The Boy in the Box and the Girl in the Closet

Mystery Thriller Cold Case Blog Hop

What would you do if you found a body? You’d tell the police, right? Maybe not. Maybe if you’d been up to something illicit you might keep quiet about it.

That’s what happened to two separate young men in Philadelphia in 1957. The first man ventured into a wooded area off Susquehanna Road in the Fox Chase neighborhood on a chilly February day to check on his muskrat traps. The woods were a popular dumping ground for trash and old appliances. Sometimes items were discarded there that could be cleaned up, tinkered with and repaired. As his boots crunched through fallen leaves he spotted a large cardboard box. He looked inside to see if it contained anything interesting.

It did. At first he thought it was a doll. Then he took a closer look and saw it was a small child who was clearly dead. The trapper promptly left, thoroughly rattled, unwilling to tell the authorities what he’d found because he was trapping illegally and he feared they would confiscate his traps

Two days later, on February 25, another young man was in the woods. His purpose was to spy on girls at a nearby boarding school run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. It was known in the area that the girls had been sent to the school because they were “troubled.” That was a catch-all phrase used in those days, when any adolescent behavior deviating from the norm sparked fears of what newspapers and magazines trumpeted as “juvenile delinquency.” The preoccupation with out-of-control teens loomed large in the public’s imagination, fueled by images of the switchblade-carrying high school students in the film Blackboard Jungle and in the person of the surly, stolen-car-racing character portrayed by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

If the young man thought he’d get a thrill by peeping on girls who were rebellious and wild he was in for a shock when he discovered the box. Like the trapper, he was reluctant to tell the police, knowing he’d be asked what he was doing there. Two days later he contacted the authorities, after wrestling with his conscience and having heard reports on the radio about a four-year-old girl named Mary Jane Barker who was missing from Bellmawr, NJ, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The trapper followed suit.

Sadly, Mary Jane Barker would be found dead on March 3, 1957. She was huddled in a closet of a house under construction, two blocks from her own home. The house belonged to the aunt and uncle of one of her playmates, six-year-old Maria Freitta. A black cocker spaniel puppy belonging to Maria Freitta that had gone missing at the same time as Mary Jane was in the closet with her. The puppy bounded out, alive and well, when Maria, who had gone to the house with her aunt and uncle, opened the door.

Maria’s joyful reunion with her pet was short-lived. The puppy was euthanized and its stomach contents examined to find out if it had been fed recently. The idea seemed to be that someone could have put the puppy in the closet with Mary Jane, and was concerned enough about its welfare to feed it. That seems unlikely, since the door opened from the inside by turning a small latch. If someone had put Mary Jane there, how could they be sure she couldn’t get out? From marks on the plaster walls and on the door it was evident she’d tried desperately to escape.

According to the Camden County coroner Mary Jane had not been sexually molested, or undergone any kind of physical harm. The conclusion was that she had wandered into the house to play, got trapped in the closet and died of starvation. Her death was ruled a tragic accident.

We can only imagine how Maria Freitta felt about discovering her friend’s body and then having her puppy taken away and euthanized. Whether the current occupants of the well-kept brick ranch house on Second Avenue know about the horror that occurred in the front bedroom closet is unknown.

Would you want to know if it had happened in your house?

In Fox Chase, police arrived at the scene and found the box marked ‘Furniture’ and ‘Fragile, Handle With Care.’ It originally held a baby bassinette. Inside was a little blue-eyed white boy. He was naked and wrapped in a faded flannel blanket. He had all his baby teeth and had been circumcised. His age was estimated at being about four or five.

According to laboratory tests he had not been sexually assaulted. He was malnourished and his body was covered with bruises. His fingernails and toenails were neatly clipped and his dark blond hair had been recently cut, judging by hair clippings clinging to the body. He had surgical scars on his ankle and his groin, the scar on his groin resembling one made in hernia surgery. The one on his ankle appeared to be a “cut-down” for the purpose of exposing a vein for a blood transfusion.

The child had been a patient in a hospital. That’s where I would have looked, if I’d been investigating the case. Hospitals keep records, one of which might have identified the boy. Perhaps detectives tried that and failed to come up with anything. By now, after the passage of more than six decades, whatever records there may have been were probably destroyed as the result of routine data clearance.

The boy’s hands and feet were wrinkled, as if he had been submerged in water before he died. The cause of death appeared to be several violent blows to the head. His esophagus contained a dark substance, suggesting that he had vomited shortly before he died. Other than that, there was no clue as to what his final moments had been like, or who had killed him, and why.

Sixty-four years later his identity is still unknown, despite untiring efforts by police and civilian sleuths. He has become known as the “Boy in the Box,” or “America’s Unknown Child.”

The bassinet box he was found in at first seemed like a promising lead. Investigators traced the point of sale to a J.C. Penney store in Upper Darby, PA. It was one of a shipment of a dozen bassinets received on Nov. 27, 1956 and sold for $7.50 between Dec. 3, 1956 and Feb. 16, 1957. Although the store kept no records of individual sales, eleven of the purchasers came forward when they learned of the search.

FBI fingerprint technicians found no usable prints on the box. It was a dead end.

The blanket the boy was wrapped in proved to be just as frustrating. It had a geometric pattern of diamonds and rectangles in green, brown, rust and white. It was made from cheap cotton flannel and had been recently washed and mended. Analysis at the Philadelphia Textile Institute determined it was manufactured either at a factory in Swannanoa, North Carolina, or Granby, Quebec. Identical blankets had been produced by the thousands. The police were never able to find where it had been sold.

Another dead end.

A royal blue corduroy man’s cap with a leather strap and a buckle in the back was found about seventeen feet from the box. The label inside led police to Robbins Eagle Hat & Cap Company in Philadelphia. The proprietor confirmed it was one of twelve caps she made at some point prior to May 1956. She recalled that particular cap because the purchaser – a blond man in his late twenties – had returned a few months later to have the strap sewn on.

This was a promising development. Furthermore, the proprietor told the detectives that the customer resembled photographs they showed her of the boy in the box. That must have gotten their hopes up, but seconds later their hopes were crushed when she told them she had no record of the blond man’s name or address.

Another dead end.

At first, police thought the boy in the box might be Stephen Craig Damman. He was 34 months old when he disappeared from outside a Long Island, NY supermarket on October 31, 1955, while waiting for his mother to finish shopping. Both boys had blue eyes and a small scar under their chin. Damman, however, had fractured his left arm at one time. X-rays showed the boy in the box had no broken bones.

Stephen Craig Damman is still missing.

Five months after he was found, the boy in the box was buried in a potter’s field. Detectives who worked on the case pooled their money to purchase a headstone, its inscription reading: “Heavenly Father, Bless this Unknown Boy.”

The boy’s body was exhumed three times, in 1998, 2000, and 2001, in order to collect DNA samples. The third attempt produced a satisfactory DNA profile, but as yet no living relatives have been found.

The boy in the box would be close to 70 by now, if he had lived. His body now rests in Philadelphia’s Ivy Hill Cemetery, where visitors to the grave sometimes leave toys and stuffed animals. His killer is most likely dead. Someone, somewhere, might know who the boy was, but if they do, they’re not telling.

Next, mystery/thriller writer Lance Frost brings you the case of golf pro Sarah Hunter whose 1986 murder remains unsolved.

Mystery Thriller Cold Case Blog Hop Sarah Hunter Unsolved

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