory. Was it possible that this was a case of unintentional killing, not premeditated murder? Suppose the boy was retarded and his family had a new baby. That new baby could account for the bassinet box. Suppose further that the defective child tried to harm his infant brother or sister. Would either parent, in a burst of rage, strike the retarded one - again, again, and again? This is a mad and frightening picture, but homicide is rarely otherwise.
The retarded child theory has never been disproved - or proved. But, whatever this child might have been - normal, retarded, healthy or ill - it would be only logical that he, or "she," would be known to some neighborhood. Young policemen were assigned to wear the casual clothes of playground instructors and mingle with youngsters of all ages in schoolyards, parks, and recreation centers. They kept asking one question. Did any of them remember a thin little boy - or girl - who'd been seen around, and now was seen no more? Some did, and each lead was traced out. In every case the children were alive. The detectives wondered if perhaps the unknown boy's family had moved from their own neighborhood or were newcomers to Philadelphia. From every moving company in the city they got a list of the customers in the weeks before and after the body had been found. Interstate movers were asked to supply the names of families they had moved into the city. Painstakingly the detectives searched out every white customer. Net result - another statistic for the files: 763 white families had hired movers. Period. Not one of those 763 investigations led to the tiniest clue about the boy.
All the while the police were investigating, the body of the unknown boy lay in the city morgue. Periodically the homicide squad got calls from men and women who thought they recognized the boy from pictures they had seen in newspapers. One by one they were taken to the morgue to view the body; one by one they said no, this was not the boy they had in mind. Early in the investigation there had come a call from a woman in Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The boy's picture, she said, reminded her of a small boy traveling with an itinerant roofer she had hired at her home. She was brought to the morgue - and instantly she said this was the child she had seen. Armed with pictures of the boy, detectives rushed to her neighborhood. They found three other persons who, on viewing the body in the morgue, definitely identified this as a boy they had seen with a stranger in the area. Two others were not so positive, but said there was a real resemblance. With the help of these witnesses, the detectives identified the itinerant roofer as one Charles D. Speece, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A year earlier, Speece had left Lancaster, taking with him his eight-year-old son. It was established that Speece and the boy had lived for a time in Camden, and then left town. Police sent out a thirteen-state alarm asking that Speece be picked up. But abruptly the investigation collapsed. Speece's estranged wife, located in Lancaster, came to the Philadelphia morgue to see if the unknown boy was her son. Emphatically she said, "It's not him." And in Newark, New Jersey, Speece heard of the alarm for him and came to Philadelphia. With him was his son.
Despite the calls that continued to come into the homicide squad's city hall headquarters, that was the last time anyone definitely identified the boy. And police knew, as each clue collapsed, they were: "back where we started from."
But Philadelphia police - like police everywhere - are patient people. Even though the case is now more than a year old, the dogged investigation goes on. As both Chief Inspector Kelly and Captain Roberts put it, "Somewhere in one of our files, there may be one little sentence that will give us a clue. All we want is a toe-hold on this case."
And there's a young civilian in the police department - a fingerprint clerk - who, on his own time, still goes out to check footprints in "just one more country hospital." While he goes from hospital to hospital in the outlying counties, detectives check back over those bulky files time after time. Every possible lead that trickles in from police in other states is investigated, but the clues remain the same - a box, a blanket and a small body.
As they were back on July 24, 1957, when, with city detectives standing at stiff attention, the body was buried in a small white casket in the city cemetery. The tombstone was inscribed: FEB 25, 1957. HEAVENLY FATHER, BLESS THIS UNKNOWN BOY....