The Boy in the Box

The following short essay about one of Philadelphia’s most haunting unsolved crimes first appeared in an issue of The Black Hood comic book by Duane Swierczynski, published by Dark Circle Comics under the watchful eye of editor Alex Segura. It also appears in my book The Throes of Crime.

Following the essay is a link to a new report about the case from reporter Claudia Vargas at NBC10 in Philadelphia.

The Boy in the Box
by Erik Arneson

For a terrible week in the late winter of 1957, two stories dominated the Philadelphia Inquirer’s front page: a missing four-year-old girl and a dead, unidentified boy in a cardboard box.

The girl, Mary Jane Barker, was found dead six days after disappearing. Police concluded she locked herself in a closet while playing in an empty house near her home.

The boy, four to six years old, has remained unidentified for nearly six decades.

The box was discovered, according to the Inquirer, “in a patch of weeds and scrub growth” off an unpaved road in the city’s Fox Chase neighborhood. Police immediately determined the boy had been murdered; the Inquirer reported that he was “apparently molested and beaten by a sadist.”

Not knowing the boy’s identity hobbled the investigation from the start. Still, Chief Detective Inspector John J. Kelly assembled what the Inquirer described as “one of the largest investigation forces” the city had seen in many years.

Hundreds of officers scoured the area where his body was found. Police quickly produced and released a reconstructed photo of the boy. They visited hospitals, orphanages, and foster care agencies. More than 400,000 flyers were distributed. A nationwide alert was issued via teletype. The man who discovered the body passed a lie detector test and was eliminated as a suspect. Investigators connected the cardboard box to a specific store on South 69th Street.

None of it mattered.

Countless tips from the public proved fruitless as well. A Marine said he was “reasonably sure” the boy was his brother. A Manayunk couple said the boy might be their son who had been placed in an orphanage by a judge. The night manager of a Camden restaurant was certain she had seen the boy with his father a month earlier and that they had called someone in Baltimore.

In 2002, an Ohio woman under psychiatric care gave investigators a compelling, but ultimately inconclusive, story: Her parents bought the boy as an infant and kept him locked in the basement; her mother killed him in a rage years later.

The boy is buried just outside Philadelphia. His gravestone reads, “America’s Unknown Child.”

***

On Nov. 11, 2021, Claudia Vargas at NBC10 in Philadelphia reported that Capt. Jason Smith of the Philadelphia Police Department says they hope to identify the boy by the end of the year.

Her full report is available here.

If you’d like to read some reporting from closer to the time of the boy’s death, take a look at this collection of newspaper articles I used in researching the essay above. (Note: The articles are only semi-organized and there are some duplicates.)

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