In 1951, a little boy was found dead in Goochland County, Virginia. And that was just the beginning of this tragedy that continues today
If you have any information about this case, please email Dale Brumfield at email@example.com.
SEVENTY YEARS AGO, ON MARCH 5, 1951, the decomposed body of an estimated five-year-old boy was found stuffed in a blue denim army duffel bag just south of U.S. 250 near Oilville Virginia, about 26 miles west of Richmond. This little boy was never identified. His mode of death was never publicly divulged. Unbelievably, he was never reported missing and his body never claimed.
Today, his identity and death remain shrouded in secrecy.
On that cloudy and chilly March morning, Virginia highway employees were cleaning litter from ditches along State Route 670, which runs south from State Route 250 near Oilville to Crozier. At about 8:30 a.m., an employee, Richard Salmon, discovered about 15 feet from the road in a stand of young pine trees a blue army-style sack with what appeared to be the head of a young boy protruding from it.
Alarmed at the discovery, he called his supervisor, who in turn called Goochland Sheriff Joel Powers. Powers and state trooper E. M. Lloyd arrived and initiated an investigation with Commonwealth’s Attorney J. C. Knibb. They in turn concluded that the boy had been dead about a week, then maybe lay in the bag by the road two or three days. They also determined due to the location that although the body showed no signs of trauma, the boy had most likely been killed elsewhere and transported to the area. Oddly, they also found a well-worn woman’s raincoat inside the bag with the body.
The boy was described as being between four and six years old, with reddish-blond hair and a fair complexion. He was three feet, five inches tall, and estimated to weigh 50 to 55 pounds premortem. He was wearing tan dungaree pants, a tan and blue pullover shirt, a red plaid sweater-jacket with a label reading “Checkers, size 4, J.C. Penney Company.” He also had tan socks with blue and pink stripes, but no shoes. The bottom button on his jacket was a mismatch, indicating to the Sheriff that someone somewhere “thought enough of the boy” to sew a button back on for him.
The search begins
After transportation to Richmond, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Geoffrey T. Mann examined the body and found that other than two head cuts and some bruising he determined to be postmortem, there were no signs of violence. He did note that because of the state of decomposition it would be at least two weeks before a cause of death could be determined, if at all. Adding to the mystery was the conjecture by Sheriff Powers that the boy had possibly been blindfolded when he was placed in the bag, as there was a cloth pad over one eye, and a second, similar pad was found inside the bag. Mann, however, speculated it may have been a bandage for a cut.
Law enforcement and the medical examiner’s office were stymied. No missing persons were reported in and around Goochland, and Richmond police stated no one matching the boy’s description was reported in the Richmond area.
The only immediate clue was a stenciled “R9700” laundry mark on the 23” x 26” duffel army bag. It could have been an army issue, or maybe a manufacturer’s tag. No one was sure. That number was all investigators could pin their meager hopes.
The Philadelphia “boy in the box”
The Goochland boy’s case bears similarities to other missing children, especially a 1957 Pennsylvania case, in which the body of a young boy was found on February 25 of that year inside a cardboard box in a wooded area of Northeast Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood. The physical description and circumstances surrounding the death of “the boy in the box” are similar to the boy found in the duffel bag in Virginia. Like the Virginia victim, the Philadelphia victim — still referred to as “America’s unknown child” — was around four-to-six years old, about 3’-3” tall and weighing around 30 pounds. He had short brown hair that had been crudely chopped off and had several small scars over his body. He had been wrapped in a blanket before being placed inside the box, and like the Goochland boy, his head was protruding. He was estimated to have only been deceased a few days when found.
In both cases, unusual attention had been placed on seemingly inconsequential matters. The Philadelphia boy had been severely beaten, but when found his fingernails had been recently trimmed. The Goochland boy showed no trauma but had a new button sewn on his jacket. Also, a man’s handkerchief with the initial “G” was located near the box in Philadelphia, while a woman’s grey finish raincoat was found in the bag with the Goochland boy. The FBI reported that the raincoat was of medium size and fit a woman standing 5’-6” and weighing between 125 and 135 pounds. Both victims had injuries determined to be inflicted after death.
But there are dissimilarities as well. The Philadelphia boy was found nude, covered with bruises, with the mode of death described as blunt force trauma. The Goochland boy on the other hand was fully clothed, and his mode of death, while never publicly divulged, was determined not to have been violent.
Under Dr. Mann, the Virginia Medical Examiner’s office of 1951 was considered at the time one of the most technologically advanced and efficient in the nation. Accordingly, by March 9, Virginia examiners with limited assistance from the FBI were able to reconstruct ten fingerprints and footprints from the body “good enough to establish a classification pattern,” according to an unnamed FBI spokesman at the time.
Speculation that the boy was possibly a missing Quincy, Mass. child named Danny Matson was dashed when Quincy Police Chief William Ferrazi claimed the boys’ descriptions, including height and weight, did not match. Still, the fingerprints were sent to FBI headquarters for analysis to rule out the Matson boy, which they did. The Goochland boy’s prints matched none on file at the Bureau.
Coincidentally, the Matson case was taken 40 miles south to a Petersburg-area psychic for clues. That psychic was a horse — Lady the Wonder Horse. Matson’s body was later recovered.
Although fingerprint reconstruction was brand new technology for 1951, and was, according to Dr. Mann, considered a “major achievement,” it did nothing to establish a cause of death. Dr. Mann restated that a cut on the boy’s head was made after his death and that it seemed more likely at that point that the boy died of natural causes, asphyxiation, or exposure.
No one was sure. Of anything. Searches through missing person’s files in numerous states turned up no one fitting the boy’s description.
With no idea who the boy was, and with no one coming forward, undertakers worked with Dr. Mann to perform a “restoration” of the boy’s face in an attempt to duplicate what he may have looked like when alive. Dr. Mann emphasized to an Associated Press reporter that the “work of restoring the partly decomposed body represented the embalmers’ idea of the boy’s appearance on the basis of bone structure and remaining tissue.”
Despite the advanced technology, a week later the investigation was still at a standstill. A distraught father from Chicopee Falls, Mass. named Joseph Heneghan drove to Richmond to see if the boy could have been his 5-year-old son, Elbert, who had disappeared the previous February 17. He drove home shaken but still hopeful after seeing the boy was not his. Meanwhile, after the FBI reported the fingerprints matched none in their files, they backed out of the case.
On March 14 Dr. Mann disclosed that an autopsy revealed no signs that the boy had been murdered. He also revealed that final results would not be made available so as not to in any way hinder the investigation. The cause of death was never publicly stated.
Similarities and differences
Speculation of how the Philadelphia boy died so anonymously in 1957 may be pertinent in the Goochland case. According to David Stout, a former New York Times reporter and author of the 2008 book “The Boy in the Box: The Unsolved Case Of America’s Unknown Child,” the boy’s parents could have been poor and marginalized, perhaps carnival workers or migrant laborers who traveled “the back roads of life, literally and figuratively” and would have left no fingerprints or paper trails. Other theories emerged that he was the victim of human trafficking.
With the Goochland boy’s cause of death kept secret, and with no distraught parents reporting a missing child matching his description, a lot of hope suddenly hinged on that laundry mark on the duffel bag.
On March 31, there was a break. After the Associated Press published a description of the laundry bag and the cryptic stencil and sent it to State Police and newspapers nationwide, a Flint, Michigan Army veteran named Delbert Earnest Fisher saw the story in the Lansing State Journal newspaper. Immediately recognizing the stencil as the last four digits of his army serial number, he drove to the Journal office and relayed that message via short-wave radio to the Richmond police.
The problem, however, was that the bag had been stolen from him in an Amarillo, Texas laundromat in 1946. That lead, like the scarce few others, suddenly went dead.
By April 1, State Police Investigator Captain R. B. King speculated the boy was not from Virginia and may have been kidnapped from out of state. With the possibility that the case was interstate, the FBI jumped back in and dedicated more aid to it. They even highlighted the case in the May 1951 edition of their magazine “Law Enforcement Journal,” and appealed for any leads (Warning — link contains graphic images some may find disturbing).
Meanwhile, several more parents of missing children made the heartrending drive to Richmond to look at the little mystery boy in the city morgue. All of them turned away, sure the child was not theirs, and clinging to hopes their children were still out there.
Desperate for a break, investigators began studying for clues around the area where the boy was initially found. The bag was found about 15 feet from the road beside a home under construction in a group of young pines on an embankment about 200 yards south of Route 250, a major east/west thoroughfare through pre-interstate central Virginia. This placement ruled out the possibility that someone, according to investigators, threw it that far “in an upward direction from an automobile.” They also concluded that the bag could not have been there more than a few hours before it was found, as it was highly visible from the road. Also, the ground under the bag was dry while the surrounding ground was damp.
Life-long Goochland resident Ann James was 11 years of age when the boy was found, and clearly recalls the find. “I just remember when they found the boy,” she says, adding that there wasn’t much talk about him — a disturbing pattern in this case.
Another possible link?
Fast forward to February 7, 1961 — a full decade after the discovery of the Goochland boy. Brunswick County, Virginia Sheriff W.E. Hill reported that the body of a young girl estimated to be seven or eight years of age was found in the woods just off State Route One near Lawrenceville. The girl was wrapped in an old, tattered blanket, much as the body of the Philadelphia boy, and just off the main highway, as the Goochland boy.
The girl’s body was examined by Dr. Mann and he concluded she died of malnutrition, exposure, and neglect. Also, the girl was dressed in clothing from J. C. Penney, just like the Goochland boy. Coincidentally, the Philadelphia boy’s body was found in a box that held a bassinet also from J. C. Penney.
A tip from a Brunswick Deputy who had helped a family when their car broke down near the body’s location revealed the parents as Kenneth and Irene Dudley, of Paxville, North Carolina. They were itinerant carnival workers, who, as speculated by David Stout in the Philly case, “traveled the back roads of life” crisscrossing the country looking for work with six of their ten children packed into their broken-down 1940 two-door sedan.
But the investigation into the death of their little girl, named Carol Ann, revealed a much deeper horror about the Dudley family that may or may not have a link to the Goochland boy.
The Dudley’s first and third children, Marjorie (b. 1936) and Jean (b. 1940), grew up and left home before their parents became wandering vagabonds. The second child, Edward (b. 1937), died mysteriously of unknown causes in November of that year. His body was never found.
Kenneth Edwin, Jr. died also under mysterious circumstances in 1947 at the age of six and was buried by his father in their back yard because he claimed he could not afford a funeral. The father later served nine months in Jamesville Prison not for murder but for illegal burial when his son’s body was discovered in 1949.
Five of the remaining six children, including Charles, Norman, Claude, Debbie Jean, and Carol Ann all died of starvation and neglect on the road, and their bodies were dumped at various locations.
Two-year-old Christine Adelle was alive and with the parents when they were caught.
After being caught, Richmond investigators immediately tried to tie the Dudley family to the Philadelphia boy in the box, but there is no record if they looked for links to the Goochland boy. Virginia State Police Captain R. H. Holland said that his investigator on the case, E. M. Lloyd, reported that he is very dubious that the unknown boy found in Philadelphia was one of the Dudley children.
He added that investigators were not satisfied with the locations the Dudleys gave for the disposal of their children’s bodies.
Kenneth Dudley — who tried to pin the blame for all the deaths on his wife — was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Carol Ann and sentenced to 20 years in the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, with Irene (who was reputed to have possibly been abused by her husband and not culpable) sentenced to ten years. After serving, Kenneth was transferred to New York’s Auburn Prison to start a life sentence for the murder of 18-year-old Mrs. Mary Vella, an acquaintance whom he choked to death in 1949 in an argument over money.
The youngest child, Christine, was placed in foster care. Kenneth Dudley died at Auburn in 1984, and Irene died in Syracuse in 2001.
There apparently were never any other attempts to link the Goochland boy to the Dudleys.
A break in the Goochland case … almost
On April 3, 1951, almost a month after the Goochland boy was found, there was another break. A March 31 AP story had generated eight letters to the Richmond Bureau of Police and a “fistful” of inquiries to the Virginia State Police. While most were from individuals, two letters were from police departments in Oakland. California; Muncie, Indiana; and a third — the most cautiously promising — was from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
While the Oakland and Muncie missing children were not matches at all and quickly discounted, the letter from Grand Rapids police claimed that the operators of a licensed home for children had read the news story and reported that the description of the Goochland boy’s body matched that of a boy who had left the home the previous December 1950.
The Grand Rapids police said in the letter that the boy’s mother and a possible stepfather took the boy from the boarding house, adding that they were “always quarreling” and that the stepfather seemed to dislike the boy “and had no use for him.” They also said that the mother mentioned she was from Huntington, West Virginia.
The letter claimed that the boy in question was about 5 years old, had reddish-blond hair, and had been at the home for two years. Apparently, the home did not provide the couple’s names, or they were not provided to the police. Unfortunately, nothing came from this lead.
No media attention
The Philadelphia “Boy in the box” generated massive media coverage in and around eastern Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley, with pictures of the boy even placed in every Philadelphia gas bill for months after his discovery in 1957. His story has been profiled on “America’s Most Wanted,” and the CBS series “Cold Case.” Episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” have both presented fictionalized accounts of the story. Originally buried in a Potter’s field, the child was re-interred in 1998 in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
In cruel contrast, the Goochland’s boy’s life, death, and supposed cremation went unnoticed, and his memory promptly forgotten. No television shows have been made about his short life, mysterious death, and eventual abandonment.
Other than faded newspaper clippings there seems to be no records anywhere of this child or his brief, tragic life. The Virginia State Police responded to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request stating any records “… could not be found or do not exist in the Department’s investigative files.”
The Richmond City Sheriff’s Office has no information. A Grand Rapids, Michigan police department official wrote in response to an inquiry for records that “I have performed a reasonable search of Grand Rapids Police Department records with the information provided, and I have found NO RECORDS pertinent to your request.”
The FBI, despite being given all available information in the case in two separate FOIA requests, responded “Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the places reasonably expected to have records. However, we were unable to identify records responsive to your request.”
Then, after a multi-day search, the Richmond City Police also came up empty-handed. “… Based on the information you provided, no records could be located.”
An anonymous volunteer investigator for the DOE Network, an organization devoted to assisting investigating agencies in closing cold cases involving missing & unidentified persons, was surprised to find the boy not listed in any missing persons database, including DOE, The Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NamUs, the national resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases.
Most cases like this “are both common knowledge for generations of people who live around the areas that they took place and beyond,” the investigator wrote in an email, adding “this just seems completely forgotten, less than a year after it took place …”
He did think the Goochland case bears marked similarities to not just the Philadelphia case but to the case of a deceased five-year-old boy, nicknamed “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” who was found March 8, 1921 floating in a quarry in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The nickname stuck because of the good-quality clothing he wore. He too was never identified or claimed.
By the end of June 1951, over three months since the Goochland boy was found, the case was dead, despite State Police Chief R. B. King telling the Richmond Times-Dispatch “We are still working on it.” The article reported that if the boy was not claimed within one year, the body would be cremated and the ashes kept for five years. After five years the ashes would then be buried “in a local cemetery.”
His burial spot, however, is unknown. According to Virginia law § 32.1–309.2, “the primary law-enforcement agency of the county or city in which the person or institution having initial custody of the dead body” was responsible for final disposition, meaning, in this case, Goochland County. However, The Goochland County Sheriff’s Office reported they have no records “that go that far back,” and there is no one still living who worked with Sheriff Powers at that time. Also, at that time some indigents from Goochland were buried in Louisa County.
Any connections to the Dudley family are purely speculative. It has been established, however, that they passed through Virginia on State Route 250 throughout the 1950s into the early 1960s. when Kenneth frequently sought work at the winter headquarters of Frank Bergen’s “World of Mirth” Carnival located at the state fairgrounds in Richmond.
While the mysterious death, the casual disposal of the body along the road, and the style of clothing of the victim is consistent with the Dudley parents’ later murderous tendencies, there are differences. The Goochland boy’s age does not exactly match those of any Dudley children. He was not starved, like the later children, and there were no signs of mistreatment on his body.
“I’m leaning toward this poor boy’s birth was never recorded anywhere and perhaps there were no relatives or neighbors who even knew about him,” wrote another DOE investigator with 15 years experience in missing persons, who also asked to remain anonymous. “In that case, the parents could ‘dispose’ of him and no one would ever even know that he existed.”
“That is almost too sad to even comprehend.”
With no evidence or records proving the boy was ever identified or claimed, it has to be assumed he was eventually cremated at the Richmond morgue possibly in late April 1952 with no idea who he was or where he came from. According to that brief and very final Times-Dispatch report, his ashes were presumably kept for five years, then buried in an unknown, most likely unmarked location.
A child erased.
Any assistance in resolving the case of the Goochland boy is welcome. Dale Brumfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Body in Duffle Bag Still Unidentified.” Lynchburg News & Advance, 7 Mar. 1951.
“Body of Child Found in Bag Near Route 250.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6 Mar. 1951.
“Boy’s Body Remains Unidentified.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 13 Mar. 1951.
“Duffel Bag in Death Case Traced to Vet.” Detroit Free Press, 31 Mar. 1951.
“Michigan Tip May Aid Virginia Probe.” Lansing State Journal, 1 Apr. 1951.
“Morgue to Keep Body of Boy Found in Sack.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 29 Apr. 1951.
“Nation’s Press Is Asked to Help In Identifying Little Boy’s Body.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 30 Mar. 1951.
“Number on Bag May Help Solve Boy Mystery.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 11 Mar. 1951.
“Police Ask Aid in Solving Death of Boy.” Lynchburg News & Advance, 29 Mar. 1951.
“Police Receive Many Letters Concerning Boy Found in Sack.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3 Apr. 1951.
“Police Seek Identity of Boy Found in Bag.” Lynchburg News & Advance, 6 Mar. 1951.
“Prints Taken from Boy’s Body In Effort to Establish Identity; Not Quincy Youth, Say Police.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 9 Mar. 1951.
“Richmond Police Seek Identity of Boy’s Body.” The Shreveport Journal, 29 Mar. 1951.
“Va. Authorities Seek Identity of Unknown Child.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1951, pp. 18–24.
Melendez, Jessica, FOIA Redaction Specialist. Email Response to FOIA Request from Virginia Department of State Police., 27 May 2020.
Name withheld by request. Email Response from DOE Network re: deceased child in Goochland County, Va., 1951, 3 Mar and 30 Dec 2020.
Peters, Karla. Email Response to FOIA Request from Richmond Police Dept., 29 May 2020.
Seidel, Michael. “LNU, FNU (Body of Unknown 5-Year-Old Boy in 1951 Oilville, VA).” Received by Dale M. Brumfield, 18 Aug. 2020.
Shipman, William. “FOIA Request: Investigative information related to a missing and unidentified child found deceased on March 5, 1951, in Goochland County.” Received by Dale Brumfield, 7 June 2020.
Williams, Arkuie. Untitled Email Response to FOIA Request from Richmond Medical Examiners Office, 3 Mar 2020.
Woodson, Diane. Untitled Email Response to FOIA Request from Goochland Sheriff’s Office, 29 May 2020.