Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Unknown Does Not Mean Forever

On February 25, 1957, the bruised, naked body of a small boy was found in a cardboard box beside a road in Philadelphia’s rural Fox Chase district. Wrapped in a plaid blanket and seriously underweight, the child appeared malnourished and neglected. Indignant that he had been thrown away like a piece of garbage, investigators from both the medical examiner’s office and the police department initiated a personal crusade to catch his killer and discover his name.

Newspapers all over the country covered the story, and the boy’s photo was even reproduced on gas bills in the hope that someone would recognize him. But he was never identified and is known today as “the Boy in the Box” and “America’s Unknown Child”.

Last weekend I read New York Times reporter David Stout’s book about the case, The Boy in the Box: the Unsolved Case of America’s Unknown Child. Stout interviewed the aging ex-cops originally involved in the investigation, reviewed the boxes of yellowing reports on the still-open case, and turned it all into a book that is one of the best examples of true crime reporting that I have ever encountered.

Like many sensational cases, thousands of leads and theories have poured in over the years. All had to be carefully followed up, but in the end, only two were deemed so viable that both the police and the press took serious notice. The first was that the boy was the illegitimate child of a young woman whose mother and stepfather operated a foster home, and that he was accidentally killed by his exasperated caretakers while misbehaving. The second was that a mentally unstable woman had acquired him from his birth parents and subjected him to years of violent abuse before killing him for vomiting in the bathtub. The latter theory was brought forward in 2002 by a woman who claimed to have witnessed the murder as a young girl. Police investigators, aided in later years by a team of retired cops and profilers known as the Vidocq Society, checked both stories but were forced to abandon them after failing to acquire sufficient evidence.

The case remains officially unsolved, but lack of a ‘happy ending’ does not give The Boy in the Box a hollow ring. Using scenes and dialogue distilled from his research and personal interviews, Stout does a masterful job of revisiting the discovery of the body, the highs and lows of the ongoing investigation, and, most poignantly, the love that the grizzled police veterans gradually developed for the tiny victim. This love drove many of them to continue the quest for justice long after retirement.

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