When Missing Kids Could Be Found on Milk Cartons

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Cartons: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council. Background: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Cartons: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council. Background: iStock.

On May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz lobbied his parents for permission to walk to his school bus stop alone. It was the last day of classes before Memorial Day, and Patz argued that the stop was only two blocks from his family’s Lower Manhattan apartment building. He planned to get a soda at a local deli, he told them, then head straight for the bus. Etan's parents eventually relented, knowing it was a short walk and that their son was a responsible kid.

On September 5, 1982, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch loaded up his newspaper carrier’s bag in Des Moines, Iowa and began making deliveries. He was trailed by his dog, Gretchen.

On August 12, 1984, Eugene Martin performed a similar ritual, heading off on his paper route in the same area of Des Moines. The 13-year-old normally made deliveries with his stepbrother, but had elected to go by himself that morning.

Patz never arrived at school; Gosch and Martin never returned from their delivery shifts. Gosch's dog, Gretchen, came home by herself.

In late 1984 and into the first part of 1985, the images of all three boys helped usher in a peculiar chapter in law enforcement history. They were among the first children to be featured on milk cartons, which asked for the public’s assistance in helping authorities nationwide locate missing kids. Their faces appeared on 3 to 5 billion dairy containers across the country, a concerted effort in a pre-internet era to disseminate information and solicit tips. The press dubbed them “the milk carton kids,” creating an indelible image of missing children in back-and-white photographs on the paper packaging that took up residence at breakfast tables in nearly every state.

As ubiquitous as these photos were, their effectiveness was questionable. It wasn’t long before child activists started to voice concern—not specifically for the abducted children, but for the kids who were receiving messages that strangers were dangerous and that they, too, might one day become a dairy industry-endorsed statistic. Despite law enforcement’s best intentions, the milk carton craze had the unintended consequence of scaring more children than it helped.

 
 

In the 1970s, a grassroots effort began to address the issue of noncustodial parents taking their own children without the consent of their legal guardians. Fathers and mothers frustrated over court custody rulings or expressing concern over how a child might be treated by the opposing parent would scoop up their kids and relocate to another state. Police were hesitant to get involved, believing it represented more of a domestic dispute and civil matter than an actual crime. If they did intervene, they often required parents to wait as long as 72 hours before allowing them to file a police report.

A new phrase, “child snatching,” entered the lexicon, and parent groups circulated pamphlets with information on missing children. Even if police were cooperative, the glacial process of faxing information to various police departments meant that a missing child and a rogue parent had plenty of time to disappear somewhere in the country before word ever got out.

A number of missing-child posters hang on a wall
Courtesy of National Child Safety Council

That was the state of public notification when Eugene Martin went missing in August 1984. Being the second paperboy in Des Moines to disappear following Johnny Gosch drew attention to both cases. After being approached by the children's parents and the Des Moines police chief, Anderson Erikson Dairy agreed to print photos of both boys on milk cartons in the Des Moines area in September 1984. A second factory, Prairie Farms Dairy, joined them. From there, dairies in Wisconsin, Illinois, and California followed, with Chicago’s launch in January 1985 drawing national media attention. By March of that year, 700 dairies were plastering billions of cartons with the faces of missing kids, even if they were from out of state. Etan Patz, for example, had his face printed on cartons in New Jersey and beyond, as abducted children could often be taken across state lines.

The project fell under the direction of the National Child Safety Council, a Michigan-based nonprofit whose founder, H.R. Wilkinson, had seen the Des Moines campaign and helped with its expansion. The general state of child welfare also received assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a subdivision of the Department of Justice created by then-president Ronald Reagan to help address what was growing into a matter of national concern. But the biggest participant may have been International Paper Company, a factory supplier that made printing plates of the photographs for dairies to use free of charge. (While dairies didn’t have to pay extra, the industry did lose money in the effort, as the photos were using space typically taken by paid advertising.)

While the milk cartons are the most frequently remembered component of the campaign, photos showed up in a variety of places. Utility companies stuffed envelopes with missing-child inserts on the assumption that most everyone needed to open and acknowledge their gas or electric bills. In New York City, hot dog vendors agreed to plaster their stands with missing-child posters. The photos popped up on grocery bags. In schools, single-serving cartons of milk were printed with tips on avoiding strangers courtesy of a mascot named Safetypup.

Initially, the initiative showed potential. In January 1985, a 13-year-old runaway named Doria Paige Yarbrough was watching television with her friends in Fresno, California when a news segment talking about the milk carton campaign came on; Yarbrough’s face was on one of the containers. Struck by what she had done, she returned home to her mother in Lancaster, California. In October 1985, 7-year-old Bonnie Bullock was eating cereal in Salida, Colorado when she looked up and saw her own face on a carton. She told a friend, who told her parents, who phoned police. Bullock had been a noncustodial abduction, taken from her father in Florida by her mother. She was reunited with him shortly thereafter.

While those cases drew national attention, they also made a point of demonstrating the enormous odds of the photos leading to a positive outcome. Neither child had been abducted by a stranger, which had a significantly more substantial chance of ending in tragedy. Nor did people seem to be able to compartmentalize the statistics being thrown around in the media. While a reported 1.5 million children were reported missing each year—a number that originated with the Department of Health and Human Services—only 4000 to 5000 cases were considered actual abductions. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children assisted in over 12,000 cases in two-and-a-half years, but just 393 of those involved kids abducted by strangers.

No one was arguing those cases weren’t deserving of attention, but some reputable critics were arguing that a milk carton might not necessarily be the ideal method for capturing it.

 
 

By 1986, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was reporting that four children had been recovered as a result of their photograph being printed on the cartons, a number that grew to six by 1987. Considering the billions of cartons in circulation, however, that figure seemed only faintly promising.

The problem, as the Center would later admit, was that adults in a position to identify children or contact authorities weren’t paying much attention to the cartons. Most of the observation was done by their kids, who stared at the photos at the breakfast table. Rarely able to recognize anyone they knew, kids instead internalized the fear that they themselves might become victimized. While photos certainly helped—more than 100 children were located due to blanketing communities with their image—putting them on milk containers wasn't having the desired effect.

A milk carton displays photos of missing children.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Milk Carton: Courtesy of the National Child Safety Council

Renowned pediatrician and author Benjamin Spock spoke out against the campaign, voicing concern that the magnitude of the practice was teaching children about criminal behavior before they had the emotional maturity to deal with it. The American Academy of Pediatrics echoed his statements. The concept of “stranger danger,” which provoked anxiety in parents and kids alike, was statistically out of proportion with the chances a child was going to be abducted. And while tips did come in, they were rarely of any significance to the cases.

“What it did was raise the level of awareness,” Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother, told the Associated Press. “It didn’t necessarily bring us tips or leads we could actually use.”

Still, that awareness was crucial. And while the cartons may not have led directly to a child's recovery, it's impossible to measure how the practice may have acted as a preventative measure, discouraging kids from running away or perpetrators from committing an act that would likely bring about national attention.

By 1987, dairies began phasing out the practice, replacing the photographs with safety tips for kids. The increasing popularity of plastic milk jugs may have also hastened the demise of the campaign. By 1989, images of missing children had all but disappeared from breakfast tables. Improved telecommunications in the 1990s and beyond—including internet dispatches and Amber Alerts—made the relatively primitive method of milk carton messages obsolete.

The original “milk carton kids”—Patz, Gosch, and Martin—and their families that helped usher in the milk carton movement never benefited directly from it. Gosch and Martin have never been located and no suspects have ever been arrested. In 2012, a store clerk named Pedro Hernandez who worked in Etan Patz’s neighborhood confessed to his murder after his brother-in-law told police that Hernandez once admitted to being involved. Hernandez was tried and convicted of the crime in 2017, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

While his face has long since disappeared from all those millions of cartons, Patz’s legacy endures. In 1983, Reagan declared the date of his disappearance, May 25, as National Missing Children’s Day.

Weird Science: The Mr. Wizard Story

NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
NBC Network, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the 1950s, it was unusual for television programs to address the topic of sex. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in separate beds on I Love Lucy. Both were forbidden by network standards to even use the word pregnant. (For all viewers knew, Little Ricky was the product of an immaculate conception.) Teens on sitcoms rarely investigated anything other than chaste dating.

But for the juvenile audience of Watch Mr. Wizard, viewers got what may have been television’s earliest widespread discussion of sex. More specifically, the gestation period of hamsters.

Watch Mr. Wizard, which aired on NBC from 1951 to 1965, featured host Don Herbert performing a series of science experiments using everyday objects—glass bottles, cans, aquariums, matches—to illustrate the amazing world of physics. Eggs were sucked into bottles; water was boiled using an ice cube. They were pseudo-magic tricks, but instead of obscuring his method, Herbert satisfied the audience’s curiosity by explaining how science made them all possible. A revolving cast of kid assistants, none of them particularly interested in science, stood at Herbert's side and marveled at how Newtonian laws influenced their day-to-day existence.

Hebert was so popular that NBC gave him free rein to blow things up or discuss hamster sex. And then, nearly 20 years after Watch Mr. Wizard's cancellation in 1965, Herbert was given the opportunity to captivate a brand-new generation of kids with Mr. Wizard's World, which made its debut on the fledging Nickelodeon cable channel in 1983. Forget Bill Nye: For millions of viewers, Herbert was the original "science guy."

 

Don Herbert Kemske was born July 10, 1917 in Waconia, Minnesota. He developed an interest in science while in the Boy Scouts and later obtained a degree in English and general science from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse (then known as La Crosse State Teachers College) in 1940. But Herbert didn’t pursue a teaching career. Instead, he followed his interest in drama and theater to New York City, where he worked as a pageboy for NBC, acted opposite future First Lady Nancy Reagan, and was cast in a Broadway show.

But acting, while promising, wasn’t foremost on Herbert's mind. He enrolled in the Army Air Forces in 1942, eventually piloting a B-24 bomber in 56 bombing missions over Europe. He was also involved in the invasion of Italy. Herbert was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for his contributions. (His dual role as war hero and kid show host may have been the origin of the infamous myth about Fred Rogers being a sniper.)

After arriving back home, Herbert's love of the arts led him to Chicago, where he felt he might be able to find a way back into the entertainment industry.

Eventually, he did.

Don Herbert appears in a publicity photo for 'Watch Mr. Wizard'
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Herbert agreed to begin hosting a science-oriented show for WMAQ-TV, Chicago's NBC affiliate. Just a few years after the introduction of the atom bomb and with Americans troubled by reports of Soviet space technology like Sputnik, the time seemed right for a series that focused on the scientific laws governing the world. An ad executive thinking of sponsoring the program wanted to call him “the Wizard.” Herbert, feeling that was perhaps too pretentious, added a “Mr.” to the title.

Watch Mr. Wizard premiered in 1951. Like a lot of television of the era, it was live, not taped. The pace was leisurely, with Herbert walking through general principles over the course of a half-hour. Crucially, he refused to wear a lab coat or conduct his experiments in a laboratory setting. Instead, he wore short-sleeved shirts and used common household items while broadcasting from a garage or kitchen. His first assistant was 11-year-old Willy, Herbert’s real-life next-door neighbor.

Herbert was adamant that science not be confined to sterile lab settings. He reasoned that by using everyday household items to conduct his experiments, kids would be able to replicate them at home.

“Milk bottles are your flasks,” Herbert said. “Glasses your beakers, and the whole house your laboratory.”

There was no barrier between a child and their curiosity. Herbert would present situations—a rising cake, blowing wind—and then explain the “trick.” He considered entertaining his audience to be his primary job, not educating them, but was thrilled if he could succeed at doing both.

“I do a kind of educational television but the difference between what I do and educational television is like night and day,” Herbert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1961. “The primary purchase of educational television is to teach and the primary purpose of Mr. Wizard is to entertain, to stimulate, to intrigue.”

Within a few years, Watch Mr. Wizard was being carried in more than 100 markets and was reaching between 1 and 3 million weekly viewers [PDF]. While the audience was not as sizable as a primetime hit, it was a substantial number for an educational program. (Though it was ostensibly for kids, half of Watch Mr. Wizard's viewers were adults.) His audience was also devoted, with 5000 fan clubs springing up across the country that eventually claimed 100,000 members. Herbert’s notoriety helped him sell 200,000 copies of various science books.

In 1965, NBC announced it would be canceling Watch Mr. Wizard. The show had run its course, the network claimed, and audiences were increasingly looking at television as an empty-calorie prospect—not an educational tool. Even so, a 14-year run was something only a handful of shows had ever achieved. But Herbert wasn’t done.

 

Though NBC briefly revived Watch Mr. Wizard in 1971, Herbert felt his skills were best-suited to areas outside of weekly half-hour television. He produced 18 films that were meant to be screened in classrooms; the National Science Foundation helped fund a series of 80-second segments titled How About for local newscasts across the country. Though most of the footage didn’t use the “Mr. Wizard” name, Herbert was often introduced with that moniker regardless.

The news spots led to renewed interest in Mr. Wizard. After viewing a pilot, Nickelodeon agreed to fund 26 half-hour episodes of Mr. Wizard’s World for a 1983 premiere. More than 30 years after his television debut, Herbert was back, once again dispensing with the confines of laboratory settings.

For Herbert's Nickelodeon series, the pace was much quicker, with eight to 10 segments per episode. The kid assistants, he later said, were savvier about molecules and computers than their 1950s counterparts. But most everything else remained the same.

In both incarnations of the show, Herbert refused to cater to gender stereotypes. Girls were by his side as frequently as boys, and Herbert remarked they were probably better equipped to get into the sciences. He had a cutoff age of 13 for the boys. After that, he said, they “became know-it-alls.”

Mr. Wizard’s World ran through 1990, at which point Herbert largely disappeared from public view. Though he had never expressly set out to teach science and even believed television was a poor fit for educational purposes, his relaxed approach to the subject proved to be a huge inspiration nonetheless.

Following Herbert's death at age 89 in 2007, a National Science Foundation official claimed that, more than anyone, Herbert may have been the person most responsible for getting people interested in science. In the 1960s and 1970s, applicants to The Rockefeller University—a science research center based in New York City—were asked what inspired them to get into science. In the space allotted for an answer, half of them wrote: "Mr. Wizard."

The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith

Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube—until now. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
Getty Images

Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
Matt Campbell/Getty Images

To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. But at least one survived: In October 2018, a YouTube user named "Nancy Thomson," a nod to the Heather Langenkamp heroine who appeared in several of the Nightmare movies, shared the video in its entirety.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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