WHO IS THE BOY IN THE BOX?
In 1957, a young boy was discovered dead in the woods in Fox Chase, his head poking
from a cardboard box. It would become Philly's most famous and baffling
unsolved murder. Forty-six years later, long-retired investigator Bill Kelly is
on a quest for answers.
By SABRINA RUBIN ERDELY
Photograph by Steve Belkowitz
An old man sits on an
aqua couch in a pink room. Soon he will visit a little boy's grave. But first
he leafs through the white binder in his lap, turning its plastic pages with a patient
hand. Here is the typewritten autopsy report, dated
The little boy would be 50, 51 years old if he were alive today, but in Bill Kelly's mind he is still a child. Time has stood still for the boy, but not for the man. He has circulation problems now, and age spots on his skin, and white hair he combs neatly back each morning, and a plastic pillbox of medicines he takes daily, some with food, some on an empty stomach. He's been living on God's green earth for 75 years. He's seen a lot during that time - some of which he'd rather forget, frankly - and yet Kelly remains singularly by this case, by this one little boy, who has been on his mind for the better part of 46 years. It's the one case he couldn't close, the one mystery he couldn't solve. Kelly knows time is running out. He leans in to study a close-up of the boy's face for the umpteenth time. Who are you? he wants to ask. What is your name?
Time to go.
The ridges of the little boy's footprints are burned onto the insides of Bill Kelly's eyelids. Kelly can see them clearly, can fix the image so he can zoom in on the loops and whorls that pattern the boy's flesh. It's like standing next to a painting on the wall and peering closely enough to make out the individual brushstrokes - the elements of creation. But take a giant step back, and the whole picture comes into terrible focus. The four round bruises stipling the boy's forehead. Blue eyes whose lids have fluttered partly open, as though the boy were waking from sleep. The small, dry lips parted and crusted with blood. Tiny ribs like chicken bones etched through the skin. The little tummy already greenish with rot.
That February day in 1957, 29-year-old fingerprint expert Bill Kelly had lifted a little foot from the metal gurney and examined its sole. Sometimes it's easier to step in as close as you can, to concentrate on details so small that you don't see the larger picture at all.
The boy had been found
hours earlier. A
The little boy was 40 inches tall and just 30 pounds, with a full set of baby teeth, putting him between four and six years old - he was so malnourished, it was hard to tell his age for sure. His nude, badly bruised body was wrapped in an Indian-patterned blanket of rust and green. His blond hair had been recently cropped in a homemade crew cut; his torso was dusted with the clippings. Other than that, his body was clean; his nails were trimmed. The skin of his right hand and both feet was pruny, as though they'd been immersed in water immediately before or after death. There were surgical scars on the boy's ankle and groin, and an L-shaped scar under his chin. The chilly weather had preserved the body somewhat, but he'd been dead long enough - from three days to two weeks - that the pull of gravity had sunk his eyeballs back into their sockets.
By the time Bill Kelly
arrived at the morgue, the entire police department was talking in low voices
about the discovery. They were normally stoic guys, men of few words, most of
them vets who'd served in World War II or
A LONG VIGIL: Bill Kelly in his dining room.
Kelly methodically set
his inks and rollers on the morgue table. He'd seen dead children before, in
For now, though, Kelly was first and foremost a fingerprint expert, a coolheaded man of science and reason. He inked the little boy's fingertips and feet and pressed them onto paper. Someone would come forward to claim this boy; of that, Kelly and the police were certain. The case would no doubt be solved by Monday morning.
Bill Kelly steers his
silver Grand Marquis westward from Northeast Philly, toward the boy's grave.
His hand rests lightly on the wheel; the insignia on his gold Knights of
The flyer that flooded the region in 1957.
The boy's discovery
created a nationwide sensation once an alert was broadcast to all 48 states via
police teletype; headlines dubbed him "The Boy in the Box." Locally,
the case was inescapable, with 400,000 flyers of the boy's likeness printed up
courtesy of the Inquirer and handed out on street corners, hung in shop
windows, enclosed with every gas bill. Hundreds of leads came in. A
The leads soon fizzled,
baffling police. It seemed impossible that no one would recognize this boy and
come forward - no relative, no neighbor, no teacher, playmate or doctor.
Investigators redoubled their efforts. They ran an article in a pediatric
journal describing the boy's surgical scars, but got no response. They figured
out that the box originally held a baby's white bassinet, 11 of which had been
sold for $7.50 apiece at the
Kelly, meanwhile, had begun his own volunteer mission. Nearly each day before or after work, he would spend two or three hours in hospital records departments and unheated warehouses, sifting through badly organized maternity files. All babies' footprints are recorded at birth; if the boy had been born anywhere in this area, Kelly reasoned, his footprints would be on file somewhere. The police department couldn't pay the overtime for such a needle-in-a-haystack search, but that was okay. The way Kelly saw it, the boy's murder was a crime almost beyond imagination, but his being robbed of an identity was a crime against the very order of things. Everyone deserved a name. Perhaps Kelly would be able to set things right again.
Investigator Remington Bristow reads a prayer at the 10th anniversary of the boy's discovery.
"Good luck, hon - maybe today you'll get a winner," Ruth would tell Kelly as she kissed him goodbye each morning. When he returned home at night, she'd shoot him an expectant look, and he'd wordlessly shake his head no. In the hours between, Kelly would go through the same routine over and over again: pulling a set of prints from a folder, laying them flat beside the boy's footprints, then staring hard at the images. Sometimes he could tell at a glance that they weren't a match, while others required close scrutiny through a magnifying glass. Occasionally the prints were nothing but an ink splotch, impossible to read, and Kelly would despair: Is that you? When his enthusiasm flagged, he would remind himself of Scripture: "Seek, and ye shall find." Religion and hard science were the twin pillars of Kelly's life; he aspired to respect both and keep them in balance. (Later in life, he would be astounded to learn that the science of fingerprinting is mentioned in the Book of Job - "He sealeth the hand of every man, that all men may know his work" - thus uniting Kelly's two passions.) To cover his bases, when Kelly went to the Good Shepherd girls' home to request adoption records for out-of-wedlock babies born there, he asked the nun to pray for his success.
He wasn't the only person preoccupied with the boy. A medical examiner's investigator named Remington Bristow, a quiet man with a craggy face, had also been trying to solve the case on his own time. Drawn together by their shared interest, Kelly and Bristow would often meet in one or the other of their City Hall offices. They agreed on one thing from the start: The boy's abusive parents or caretakers must have killed him. Considering the boy's grooming, perhaps it had happened during bath time; he'd resisted, and been smacked around harder than usual. Certainly the four bruises across his forehead could have been dug in by rough fingers trying to keep his head still during a haircut. Or maybe his hair was cut postmortem, to disguise his identity.
But how to lure the parents out of the woodwork? A year or two into the case, Bristow cleverly planted an idea in the newspapers that perhaps the boy's death had been accidental and his loving family had been too poor to afford a funeral. Bristow didn't believe it, of course, but hoped to bring the killer forward. It didn't work. Even so, Bristow's determination grew with each passing year. In year five, he consulted a psychic, which raised some eyebrows. In year six, he offered a $1,000 reward from his own meager salary for any information leading to the boy's identity. To observe the 10-year mark, Rem Bristow organized a Christmastime cemetery visit with a group of ME investigators. Bill Kelly still cherishes a black-and-white picture taken that snowy day; it's in his white binder. The group is crowded around the grave, an American flag flapping behind them; Rem's expression is grim as he gazes down at the little boy's headstone. Poor Rem. Somewhere along the line, Kelly learned that Bristow had a daughter who died in infancy, of crib death. Maybe that explained some things.
As for Kelly, after nine years of poring through maternity records, he finally ran out of records to search. It had taken him countless hours - time he could have been earning extra cash as a shutterbug, or spending with his family. At least some good came of it, Kelly consoled himself: He became so well-known to the hospital staffs that he'd been called in to resolve a couple of delivery-room mix-ups. Could that have been the divine reason he'd been set on this case? If he couldn't find the boy's identity, maybe he'd been meant to restore the identities of those other little boys and girls. Kelly tried to find comfort in that notion. But he was deeply bothered by his defeat, and by a memory that had disturbed him throughout his years of searching. Four months after first visiting the nun at the Good Shepherd home, he'd gone back for a follow-up, bearing a box of Whitman's chocolates.
"By the way, Sister, did you say a prayer for me? Because I'm still searching," Kelly had said, half-joking. He was frozen by her response.
"Oh, every day, Mr. Kelly," the nun had answered serenely. "Maybe God said no."
A person can't go
through all that Bill Kelly has - four years at war, first on a destroyer in
WWII and then on the ground in Korea; 16 years with the Philadelphia police
department, and another 15 with the adult probation department - without some
things sticking with you, and not in a good way. Bill Kelly'd probably be on
the funny farm by now if he hadn't found an outlet for his disquiet: He spends
one long weekend each year in silence at the
The hairs on Bill Kelly's arms stood on end. He'd heard that a couple of retired guys his age had revived the case: a detective named Sam Weinstein, and a guy from the medical examiner's office, Joe McGillen. Could they actually have done it? Kelly sank into his armchair and waited impatiently through a commercial.
He had never forgotten the boy. No one had, it seemed; each time Kelly visited the grave, it was strewn with flowers and toys. Some were from other investigators, but most were left by regular citizens, prompted by some shared sense of loss. Maybe they truly grieved for the boy; then again, perhaps he had become a symbol in their minds, away of giving shape and expression to their individual sorrows. Sometimes Kelly wonders whether that was the boy's purpose, that he was meant to be a tragic reminder of the fragility and helplessness of little children. Kelly would always murmur a prayer at the grave: "Guide me where to seek, that I may find the identification of the little unknown boy. Or, as I've come to call him, Sean." Then, mindful of the Good Shepherd nun, he'd add, "Thy will be done." Sean was a good Irish name, just for use until the boy's true name surfaced. Oddly enough, when Kelly's daughter Eileen became pregnant with the sixth of his 10 grandchildren, she told him she planned to name her baby Sean, a coincidence that had startled Kelly. Sean is 17 years old now, president of his class at Father Judge.
Maybe the elderly detectives working the case had found the answer. But as the news flashed a black-and-white picture of a boy with a bowl haircut, Kelly was overwhelmed with disappointment.
"I know who that is," he told Ruth heavily. "I already identified him."
They'd been so sure of
that lead back in '65. He and Bristow had brainstormed that since the boy had
no vaccination scars, perhaps his parents had lived under the radar, were some
sort of itinerants. For a while, they'd turned their attention to a family of
carnival workers. Then they considered that maybe the boy had been a recent
immigrant. Going through newspapers, Kelly came across a 1956 article about the
tide of Hungarian refugees - and there, in the accompanying photo, was the
little unknown boy. It had to be - the ear looked just like his. With
the assistance of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Kelly sifted
through 11,200 passport photos before finding the Hungarian boy's picture, and
located his family in
Well, it seemed that the investigators going through the old case file had come across that same photo, and got a little excited, and put it on TV. Kelly phoned the police department the next morning to set them straight. "I heard you were dead!" homicide detective Tom Augustine exclaimed. Kelly just laughed: "Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated." He unearthed his box of files from the basement, and he and Sam Weinstein and Joe McGillen met for coffee at a diner. And just like that, Bill Kelly was back on the case.
It didn't take long to bring him up to speed. After Rem Bristow's death in 1993, with the investigation still open but no one manning it, the Vidocq Society - a group of local investigators devoted to solving old murder cases - had suggested Weinstein and McGillen get on it. Their point person within the police department was Detective Augustine, who'd been but a boy himself when the Boy in the Box was murdered and never forgot the mutilated face on those posted flyers.
There was one danger
Kelly was aware of as he plunged back into the case, one that Rem himself might
have succumbed to: wanting an answer too badly, believing in a certain
resolution despite its shaky logic. Bristow had grown more obsessed with each
passing year. One time, while on vacation in
Kelly had nodded along with Rem's theory, but was rather taken aback. It was as though Bristow had gotten too close to the boy, until he couldn't bear the idea of intentional harm coming to him. It seemed clear that he was bending the facts to fit his theory - after all, a bassinet and a pond do not a case make. Besides, the police records showed the children at that foster home were accounted for. Perhaps all Rem really wanted by that point was a resolution, any resolution.
In 1998, though, there
was new, hard science to pursue: The Vidocq Society arranged for the little
boy's skeleton to be dug up for DNA testing. At the exhumation, Weinstein was
struck by the disgraceful state of the boy's grave in the potter's field in
Holmesburg, littered with condoms and beer bottles and Kotex pads. When it came
time to rebury the boy, they decided to give him a little more dignity;
By the time Bill Kelly joined up in '99, the elderly investigative team had its hands full. The reburial had attracted lots of attention, including a segment on America's Most Wanted, spawning dozens of leads for Weinstein, McGillen and now Kelly to follow up on. They turned out to be nothing but nebulous recollections, viewer suggestions ("Did you check with hospitals?"), and nut jobs who sent drawings of what the "cult" had done to the boy. The DNA was a wash, too; they had a sample, but no one to match it to. Then Sam Weinstein fell ill, leaving Kelly and McGillen to work the case on their own. Hoping for inspiration, they managed to locate the crime scene - a challenge, considering how the lush, green Fox Chase of 1957 had changed. The patch of wooded ground where the boy once lay is now just to the left of someone's driveway, by the side of a wide paved road lined with brick homes; Kelly and McGillen were only able to find it thanks to a telephone pole that was still across the street. Standing there amid the whizzing traffic, Kelly thought about how much the world had changed through the years, and yet how little the case had. How were they supposed to name the little boy now? It seemed hopeless. Maybe the nun was right. Maybe Kelly wasn't meant to find the answers.
The Fox Chase discovery site in 1957.
PAVED OVER: The same site today.
And then. And then.
The morning of
With the psychiatrist
acting as a middle-man, the investigators began a two-year correspondence with
Mary, slowly piecing together the details. She claimed to have grown up in
After such a long drought, Bill Kelly and Joe McGillen were ecstatic at this new stream of information, even if it was slightly bizarre. They rushed to verify the details as each fragment was revealed, nearly giddy with urgency. When they received a letter the day before Palm Sunday 2002, mentioning the name of Mary's childhood street, the pair couldn't wait; as soon as Mass let out, they drove to Lower Merion, still in their church suits, knocking on doors until they confirmed that Mary's family had indeed lived there. At long last, in June 2002, Mary agreed to a face-to-face meeting. Because of McGillen's fear of flying, they rented a van for the trip to Ohio, with McGillen driving, Tom Augustine riding shotgun with the directions, and Kelly with his legs up across the backseat for his circulation's sake.
It took Mary three hours to tell the whole story. She was 12 when it happened. She remembered the boy had thrown up after eating some baked beans. She remembered her mother, enraged at the mess, throwing the boy in the bathtub and then beating him, slamming his head again and again against the bathroom floor. The boy let out a shriek, the only sound Mary ever heard him utter. Then he was silent. Her mother cleaned him up, cut his untended hair, wrapped him in a blanket, and carried him out to the trunk of the car. Mary went with her, wearing her raincoat against the February drizzle. She remembered driving to a forlorn place, getting out and standing by the trunk. Her mother stiffening as a man stopped his car: "Do you need any help?" Her mother shaking her head no. After the man drove on, her mother stashed the dead boy in an empty box lying nearby. Mary had memorized the route home, so that one day she could return for him. He wasn't her real brother, but she loved him all the same.
The investigators were rapt. What was his name? they asked hungrily.
STILL SEARCHING: Kelly, left, and
other investigators at the boy's grave in
It comes down to this, an old man standing over a boy's grave. Bill Kelly is at ease here. He brushes some twigs from atop the headstone, crouches to straighten out a small flag someone has poked into the ground. As always, there's a new batch of toys around the stone: a soldier figurine, a race car, a ceramic teddy bear, a couple of plastic orange fish that are probably bath toys. Flowers, too - the Ivy Hill manager says that when people come to visit a loved one, they often pause by the boy's grave and pull out stems from their bouquets. Kelly once left a green ball belonging to his grandson Sean, thinking that if Unknown Sean were alive, he'd probably like to play with it. Kelly visits twice a year, usually. He'll be back again on November the 11th, when the Vidocq Society sponsors a memorial service to commemorate five years since the boy's reburial.
Kelly and McGillen have
corroborated everything of Mary's story they can. They traced the route she
described, and found it indeed leads between her
That frustrates Kelly. Of course Mary had mental problems - who wouldn't, after the things she witnessed as a child? But he wearily accepts that there's further work to be done. Not that he doesn't have other things to do with his golden years, mind you. He lives a good life. His days are filled with church activities, meetings of his various clubs, joyous visits with his grandchildren - everyone calls them "Kelly's Angels," and they in turn call him Pop-Pop - and too-frequent doctor appointments. But Kelly always finds time to spend a few hours each week going through his notes, flipping through his binders. He and McGillen have worked up an extensive genealogy of Mary's family in the hope of finding other living relatives. They've come up with yearbook photos of Mary's parents, and interviewed one of her mother's former co-workers. They tracked down and reinterviewed the Good Samaritan. Kelly and McGillen feel Mary is telling the truth. Bill Kelly looked her in the eye, and he firmly believes her. What choice does he have, really? Because if not this answer, what then?
Kelly understands now why Rem came to believe his theory about the foster home. Maybe sometimes what we call truth is simply the answer we choose to live with, a way to reassure ourselves that we've done all we can. In the end, maybe we all want to believe in something, even if we can't quite connect the dots, even if it's a belief in something we can't see. Maybe it all comes down to faith. Bill Kelly wants to have faith in Mary. He wants to have faith that the answers are close at hand, and that he will finally do right by this little boy. And he wants to have faith - in faith.
Perhaps it comes down to accepting that sometimes, life doesn't match up neatly like the loops and whorls of a fingerprint. In time, Kelly is sure he'll find the true answers to the mystery of the boy's identity - if not in this life, then in the next. And so maybe he has found a set of answers he's willing to live with, for now.
Bill Kelly lingers at the grave for a moment longer, then touches the headstone with an affectionate palm.
"Goodbye, Jonathan," he says gently. "I'll see you again soon.”
© 2003 Philadelphia Magazine. Reproduced with permission.