The “Boy in the Box”

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On Feb. 25, 1957, a pedestrian came upon a cardboard box in the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia. Inside was the naked, battered body of a young boy between 4 and 6 years old.

A media sensation ensued throughout the Delaware Valley, and pictures of the boy were inserted in every gas bill in Philadelphia. But the boy’s identity has never been established, and the case has never been solved.

Murder at the Priory

In 1876, London barrister Charles Bravo took three days to die of antimony poisoning but refused to say who had poisoned him or why.

An inquest determined it was a case of willful murder, but no one was ever arrested or charged. To this day, no one knows who killed him.

Sideshow Justice

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Frontier lawmen chose some odd fundraising techniques. When rangers killed Joaquin Murrieta, “the Mexican Robin Hood,” in 1853, they cut off his head, preserved it in brandy, and sent it on tour through California, charging spectators $1 per person to see it.

Captain Harry Love insisted it was the real article, but Murrieta was sighted several times after his “death,” and the pickled head was said to lack a characteristic scar.

So whose head was it? It was lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, so we’ll never know.

The Gentleman Bandit

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For an Old West outlaw, Black Bart had a rather poetic sensibility. Born Charles Bolles, Bart robbed stagecoaches of thousands of dollars throughout the 1870s and 1880s, but even his first victims noted his politeness — he avoided foul language and merely asked the driver to “please throw down the box.”

Eventually Bart was writing full-blown poetry to leave at the scene of each crime. He left behind this verse after one California robbery in 1877:

I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread
You fine-haired sons of bitches.

… and this one the following year:

Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will I’ll try it on,
My condition can’t be worse;
And if there’s money in that box
‘Tis munny in my purse.

When Bart was released from prison in 1888, a reporter asked if he were going to return to robbing stagecoaches. “No, gentlemen,” he said, “I’m through with crime.” Another asked whether he would write more poetry. He smiled, “Now, didn’t you hear me say that I am through with crime?”

Cruel and Unusual

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Account of a torture and execution by elephant at Baroda, India, 1814:

“The man was a slave, and two days before had murdered his master, brother to a native chieftain, called Ameer Sahib. About eleven o’clock the elephant was brought out, with only the driver on his back, surrounded by natives with bamboos in their hands. The criminal was placed three yards behind on the ground, his legs tied by three ropes, which were fastened to a ring on the right hind leg of the animal. At every step the elephant took, it jerked him forward, and every eight or ten steps must have dislocated another limb, for they were loose and broken when the elephant had proceeded five hundred yards. The man, though covered in mud, showed every sign of life, and seemed to be in the most excruciating torments. After having been tortured in this manner for about an hour, he was taken to the outside of the town, when the elephant, which is instructed for such purposes, was backed, and put his foot on the head of the criminal.”

— From The Percy Anecdotes, 1821

Martha Tabram

In the early morning hours of Aug. 7, 1888, a London resident noticed a woman lying on a stair landing in his apartment building. He assumed she was a vagrant, and another hour passed before someone discovered she was dead — she had been stabbed 39 times in the body and neck.

Was Martha Tabram an early victim of Jack the Ripper? Like Jack’s other victims, she was a poor prostitute knifed in the early morning in a secluded but public area in Whitechapel. (Jack struck first on Aug. 31.) But Martha’s throat was not cut nor her body eviscerated, as Jack’s “canonical” victims’ were, and an autopsy suggested a weapon longer and stouter than Jack’s.

Martha’s murder was never solved. If Jack didn’t kill her — who did?

See also Långrocken.

Hinterkaifeck

One day in March 1922, German farmer Andreas Gruber told two neighbors of a curious discovery. He had found traces in the snow leading from the forest to his farm, but none leading back. He’d also found a strange newspaper. The neighbors dismissed his story, and Gruber didn’t contact the police.

Four days later, when Gruber’s granddaughter failed to appear at school, some neighbors trekked to his farm. There they found six mutilated corpses: Gruber’s entire family and a female farmhand had been murdered with a pickaxe. An autopsy showed that the 7-year-old granddaughter had been badly injured in the attack but survived for several hours. She had lain in the straw amid the bodies of her family, pulling out her hair in tufts as she died.

That’s the whole story. Police have interviewed more than 100 suspects, one as recently as 1986, but to this day no one knows who killed Andreas Gruber’s family or why.

“Bella in the Wych-Elm”

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Image: Wikipedia

In April 1943, four young boys were exploring the woods near England’s Wychbury Hill when one climbed a large wych hazel in search of birds’ nests.

To his horror, inside the hollow trunk he found a human skull, hair and teeth. Investigation showed that the tree contained a nearly complete human skeleton, a shoe and some fragments of clothing. A human hand was found buried nearby.

The war effort prevented the English authorities from making a full investigation, but a pathologist estimated that the woman had been asphyxiated 18 months earlier and that her body was still warm when it was entombed in the tree.

But that’s as far as they got. The woman’s identity — and that of her killer — remain unknown.

The Somerton Man

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On Dec. 1, 1948, a bather discovered a body on the beach near Adelaide, Australia. The man appeared to be European, about 45 years old, well dressed, and in excellent physical condition. Indeed, the coroner could not determine a cause of death. Still more strangely, it seemed the man had carried no money, and all identifying marks had been removed from his clothes. Apparently he had left a suitcase at the Adelaide railway station, but it contained no useful clues. Photos and fingerprints were circulated throughout the English-speaking world, but no one identified him.

And the body bore one last strange clue: In a trouser fob pocket, one of the investigators found a tiny piece of paper bearing the words “Taman Shud.” Those are the final words in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; they mean “The End.” A local doctor came forward with a copy of that book, from which the words had been clipped. He had found it tossed on the front seat of his car the day before the body was found.

But even that clue went nowhere. To this day, no one knows who the man was or how he died. He’s known only as the Somerton man.

Bad News for Counterfeiters

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If you’ve tried to photocopy banknotes since about 1996, you may have found that your copier won’t cooperate — many machines will balk if they detect a pattern of symbols like the one on the left. Eight such patterns are marked on the U.S. $20 bill at right.

The authorities have been understandably mum about the details, but the pattern has been discovered on more than 30 world currencies. It’s known as the EURion constellation.