Front Page Detective Magazine - November 1957
WHO IS THE BOY IN THE BOX?
By Bruce McIntyre
THEY WERE ALL HARDENED DETECTIVES BUT THE BATTERED LITTLE FIGURE HAD THEM BROKEN UP, VOWING REVENGE
Somewhere, the vicious killer of this small boy is still at large.
Philadelphia police are confident that identification of the dead child will lead to his murderer ... but it's been months now and no one has recognized the tiny victim.
FRONT PAGE DETECTIVE hopes that among its thousands of readers will be one who knows him.
Information should be submitted to your local police department, or to the Homicide Unit, Detective Headquarters, City Hall, Philadelphia, Pa. - telephone Municipal 6-9700.
TIME OF DEATH: Sometime prior to February 26, 1957.
CAUSE OF DEATH: Head injury (multiple bruises on body).
AGE: Four to five years old.
HEIGHT: 40 1/2 inches.
WEIGHT: 30 pounds.
HAIR: Medium to light brown, crudely cut.
CLOTHING SIZE (probable): 4. Shoes 8-D.
IDENTIFYING FEATURES: Full set of baby teeth, no deformities, L-shaped scar under chin; no vaccination scar; tonsils not removed; no bone fractures; finger and toe nails neatly clipped; may have had chronic left eye ailment; three small moles on left side of face.
The boy is not necessarily from the Philadelphia area. He might have been brought, dead or alive, from any part of the country.
Philadelphia, PA., August 9, 1957
The homicide detective glanced up from the report he was two-fingering on his typewriter to find a colleague standing by, bearing the standard equipment of the office donations "collector" - pencil, paper, and envelope. At the next desk, another detective was just putting his wallet back in his pocket.
"Another bite!" moaned the report-typer. "What's it this time, Harry . . . marriage, death, or an office party?"
The collector didn't crack a smile. "It's for the boy . . . the one in the box up in Fox Chase. They're going to bury him and we're pitching in for the funeral bill. Either that or he gets a hole in the ground; no tombstone, nothing."
The first detective dropped his hands from the keyboard and leaned back in his chair. "I'd almost forgotten that one," he mused. "Seems like months ago . . . And he's been in the morgue all that time?" He reached for his back pocket. "Sure, put me down, Harry. And, hey, how about the flowers? The poor kid ought to have all the trimmings. He deserves a break of some kind, even if it is too late."
A few days later, on July 24, 1957, a dozen or so detectives gathered silently at the graveside of a small boy in Philadelphia's city cemetery.
The presence of these hard-bitten men and the fact they had chipped in hard-earned cash to pay for the funeral of a murder victim, may seem incongruous. There's little room for sentiment among men who deal with violent death every day in a city of millions.
But detectives, even those who deal with the murdered and the murderers, are human. They have children themselves. Perhaps, then, the scene was not out of character as three of them, plus a member of the city medical examiner's staff, carried the tiny white casket.
The words of Captain Warren F. Guthriell, chaplain of the Fourth Naval District in Philadelphia, were still fresh in their minds:
"All funeral services are sad," he had said at the brief ceremony, "but this one is particularly so because it is for a blue-eyed, brown-haired boy whose name we do not know . . . nor do we know why or by whose foul hand his life was exterminated."
"But we do know he has real friends, for they were unwilling to have him buried without appropriate service."
On top of the small casket was a spray of red roses and gladioli with a card: "From the members of the homicide squad."
They watched silently as the remains of a little nameless boy, already dead some five months, was lowered to a final resting place.
To the homicide squad, the "boy in the box" was more than the victim of just another unsolved murder. Already, his death had brought one of the greatest concentrations of police manpower in Philadelphia's history.
Yet to this day, the mystery of his identity is just as baffling as the day they found him.
Here was a boy who once, like others, had parents, friends, love - but his death stirred no real ripple of recognition; produced not one friend to mourn him. His plunge into death and anonymity came sometime late in February, 1957. The time is uncertain, but the discovery came on February 26.
Officially, it came at 10:10 A.M., as Sergeant Charles Gargani lifted a ringing telephone in the Philadelphia homicide bureau.
The caller, a young college student, told Gargani that two days previously, while driving through the Fox Chase section of the city, he had stopped his car to chase a rabbit which hopped into weeds and scrub growth along Susquehanna Road, near Verree Road.
"I didn't find the rabbit," continued the youth, "but while I was there I noticed some muskrat traps. They weren't set, so I set them and decided to come back later and see if they caught anything."
"I also saw a cardboard box lying on the ground, and what looked like a head sticking out of it. I thought it was a discarded doll, and didn't pay any more attention."
"Yesterday I went back. There was nothing in the traps, but the box and the head were still there. This morning I saw in the paper they're looking for a girl who might have been kidnapped in New Jersey . . . and I thought I'd better call."
Gargani immediately sent two detectives to locate and search the area. He, too, knew that four-year-old Mary Jane Barker was missing fom Bellmawr, N.J., not far from Philadelphia. The detectives picked up Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph W. Spelman and were met at the the location by uniformed officers.
After 15 minutes of searching they found the box, at the junction of two footpaths, surrounded by scattered trash. It did not contain a doll, nor the Barker child. Inside was the body of a boy, completely nude, wrapped in a soiled-looking old blanket.
(Mary Jane Barker was found a few days later, apparently dead from starvation, confined in the closet of a vacant house not far from her home. The door is believed to have stuck while she was playing.)
Dr. Spelman made a cursory examination of the boy in the carton. "Could be four, five, six years old," he told the assembled officers. "Bruises on his face, stomach and legs. But it'll take time to tell what killed him."
That night, a post mortem established the boy had been killed by a severe blow on the head. Combined with the bruises, it indicated a brutal beating.
Captain David H. Roberts, head of the homicide squad, discussed the case with Chief Detective Inspector John J. Kelly. "We're off to a slow start," Roberts said. "No one seems to have recognized him from the early newspaper stories and our records don't show any child of that description missing."
"The lack of clothing and the isolated spot where he was dumped makes it look like he was killed somewhere else," said Kelly.
"Not much physical evidence to work on," said Roberts. "None of his clothes were found. All we have are the box and the blanket."
The initial publicity did yield one promising lead, however.
On October 31, 1955, 34-month-old Steven Craig Damman vanished from outside a Long Island, N.Y., supermarket. He had been left there by his mother while she was shopping.
Stuyvesant Pinnell, chief of detectives in Nassau County, Long Island, got on the phone to Roberts. "Think there's any possibility it's the Damman boy?" he asked.
A quick comparison of physical characteristics showed some similarities. Steven would have been in the dead boy's age group. He had blue eyes, as did the dead child, and both had small scars under their chins.
Roberts decided to have the body X-rayed, to determine if there was an old fracture of the left arm, like the Damman boy. Footprints also were taken for comparison.
Spelman, meanwhile, came up with a more detailed report on the body. "The cool weather makes it difficult to tell how long the boy was dead," he said, "but it was at least two or three days, and possibly as long as two or three weeks. I don't think the body was in the field that long, though."
According to laboratory tests the boy had not been sexually assaulted.
"As closely as we can tell, he is four to five years old, 40 1/2 inches tall, weighing 30 pounds. He has a full set of baby teeth, still has his tonsils, and has no deformities. No past bone breaks, and no vaccination scar. It would seem he was well cared for, because his fingernails and toenails are carefully clipped."
"His haircut seems crude," Spelman continued. "Trimmed high around the sides. Could have been given at home by an inexpert barber, or perhaps in an institution."
By then, the failure of parents or acquaintances to claim the body, after pictures and descriptions had appeared in the press, led police to believe the boy had either lived in an institution or been brought from some distance.
City Welfare Commissioner Randolph E. Wise offered to check on the whereabouts of all children in foster homes under his jurisdiction, while police canvassed orphanages and children's homes. A thorough check was made of all missing persons reports. But within several days all these efforts proved fruitless.
Police department technicians reported the blanket wrapping the boy was of cheap cotton flannel, patterned in a sort of "Indian print" of green, rust and white blocks, with faded colors. It apparently had been recently washed, then mended with poor-grade cotton thread on a sewing machine.
The blanket had been torn into halves. Its overall size would have been 64 by 76 inches. However, a section 31 by 26 inches had been torn from one half, leading police to think it might have borne some identifying mark.
Although the blanket was untraceable, investigators had better luck with the box. Marked "Furniture", it carried no firm name, but through serial numbers detectives learned the carton had once contained a baby's bassinet, shipped to a West Philadelphia department store in November, 1956.
The store reported the bassinet had probably been sold between December 3, 1956, and February 16, 1957. Roberts issued a public plea for the purchasers of all such bassinets during that period - there were believed to be about a dozen - to come forward and tell where they disposed of the cartons.
There were several other clues.
One was a blue corduroy "Ivy League" cap, size 7 1/8, found 30 feet from the body. The wearer had stuffed tissue paper in the sweatband. It had been manufactured in Philadelphia, but the trail ended there.
Two hundred feet from the body, along Verree Road, police searchers found a cache of clothing for a woman and child - but the smaller clothing was not the dead boy's size.
A story told by an informant who later contacted police seemed to cast some light on this clothing, but created a new mystery.
Two days before the body was found, said the man to Lieutenant William Lovejoy of the northeast detective division, he had been driving along Verree Road when he saw a middle-aged woman and a boy, 12 to 14, unloading something from the trunk of a car.
"I thought the car might have a flat tire, so I stopped and asked if I could help. They didn't say a word, and seemed to be standing so as to block my view of the license plate."
The scene which he described was almost exactly where the clothing had been found. The informant described the car and the woman and boy, but they were never found.
Meanwhile, the possibility that the dead boy was Steven Damman had been eliminated. Two Nassau County detectives came to Philadelphia to view the body and confer with local investigators. Footprints failed to compare; the body showed no left arm fracture. The visitors left convinced it was not Steven's.
Police remained puzzled by one curious circumstance involving the dead boy's crude haircut. Tiny pieces of clipped hair, matching that on his head, were found all over his body.
"The haircut could have been a deliberate attempt to conceal his identity," Inspector Kelly theorized. "That much hair couldn't have fallen down inside his clothing in a normal haircut. It looks as if the haircut was given when he was unclothed . . . maybe already dead."
This opinion was quickly followed by a visit to Roberts from a Philadelphia barber who steadfastly believed (first from a newspaper picture and later from viewing the body in the morgue) he had cut the boy's hair less than a week before the body was found.
"He told me he had five brothers and a sister, and lived in the Strawberry Mansion part of town," the barber said.
Two detectives were immediately assigned to join the barber in an effort to locate the boy's family. Soon they, too, reached a dead end.
By then tips were piling up almost too fast for police to handle. More than 10,000 circulars were distributed.
A young Marine, recently returned from overseas, looked at the boy in the morgue and "almost positively" identified him as a younger brother. But intensive checking disclosed the brother was safe in California.
While the body continued to lie unclaimed, Dr. Spelman did not drop his scientific investigation. He reported to Inspector Kelly:
"I've been checking the possibility that the boy was immersed in water, at least partially, sometime before he died. The soles of his feet and the palm of his right hand were puckered, perhaps from being kept under water."
"There's a possibility, so far nothing more, that drowning might have been a contributory cause of death. But I'll have to make tests of lung tissue."
Dr. Spelman also conceded, in answer to the inspector's questions, that the boy's head injury might either have been caused by a blunt instrument or by pressure. Kelly had considered the possibility the killing was unintentional, and might have been caused by someone gripping the boy's head very tightly, perhaps while cutting his hair. The position of the bruises permitted this conjecture.
As the first 12,000 descriptive circulars on the case were exhausted, a new printing of 25,000 was ordered. More than 5,000 were sent to Philadelphia area physicians and Dr. Spelman himself wrote a detailed article for the Philadelphia County Medical Society.
A few days later, Kelly organized what was called the largest search for evidence ever attempted in a Philadelphia homicide case.
It pressed into service well over 300 patrolmen, detectives and park guards, including the entire class of "rookies" at the city's police academy. Officers from two suburban townships agreed to cooperate.
Coordinated by "walkie-talkies", the men conducted an "inch-by-inch" search of a 12-square-mile area surrounding the spot where the body was found. Meanwhile, 20 detectives called at some 300 homes hoping residents could identify the boy from photographs.
One thing picked up by searchers, about a quarter of a mile away from the location, was a piece of blanket which seemed to come from the one in which the boy was wrapped. But a lab check showed that it was similar but not identical.
By nightfall, the district police station which Kelly was using as a search headquarters was littered with heaps of trash - everything from shoes to old license plates - which the careful searchers had produced in response to the order to pick up "everything."
Even as this effort was afoot, Captain Roberts was busy with another tip.
The woman night manager of a restaurant in Camden, N.J., directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, called to say she had seen the murder victim in the restaurant on two occasions in February.
"He was with a man about 40 . . . red-faced, sloppily dressed. The little boy said he wanted to talk to his 'Mommy' on the telephone, " she told Roberts, "and the man placed a long distance call to Baltimore."
But a check of telephone records disclosed no such call on the nights in the period mentioned by the woman in her report to police.
Soon, Dr. Spelman had determined the dead boy definitely had not drowned. His work turned up some new facts, however.
The child had not eaten within two or three hours of death. There were seven scars on his body, three of which (on the left ankle, chest and groin) the examiner felt might have resulted from surgery.
He concluded all the bruises had been inflicted at the same time and, while some of them might have come from blows, others were caused by squeezing, shaking, or pulling. Dr. Spelman stuck to his belief the body had been partially immersed in water at one time.
On the afternoon of March 8, some ten days after the investigation began, detectives picked up the trail of a substantial lead.
Six persons, Kelly revealed, identified the body as that of an eight-year-old lad who for some six weeks had lived in Camden, N.J., with his father. The same afternoon, Kelly dispatched teletype messages throughout several states seeking the arrest of the father on "investigation in connection with homicide."
Camden residents said the father and son lived there until February 23, 1957 - only three days before the body turned up. They identified the father, who had a police record, from rogue's gallery pictures.
Although the man's whereabouts were unknown, a description of his car was broadcast.
The child's mother, who lived in a nearby Pennsylvania city, was brought to Philadelphia by police to view the body after she was unable to identify it from their relayed descriptions. She said it wasn't her son.
The search for the missing man and child was not canceled, however. Police were unwilling to consider the lead worthless until they could establish where the boy was.
A few days later, the man telephoned relatives in Pennsylvania and told them the boy was with him. He put the boy he said was his son on the phone and those who talked to him were convinced it was the lad.
But the suspect refused to say where he was, perhaps because he was accused of running out on some Pennsylvania debts.
Meanwhile, several other witnesses viewed the body and announced their conviction it was his child's. "Maybe it's not the same boy, but, if it's not, this is one of the most amazing instances of direct similarity we've ever encountered," said a homicide squad man.
Detectives eventually were able to connect the "Ivy League" cap found near the body with a purchase made in South Philadelphia some nine and a half months prior to the killing. A store-owner remembered selling the same or a similar cap to a man about 25, but he could not be found.
A woman amateur artist also came forward with a story she had seen the boy (she, too, identified him in the morgue) sleeping in a man's arms on a bus running from Philadelphia to southern New Jersey. They had boarded the bus in Camden, she said. She had sketches she'd made of the pair.
A waitress in Wilmington, Del., identified the child from a circular as one she had seen several months before walking past the place where she worked, hand in hand with a man who was talking about catching a train for Philadelphia.
Although investigators did not completely discount these stories, the multiple identifications made them skeptical, and they were totally unable to establish connections between such reports and the dead boy.
By then, the circular distribution in the case had reached fantastic proportions. The Philadelphia Gas Works agreed to send 200,000 circulars to customers with their monthly bills. The Philadelphia Electric Company promised similar distribution. Food stores, a druggists' association, insurance agents, and even political party committeemen offered assistance. Total circulation: 300,000.
Finally, the FBI arranged to publish a complete description of the boy in its monthly bulletin, which is sent to every police and law enforcement agency in the nation.
A few days later, one phase of the case came to a close when the sought-after father and son were located in a Philadelphia suburb, both healthy.
After these scores of false leads, two detectives turned up a really authentic piece of evidence.
Detectives Edmund Repsch and Raymond Latchford decided to retrace some of the route they had followed on an earlier house-to-house check of residents in Susquehanna Road.
At one house, only a quarter of a mile from where the body was found, they met by accident an 18-year-old high school junior who admitted he had seen the body either two or three days before it was discovered.
"I was so scared I didn't even tell my mother and father," he explained. The parents had been questioned in the earlier canvass, but spoke such poor English they had not even made it clear they had a son - and he was in school at the time.
The 18-year-old said he was walking through the area either February 23 or 24, returning from a basketball game, when he saw the boy in the box. Police decided it was the twenty-third because he spoke of walking through the rain, and weather bureau records showed rain on that day alone.
Within a month of the discovery, tips and leads had virtually vanished. Five of the persons who had purchased bassinets in the type of box containing the body came forward and told what had happened to their cartons. But that left police far from a solution to the crime.
It was even thought the boy might be a refugee from the Hungarian revolution of October, 1956, possibly explaining why no one seemed to know him. A few more angles were pursued, some as distant as Canada, still without concrete results.
But there, without another significant development, the case rests. Says Inspector Kelly today, "If we can establish the identity of the boy, the solution will be a natural sequel."
Dozens of people had viewed the tiny body in the morgue. Hope was waning. Finally, the authorities decided it was time the child had a decent burial, and a better coffin than a cardboard box.
Then it was that the homicide squad, which still is working against heavy odds toward a solution, chipped in to save the youngster from a Potter's Field grave.
At the graveside, Chaplain Guthriell said a final prayer. The detectives heard the familiar words intoned: "Suffer the little children to come unto me."
And, as the casket was lowered, each of them walked past to drop a single red rose into the grave of an unavenged child.