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The Boy in the Box: Still Unsolved After 57 Years

Published: February 25, 2012

February marked the 57th anniversary of one of America’s great unsolved crimes. We say ‘month’ because no one has ever known the exact date. We don’t even know who the victim was.

He is referred to as “The Boy in the Box,” and his death continues to haunt people because there is so much we still don’t know. Over five decades of inquiry, we still don’t know why this boy was beaten to death. Or why the evidence didn’t offer a single, good lead. Or how a child could disappear without anyone noticing.

As the Post reported it, the case didn’t appear so baffling at first. The crime scene—an empty field beside a country road near Philadelphia—offered several promising pieces of evidence.

Acting on a tip, police drove to a stretch of country road in the countryside near Philadelphia on February 25, 1957. There, just as the informant had described it, was a cardboard packing box that had once contained a bassinet. Inside, wrapped in a blanket, was the body of a young boy, who had died from several blows to the head.

No one believed … identifying the victim would be difficult.

The box 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] there was yet another hopeful item. Fifteen feet from the box, near the path leading in from the road, searchers found a distinctive cap… with a leather strap and buckle across the back.

Yet, amazingly, none of the evidence—the box, blanket, hat, or boy himself—lead investigators any closer to a solution.

Markings on the cardboard box showed it had been shipped to a J. C. Penney store just 15 miles away from where the body was found.

But Penney’s practice is “Cash”—and although a dozen were sold from that shipment, the store had no records of the purchasers.

With the help of newspaper publicity, the detectives got calls from eight buyers, all of whom said they had either put the box out for trash or still had it in their homes. [Local] trash collectors said they had long since burned their loads of refuse [which might have contained the other boxes]. The four other purchasers of the white bassinets were never found.

The blanket also yielded no information. Investigators could find no identifying marks on it, or anyone who recognized it, or even other blankets of similar make. As for the cap, detectives took it to the shop of Mrs. Hannah Robbins where 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. It was a cash sale, so she hadn’t taken his name. [She had never] seen him before or since.

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.

Most remarkable was the complete anonymity of the boy. The investigators never found a match for the perfect set of fingerprints they obtained from him.

Detectives printed flyers showing a photo of the boy’s face, and images of him dressed and seated in a chair.

The police sent out 400,000… to  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, promising leads have developed—and all proved futile.

The police found no witnesses, no identity for the boy, not even any record he had ever existed.

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?

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.

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 is 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 cut 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.

But this case defies logic.

The investigators couldn’t even determine the day of death.  The young man who found the body waited a day before coming to the police with the information. In fact, he was the second person to find the body; another young man who had seen the boy in the box two days earlier, but preferred not to get involved. With the cold February weather, and these delays, there was no way to determine just how long the body had been lying in the field (or how many other people had seen it and said nothing.)

The case was never closed. Some of the detectives originally assigned to the case continued following leads for years afterward. One detective stayed with the case well into his retirement.

A few people have come to the police claiming to be witnesses.  Ten years ago, a woman told the police her parents were responsible for the boy’s death. She offered a detailed, consistent account, but there is no way to corroborate her facts.

The boy's original tombstone. The body was re-interred at Philadelphia's Ivy Hill Cemetary in 1998.

Hard evidence is still needed. It may come from the sample of DNA that was extracted from the boy’s remains in 2001. But a DNA match will only confirm a relationship between the boy and his parents or siblings. It can’t lead the police toward any suspect.

So the case stays open, and the boy remains the illustration of how Thomas Hobbes described life outside of society: “continual fear and the danger of violent death—solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

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  • Michele Allen-Lewis

    Students and I had read this story and we were sad as a response. One of my student,we will call Monica came across this page. We have just finished reading the comments and we are still hoping that the mystery can be solved someday soon.

    Chicago

    My name is Monica and I think somebody still knows somethimg about this case.I think that people that killed the poor little kid maybe were dealing with drugs.I think a family member killed him because if not they would have reported the child missing.In my personal opinion I think that whoever did this to the poor little kid must be punished and be brought to justice.My teacher and classmates agree.

  • Destyneed

    in my eyes this boy was killed from the mother or father , (Both, if not one guardian died.)A Parent can notice there child in any way, for instance my aunt can recognize her child in a realistic costume, he works in a haunted house Asylum of Horror,

  • Jessica Domann

    The fact that the woman from 2002 claimed her mother purchased the boy illegally makes sense. Kept him like an animal locked away for most of his short life also is plausible. Another witness actually backed up her claim that he offered her mother help in taking some “trash” out of her car in that location. How this isn’t enough to finally solve this horrible crime is beyond me. Oh but that’s right mothers don’t do all those things she is accusing her mother of. Too bad in reality women can be just as sadistic if not worse than men in abuse cases towards children.

  • tracie

    This is horrible. Maybe he was a product of a hidden pregnancy. Home birthed with no hospital record of him existing. This is so horrible. Too bad they did not have security cameras back then or they could have viewed recorded footage to see who purchased the Bassinet that came in the box. There are so many different possibilities. This may have been an abused and neglected child that was kept hidden in a basement (like so many scums do these days)
    I would definitely like to follow this story through the years to see if any new developments arise.

  • A. Nauer

    Very haunting.
    With the latest technologies, can the police and investigators run the DNA through up to date databases (crime, hospital, federal employee, etc.) to see if anyone is a partial genetic match (sibling, cousin, uncle, etc.)? Seems like this could at least provide some lead.

  • SC

    If I may please say.He may have been adopted or turned over to be adopted out by someone.Maybe someone is looking for their brother or sibling and do not know what happened to him. I was thinking this little boy in the box was malnourished. I still believe he could have been removed by the home by DHS Child Welfare.Which is why I did ask about the Manayunk, Pennsylvania couple.It was an early lead.They did come forward to see if this was their little boy.Their son was put in an orphanage by the court.They found him in a private West Philadelphia orphanage.They could have been lied to LE that by the orphanage he was there when he wasn’t.Who was this little boy and what was his name and where is he today.I feel strongly they should look into this little boy again.I do believe this little boy in the box died possibly in such a place.I feel they were on the right track in the very start looking into foster Homes,Children’s homes and orphanages.

    There was another lead also to Remington Bristow the medical examiners office in 1984.An Anonymous letter was written to him about a family in Pottstown that a father was charged several times with neglect.Does anyone know more on this story or who these people were.

    Please help this little boy get his name if you can.Please don’t give up on him.Someone knows who he is.

  • Rutt

    If the Lord wills, I MAY BE ABLE to help someday. My family rented our Phila home to some “out-of-towners” who made my parents think they may be responsible. My par4ents died long ago, and this case came to my attention recently. I don’t know for sure, but I feel it is worth checking into.

  • Katie Sneeds

    To Mike McElroy,
    I do not believe anything makes it ‘obvious’ that this boy was homeless. “I think it’s pretty obvious – the boy was homeless. There’s no better way to be invisible, unknown, unrecorded, and un-missed in America.”]

    There are a vast number of cases of both children and adults going missing and being ‘invisible’ and ‘unknown’ and ‘unrecorded’ for decades. Colleen Stan and Jaycee Lee Dugard stand out just to name a quick two.

    This happened back in the 50’s–long before public media was like it is today. It would not have been difficult for his own family to move from one place to another and before establishing roots somewhere, dump him and no one really be the wiser.

    I personally believe the story of ‘M’ who said her parents did it. She was discounted bc she was ‘mentally ill’. Yet her story is one where her parents purchased the boy and subjected him to phsyical and sexual abuse. Who wouldn’t be ‘mentally ill’ having lived through that? Their neighbors say that the parents never had a boy and that ‘M’ is crazy. But people back then didn’t want to get involved in their neighbors affairs or punishments and if someone in today’s world can hide Jacee Lee for more than 2 decades, it’s not difficult to believe someone back in the 50’s could’ve kept a young boy a secret for a few short years.

    I was abused in my own childhood–yet everyone thought my family was the ‘all american family’. My dad was a trustee of the school and my mom was vice president of the PTA. All the while, no one had a clue what horror happened behind closed doors.

    Don’t discount the power of denial and the desire to not get invovled. Another man had discovered the boy’s body two days before another man reported it to the police. The first man didn’t report it bc he simply didn’t want to get invovled. That says a great deal about the mentality of some and how easily someone could go unnoticed, unreported, invisible, and unknown–especially back then.

    If the account from ‘M’ isnt’ the truth, then I firmly believe this boy’s family is responsible. It would’ve been much easier back then to keep your child relatively unknown-especially if you were abusing them. The supposed surgical scars on him could’ve been from torture or they could’ve been caused by surgery needed as a result of abuse that got reported as something different.

    People’s desires not to be incovninienced by invovlement mixed with the greater mentality back then that thought discipline and how you raised your child was a personal, private matter and neighbors didn’t get invovled–these things are what have lead to this child remaining unidentified.

    Someone knows who he is. Most likely more than one someone. They’re just not talking. Either bc they still don’t want to get invovled or bc they were invovled and don’t want to get caught.

    Some wife out there kept quiet bc she feared her abusive husband that did this or some husband remained quiet bc he wanted to protect his disturbed and abusive wife that did this. What a shame.

  • Kathy

    The “crime scene” was not a field “along a country road in the countryside outside Philadelphia”. The boy was found on Susquehana Rd., well within the city limits of Philadelphia. This happened two blocks from my home in Fox Chase. I was eleven years old and will never forget.

  • jeff w. owens

    I read this article twice. Very interesting. However, I had to Google this to find out the approx age of the boy when he was killed. Apparently the boy was between 4-6 years of age. The family must have been involved since no missing person’s report had been filed on him.

  • After these many years , I think the best anyone can do for this unfortunate little boy would be to pray for him and help him meet his maker , Who will embrace him as no one else could . Hopefully, God has the little one in His arms already, but prayers are never wasted .. Please, God , receive this little one who needs to be hugged !!!

  • Jeff Nilsson

    The case has led down so many dead ends over the years, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about a solution.
    But there’s always the chance that a new testing method will emerge.

    Keep in mind that when this crime was committed, crime labs could only type blood and body fluids in the ABO system.
    By the time I was working in forensics (at the Wisconsin Department of Justice), we could type nine different blood enzyme groups, which offered much better chances for matching blood types.
    Thirty years later forensic serologists are typing highly specific segments of DNA, and shedding light on old, obscure, and cold cases.
    It is possible that, in years to come, we will be able to read the boy’s DNA against a national database of genetic markers and begin to narrow down the possibilities of his familial origin.

  • Victoria Weaver

    While there are ways now that, if this were to happen today, I’m not sure it can be done now. Now forensic investigators would test mitochondrial DNA and trace the baby back to the mother that way (since children and mothers share it). Unfortunately, with the time that has passed, it would prove to be near impossible. All we can really do is hope that however this happened to him, that he was knocked unconscious after the first blow and wouldn’t have to feel the rest.

  • Mike McElroy

    I think it’s pretty obvious – the boy was homeless. There’s no better way to be invisible, unknown, unrecorded, and un-missed in America.

  • Rita Lawrence

    This tragic story has brought tears to my eyes. With the advanced technology of today, isn’t there even a slim chance that something can be done to solve this awful mystery? Somewhere, someone exists (or existed) who committed this awful act. Is anyone still trying to solve this case?

  • Ima Ryma

    Remember that boy in the box,
    Beat dead, thrown in a Philly field,
    Decades ago in time tick tocks.
    The truth of it never revealed,
    I was the one who did the deed,
    Sorry for it, for what it’s worth.
    Somehow I managed to succeed
    Avoiding capture here on Earth.
    But now I’m old and sick and will
    Soon die and have to face my sin.
    It’s hell here and I can’t wait till
    They take me from this loony bin.

    That boy in the box waits for me,
    To forgive and to set me free.

  • Steven Hicks

    What a creepy–yet fascinating–story!