True Crimes Of The Century: The 1950s

By Nathaniel Whelan on June 2 2020 in History

The Boy in the Box mystery is still unsolved to this day. Image credit: YouTube
The Boy in the Box mystery is still unsolved to this day. Image credit: YouTube
  • In February 1957, a college student discovered the small body of a boy inside a cardboard box that once contained a J.C. Penney bassinet.
  • Responsible for the death of eleven people, Charles Starkweather modeled himself after the rebellious James Dean.
  • Currently up for sale for $3.5 million, the Los Feliz Murder House is one of the grisliest tourist spots in Los Angeles.

Following a horrific decade defined by death, the 1950s should have been a time of peace and serenity. In reality, the Cold War was ramping up and those who had previously been allies were friends no longer. At the forefront of this tension-filled backdrop was the idyllic suburban lifestyle, but even this glossy veneer cannot hide the lawlessness and violence that continued to throttle the American people. In this fifth part to World Atlas’s True Crimes of the Century series, discover the cases that spat on the promise that the second half of the twentieth century was going to be different than the first.

In case you missed it: True Crimes Of The Century: The 1910s1920s1930s, 1940s

The Boy in the Box (1957)

The Boy in the Box case was never solved. Image credit: YouTube

In February 1957, a college student was driving along Susquehanna Road in Philadelphia when he saw a bunny. Knowing that there were a lot of traps in the area, the young man got out to make sure the critter was safe. In his search, he discovered a large cardboard box that once contained a bassinet commonly sold at J.C. Penney. Inside, he found the small body of a boy wrapped in a plaid blanket. Horrified, the college student called the police.

A few days earlier, a hunter was out surveying the area when he came upon the same corpse. Afraid that the police would confiscate his traps, he ignored the crime and moved on. The medical examiner deduced that the boy was between three and seven years old because of his full set of baby teeth. The body was dirty and incredibly malnourished despite the baked beans found in his chest, but the surgical scars on the boy’s ankles, groin, and chin were the real horror. 

Nonetheless, the police were optimistic that the case would be an easy solve. Just the opposite turned out to be true. No one reported a missing child, nor did anyone come forward with useful information. While the press went wild with the story, 400,000 flyers were sent out across Philadelphia and neighboring towns. It garnered so much attention that a picture of the boy’s likeness was even included in the envelopes of gas bills. Meanwhile, the crime scene was thoroughly searched. Police discovered a blue cap, a child’s scarf, and a handkerchief embroidered with the letter “G,” but these clues provided no answers.

In 1960, Remington Bristow, an employee of the medical examiner, sought out a psychic who brought him to a local foster home. There, he discovered blankets that matched the one wrapped around the body and a bassinet similar to the one advertised on the cardboard box. Bristow suspected that the boy belonged to the stepdaughter of the man who ran the foster home and that they abandoned the child so the woman would not be outed as an unmarried mother, but no concrete proof to support that theory could be found.

Decades later in 2002, a woman who identified only as “Martha” went to the police claiming that her abusive mother purchased the boy from his birth parents in 1954. One night during dinner, the boy vomited baked beans everywhere and died as a result of one of the mother’s violent outbursts. Police investigated, but despite the beans, they were unable to verify Martha’s story. With the exception of a few half-formed theories, there were never any other leads. The boy’s identity remains a mystery. The body is currently buried in a Philadelphia cemetery. Surrounded by stuffed animals, the headstone reads: “America’s Unknown Child.”

Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate (1957 – 1958)

Starkweather's murderous rampage started when a gas station attendant refused to sell him a stuffed animal for his girlfriend. Image credit: nbcnews.com

Charles Starkweather was born in Lincoln, Nebraska to working-class parents. He was picked on for most of his childhood because of an unfortunate speech impediment. As he grew older, however, he spent more time in the gym, choosing to turn his new strength on those who bullied him. Around the time he dropped out of high school, Starkweather began to model himself after the rebellious James Dean.

At the age of eighteen, he was introduced to Caril Ann Fugate. She was five years younger, but they soon started dating. In the winter of 1957, Starkweather planned to buy his girlfriend a present. He went to a gas station where Robert Colvert, the on-duty attendant, refused to sell him a stuffed animal on credit. Filled with rage, Starkweather left and returned with a shotgun. After robbing the place, he drove the gas station attendant out to a secluded area where he shot him in the head. Colvert would be the first of eleven victims.

On January 21, 1958, the James Dean wannabe drove to Fugate’s house while she was out. After getting into an argument with her mother, he shot both her parents with a rifle and stabbed her two-year-old sister to death. He hid all three bodies behind the house. It is unclear how Fugate reacted to the murders, but regardless, the couple stayed at the house for several days. Fugate’s grandmother eventually grew worried about her family’s silence and called the police. When they arrived, Starkweather and his girlfriend had already fled, the first four victims of their killing spree far in the rear-view mirror.

On January 27, they drove to the farmhouse of an old friend of the Fugate family. Starkweather killed her with a shotgun, as well as two teenagers who stopped to help after they ran into some car trouble. The next day, they broke into the home of C. Lauer Ward, a local businessman. Starkweather killed the man, and his wife and maid. They robbed the place and fled the crime scene in Ward’s 1956 Packard. By now, the local news had caught on to the murder spree, criticizing the Lincoln Police Department for being unable to capture the young killers.

It all ended, however, on January 29 when Ward’s Packard was identified. In need of a new vehicle, Starkweather and Fugate came upon a traveling shoe salesman who was asleep in the back of his Buick along a Wyoming highway. They shot the man and hopped in, but the car would not go. Thinking the couple was having engine trouble, a motorist pulled over to help. A quarrel with the man attracted the attention of a passing deputy sheriff. Once Starkweather realized the parking brake was on, he drove off, but the sheriff gave chase, shooting out the car’s back window and spraying glass everywhere. Afraid that he would bleed to death, the young hotshot pulled over and surrendered.

According to reports, Starkweather walked into court with a mean swagger, still channeling James Dean. He was convicted of murder and sent to the electric chair on June 25, 1959. Fugate was sentenced to life in prison but was released in 1976.

Los Feliz Murder House (1959)

Dr. Harold Perelson killed his wife before attempting to kill his children. Image credit: pintrest

In the 1950s, the Perelson family moved into a Spanish revival-style mansion on a hillside in Los Feliz, a fancy neighborhood in Los Angeles. Originally built in 1925, the house had seven bedrooms, a library, a ballroom, and a three-car garage. It was an expensive place, but no one was surprised; the patriarch of the family, Dr. Harold Perelson, was a successful heart surgeon and a professor of cardiology. 

But while things seemed fine from the outside, the Perelson family was struggling financially. Most of their money troubles stemmed from legal disputes with a former business partner who was trying to steal the designs for a new experimental medical device the doctor was developing. The legal fees were heavy and Perelson only received $24,000 in damages when he initially demanded $100,000.  

In the early morning of December 6, 1959, something snapped inside Perelson. He beat his wife to death with a hammer, striking her so hard he left an inch-wide hole in her skull. He then moved on to his eldest daughter, Judye, who woke up after a single blow to the head. She screamed, fought him off, and ran to the neighbors where she called the police. Joel and Debbie—the last of the Perelson children—woke to their sister’s screams. Their father tried to convince them it was just a nightmare, but they, too, fled the house. When the police arrived, they found Perelson in bed, hammer in hand. Next to him was an empty bottle of pills and a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy open to a passage hinting at the stress he was feeling as a result of his financial woes. It was also later revealed that Perelson had previously tried to commit suicide by way of drugs. 

The three children went to live with an aunt. Meanwhile, the house was sold to Emily and Julian Enriquez who used the residence as a storage facility. They never removed any of the old furnishings. Rumor has it they even kept up the Perelson family’s Christmas tree. With no one to properly care for it, the house fell into disrepair.

In 1994, the house passed to Emily and Julian’s son. When he died, the house was sold to an attorney and her husband who renovated the entire property. The mansion is currently up for sale for $3.5 million. While it looks somewhat different these days, the Los Feliz Murder House is one of the grisliest tourist spots in Los Angeles. Some snooping onlookers even claim it is haunted.  

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