The Boy in the Box: Still Unsolved After 57 Years

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.”