City of Brotherly Mayhem - Chapter 10
CITY OF BROTHERLY MAYHEM
By Ron Avery (1997)
Bless This Unknown Boy
The Boy in the Box
It's not journalistic hyperbole to speculate that thousands of Philadelphians in their middle or later years have been "haunted" by "The Boy in the Box."
As soon as the subject is mentioned to 50-something William Fleisher, a retired FBI and U.S. Customs agent, he declares, "I was haunted by him. I must have been 13 years old when I saw his picture on the wall of an Acme supermarket. He was the first dead person I'd ever seen." Without prompting, Fleisher describes the child whose photo viewed in 1957 left a permanent imprint in his memory: "About four years old with blond hair and a bad haircut. Bruises on his forehead."
Haunted or not, thousands can conjure in their mind's eye the same sad, post-mortem photograph. The disturbing image of the little boy seemed to be everywhere in the Delaware Valley in 1957: in newspapers, the walls of businesses, government offices, every state liquor store. The death photo even arrived in the mail along with monthly bills to 400,000 customers of the Philadelphia Gas Works.
Among those admittedly haunted by the boy is local author Seymour Shubin, who received a complete set of police autopsy photos and pondered the mystery of the unidentified boy for 32 years. After several false starts, he penned a novel based on the boy and the unusual man most obsessed with giving the boy a name.
Remington Bristow, retired investigator of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office, died in 1993. His heirs probably inherited several filing cabinets filled with documents accumulated during a relentless and fruitless 36-year quest to put a name on the boy in the box. The story of the unidentified boy is also the story of Rem Bristow.
The tale begins on February 25, 1957, when a 26-year-old La Salle College student parked his car on secluded, unpaved Susquehanna Road, in the Fox Chase section of the city's Far Northeast and walked into a thickly wooded lot.
The press would report that the man saw a rabbit, stopped and decided to follow it. Police learned that he was in the habit of sneaking through the woods to spy on the bad girls at the Good Shepherd Home. The forbidding stone building on the edge of Pennypack Park now houses the Catholic social services agency known as CORA. It was then a diocesan-run residence for 'wayward girls.'
In the thicket, the young man found a large cardboard box lying on its side with one end opened. Inside was the body of a little boy. Probably afraid to admit why he was in the thicket, the man did nothing. The following day, he confessed to a priest who advised calling police. He reported the macabre discovery and that same day the Evening Bulletin had the story on its front page: "Body of Boy Found in Box in Fox Chase. Victim 4 to 6, Appears to have been bruised."
City Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph Spelman ruled the death stemmed from multiple head injuries, but he couldn't be sure of the cause. Despite the uncertainty, police handled it as a homicide. Bristow feels this was the first big mistake. His theory, repeated a thousand times over the years, was that the death was either natural or, more likely, accidental. "I've seen too many homicides not to know what they look like. The body was washed. He had a fresh haircut. His nails were clipped. He was laid out for burial. They did everything but call the funeral director."
Bristow believed that those who left the body would have stepped forward at some point. "But because it was labeled a homicide it scared them off."
Police were sure it would be a matter of hours or days before the little boy was identified. Occasionally, a drifter, a total stranger to the area, died in the city and his or her identity was never established. But it was rare. And never in city history had a child remained unidentified. Someone must recognize him and soon come forward with a positive ID. Immediately detectives were inundated with leads. In those early days, it seemed that the case was solved a dozen times. The press covered every hot new development.
Right off the bat, six Camden residents trooped into the city morgue at 13th and Wood and identified the body as the child of an itinerant roofer, Charles Speece. He had lived in Camden for about a month with his young son; they recognized the Speece boy. Speece had left his wife in Lancaster and taken the boy. The mother hurried to the morgue. There was no doubt in her mind: this child wasn't her son. When Speece learned police had put out a bulletin for his arrest, he returned to Philadelphia with his son.
A young Marine-one of 18 children-arrived at the morgue. He was sure the child was a brother. His family had moved to California, but the clan was soon located on the West Coast. All the kids were accounted for.
A hot theory was that the Fox Chase boy was Stephen Damman, a child kidnapped outside of a Long Island, N.Y, supermarket in 1955 and never seen again. Little Stephen had a small, L-shaped scar under his chin. So did the boy in the box. But it wasn't Stephen.
Clues? There were loads of clues. The cardboard box, for instance, contained a shipping label with an address. It had gone to the J.C. Penney store near 69th and Market streets in Upper Darby. The box had held a baby's bassinet, and only a dozen units had been shipped to the store. Over the years police somehow located the purchasers of all but one bassinet and cleared all the buyers. Of course, most had thrown away the box; anyone could have picked it up. Amazingly, the box was not checked for finger- prints.
Blue corduroy cap-called an Ivy League cap in those days-was found close to the box. It hadn't been there long. The manufacturer's name was stamped in the hat and led to South Philly. The woman who sold the cap actually remembered the sale because the buyer had ordered a leather strap and a buckle sewn on the back. She recalled a man in his late 20s in work clothes. Hundreds of people in the neighborhood of the hat store were questioned. No one remembered a man with the blue cap and a child.
There were clues on the boy's body, particularly three small scars- two in the groin area and one on the left ankle. Dr. Spelman believed they were "cutdowns," incisions where a transfusion has been given. This meant the boy at one time was treated by a doctor or hospital. Every physician in the area was sent a flyer, and the American Medical Association circulated a nationwide description of the boy. No dice.
The boy was naked, but covered with a thin blanket that had been cut in half. Bristow had the blanket analyzed by experts at the Philadelphia College of Textiles. They pinpointed a manufacturer. But this knowledge just didn't give any help in solving the mystery.
A clue, which only added a new layer of confusion, was the medical examiner's observation that one hand and one foot showed "washerwoman effect." This is the wrinkled skin caused by immersion in water for a prolonged period of time.
Another mysterious clue emerged when an ultraviolet light was shone on the boy's left eye and it fluoresced a brilliant blue. This was an unexpected find that might indicate a special diagnostic dye had been put in the eye.
Then there was the crude fresh haircut, perhaps given after death because hair clippings were found all over the nude body. One of the many creative theories hatched by Bristow is that no one recognized the boy because in life he had very long hair. Perhaps neighbors thought he was a girl. Certain ethnic groups allowed little boys' hair to grow long and dressed them in female clothes. Later, Bristow would have an artist make sketches of the boy with long hair.
Police once floated the dubious theory that the boy died of a cerebral hemorrhage caused when someone held him to cut his hair. Chief Inspector John J. Kelly told reporters, 'The position of the bruises across the forehead and one at the hairline are in the same position as a person's hand would be while holding a child tightly to give him a haircut with clippers. Whoever cut his hair might have exerted too much pressure at a weak spot in the temple causing the hemorrhage.'
Kelly said the bruises on the arms and legs might be the normal bumps of an active child. "Whoever caused the boy's death probably became panicky, and while in that state of mind disposed of the body.'
University of Pennsylvania forensic expert W.M. Krogman examined the body and submitted a report. He found the boy's weight and bone development showed the effects of malnutrition. At 40 inches tall and 30 pounds, he was the size of a three-year-old but was probably four. He was of northern European stock, perhaps Scandinavian, German, English or Scottish. The expert's report said the corpse was a boy who had been in "chronic ill health for about a year and who, therefore, may come from a family of lower-class or reduced socioeconomic circumstances." Krogman conjectured that the boy hailed from an itinerant or migratory worker's family or was a kidnapped child with the abductors constantly on the move.
Massive sweeps of the neighborhood where the body was found were carried out by as many as 350 police at one time looking for evidence. Residents in a wide area, including nearby Montgomery County, were questioned in an extensive door-to-door canvass. Scores of people viewed the body, thinking that they knew the child's identity. They arrived from both the region and a dozen states. Publicity is the friend of investigators in cracking this type of mystery. There was considerable out-of-state media interest in the case from as far away as London. Detectives followed up every promising lead no matter how far away from home it led.
It would fill a book to recount all the interesting or promising leads that led nowhere. One is particularly fascinating: Two years after the discovery of the body, Philly cops were certain the mystery was solved with the arrest in Virginia of a couple who traveled with a carnival. Kenneth and Irene Dudley were being held in the death of a six-year-old daughter whose body they had left in the woods wrapped in an old blanket. The man had already served a nine-month sentence in a New York State prison for burying another of his children in a backyard.
It turned out that six of the couple's 10 children had died of malnutrition and neglect over the years. The wretched pair simply dumped the bodies across the nation. The bodies of two kids were weighted down and sunk in Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. One child's body was left by the side of a highway in West Virginia. Another was left in a sulfur mine pit near Lakeland, Fla. Yes, they had been in Pennsylvania about the time the boy was found in Fox Chase. No, he was not one of their kids.
Five months after the boy was found, with investigators growing weary and frustrated, it was decided to bury the nameless boy in Philadelphia's potter's field near Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. A plaster death mask of the boy's face was created. Bristow and detectives who had developed an emotional stake in the case attended a service and took up a collection to mark the grave. It is the only tombstone in the entire cemetery; other graves are marked only with tiny numbers. An inscription reads, 'Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy.'
Other investigators felt emotional ties to the case, but for Remington Bristow it became a lifelong obsessive search. He put up reward money from his own pocket. He spent countless hours of unpaid time double- checking old leads, pouring over birth records and developing new leads, bugging the cops, giving press interviews. His vacations were often tied-in with checking leads. He followed clues and hunches to California, Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas. In desperation, he turned to a psychic.
Bristow was raised in Oregon. His father was a mortician. The son followed the family trade, opening a funeral home in California. An unusual illness forced him to leave California. He settled in his wife's hometown, Philadelphia, landing the job with the medical examiner. Bristow's responsibilities included helping to determine if a death was natural or suspicious and the identity of unknown cadavers. In 19 years, he worked with thousands of unidentified bodies. Only 24 remain unsolved; one is the boy.
Asked to explain his obsession, Bristow talks about acquiring a respect for the dead" at an early age. Certainly a more compelling reason was the death of his only son in early childhood.
The author of this book met Bristow in 1989. Chronic ill health had forced him to retire years before. He had just lost his wife. His mood was melancholy. A heavy smoker with heart, lung and circulation problems, he was in terrible physical shape. We talked about the case on several occasions.
His tales of the psychic, an elderly North Jersey woman, Florence Sternfeld, were particularly fascinating. She had worked with several police departments, and many vouched for her help. Her technique was to hold an object associated with the case-preferably something made of metal-and spew out any vibes and ideas she was picking up.
Bristow claimed that Florence provided the key to unlocking the mystery. And he went to his gave believing he knew where the answer could be found.
The psychic spoke of seeing a house with an old wooden porch and a nearby log cabin with a child playing in it. Bristow drove around the area looking for the scene. About a mile from where the Boy in the Box was found, Bristow spotted just such an old house with a log cabin playhouse for children behind it.
He brought Florence to Philadelphia only one time. "She wanted to see the spot where the body was found, and I showed her. Then she said, "Let's go this way." The psychic led Bristow to the exact house with the log cabin playhouse." She said, "This is where you'll find the answer," Bristow recalls. "That was it. She said "Take me home'. She never deviated."
At the time of the discovery, the old farmhouse was owned by a couple who cared for foster children. They usually cared for five or six kids at a time, but sometimes as many as 25 were in residence. "They took boys and girls from the state and city for a few weeks to a few years. They had a daughter who would have been but 20 at that time. There was hearsay evidence that she was an unwed mother."
The psychic focused on the house about 1960. A short time later, the couple got out of the business and sold the property. In May 1961 the contents of the place were sold and Bristow nosed round prior to the auction. He said in the basement, he spotted a bassinet. But the couple never took on babies. Bristow said he found blankets cut in half in order to fit metal cots. They were hanging on a clothesline, and he photographed them.
Not that the place had escaped police notice in the first weeks of the investigation. A detective had visited, interviewed the daughter and one of the foster kids. There were five boys and three girls in residence at the time. Both the woman and the child told the detective they never saw a boy of the subject's age at the foster home.
Something else intrigued Bristow; there was a duck pond on the property. 'A dazed or injured child could have conceivably collapsed along the perimeter of the pond, one hand and one foot in the pond. This would produce the washerwoman effect.'
With the circumstantial evidence of the bassinet and cut blankets, plus duck pond theory and his faith in Florence, it is amazing that the obsessed Bristow took no action at the time and continued to run tracking other leads. His explanation?
Detectives allegedly told him to "Lay off." "They told me, 'That's a nice Catholic family doing a good job for the city."
Finally, in 1984, Bristow tracked down the same child who had been interviewed at the foster home in 1957. Again, he did not recall the boy found in the box, but said the family did give the kids home haircuts.
Next, the retired Bristow pestered homicide detectives to interview the couple again. He found their address in Bucks County. After meeting with Bristow, two Philadelphia detectives went out and questioned the elderly man.
Bristow said, "They did a half-assed job." The man continued to deny any knowledge of the boy. He said the bassinet was given to them by a friend from Frankford, but there were no follow-up questions about why a bassinet was needed."
According to Bristow, the man was asked to take a polygraph test. He said his wife was very ill, so he couldn't travel to Philadelphia, and the detectives couldn't readily arrange a home test.
With this-14 years after his first suspicions-a retired Bristow finally called the man on the telephone and engaged in a brief conversation urging him to take a lie-detector test. "He said he would take a polygraph, but his wife was sick. There was always some excuse. He denied knowing anything about the boy."
Bristow's pet theory was that the boy was the illegitimate child of the couple's daughter and may have lived off the property. He further speculates that the boy was going to be buried in the box, but something happened to scare off the burial party.
He submitted another written report to Philadelphia police in 1985, urging them to have another interview with the man and to locate and question the daughter. With his wife's passing and in poor health, Bristow moved to Las Vegas in 1989 to be near a brother. Together, we visited the boy's grave and looked over the old house. "My granddaughter will drive me out west," said Bristow. "I'll talk to a few people as we go out. Check out a few things.