Elmer Palmer was cop who found 'Boy in the Box'

Posted: January 14, 2011

Elmer Palmer always had this hope - that the "Boy in the Box," whose battered visage he was the first officer to see one frigid day in 1957, would be identified before he died.

It didn't happen. Despite more than 50 years of intensive investigative work by dedicated detectives, the murdered boy had not been identified when Palmer died on Monday. He was 83 and lived in the Northeast.

"It always bothered him," said his son, James Palmer.

Elmer was a cop with young children of his own when he was assigned on Feb. 25, 1957, to check out the report of what was first said to be a doll in a box off Susquehanna Road.

What he found was the battered remains of a boy between 3 and 5 years old, who had been brutally beaten and killed and stuffed in a box for a J.C. Penney bassinet.

"It was tough," Elmer said at the time of the 50th anniversary of the grim discovery. "It's something you don't forget. This was the one that bothered everybody."

Elmer and other officers and detectives involved in the long, frustrating case regularly visited the boy's grave at Ivy Hill Cemetery, in the city's Cedarbrook section.

The boy originally had been buried in a potter's field, reserved for the nameless and forgotten of a big city. But in 1998, the body was exhumed by investigators who took DNA samples from it.

It was then reburied in a donated white casket in a donated plot at Ivy Hill. A polished black headstone marked the grave, and in 1999, a small granite bench was placed by the grave.

Elmer Palmer, then 72, was there along with other investigators as a bagpiper played a lonely tune.

Sketches were made of the boy and distributed widely, and the Vidocq Society, composed of retired investigators who work on old cases, took it up.

Elmer Joseph Palmer was born in Kensington to William and Kate Palmer. He graduated from Northeast Catholic High School, where he was a standout track star.

He served in the Army and during the Korean War and saw combat in Korea. He joined the Police Department in 1950, but left in 1964 after being hurt in an accident.

He then worked as a mechanic for Cheltenham Township.

Elmer had a passion for soccer, which he played in high school and later with semipro teams. He also coached for many years for the Fox Chase Soccer Club, working with the kids well into his 80s.

"We figured he coached about 600 kids altogether," his son said. "He was great with kids. The kids loved him.

"He was very moral. He saw what was right and what was wrong. Nobody ever said anything bad about him"

Elmer married the former Regina McGinn in 1950.

Besides his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Regina Stires; two sisters, Loretta and Mary, and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by another son, Elmer Joseph James Jr.

Services: Funeral Mass 10:30 a.m. today at St. Cecilia Church, 535 Rhawn St. Friends may call at 9:30 a.m. at the church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Fraternal Order of Police Survivors Fund, FOP Lodge 5, 1336 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia 19123.

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