Baby in the Pasteboard Box: Murder of a Newborn Girl 1881

Murder Victim

Newborn Girl
Cause of Death: Acid or Lye
Motive: Infanticide

Murder Scene and Date

Centerville, Iowa
Appanoose County
March 30, 1881


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2011

location of Centerville, Iowa

location of Centerville, Iowa

On Wednesday March 30, 1881, 56-year-old Appanoose County Treasurer John Addison Pierson stopped by the Centerville train station to see if there was mail for himself or the County.

The rail agent said a postage-due package arrived on the express train from Camden that was addressed to Pierson and handed over a pasteboard box about 10 inches wide, 14 inches long, and 6 inches deep.

from the Centerville Appanoose Times

Pierson took the package back to his office. When he unfolded an attached piece of paper bearing his name and address, he was shocked to read instructions telling him to bury the box’s contents on the north side of the cemetery.

Pierson quickly opened the box and found a dead newborn girl wrapped in an old skirt. In horror, he notified authorities of the gruesome contents.

A coroner’s jury was quickly convened at the Appanoose County Courthouse to examine the baby. The jury reported the horrible verdict that the baby girl was born alive; then, acid or lye was forced into her mouth — killing her — and then splattered on one side of her face and body.

☛ Origin of the Box ☚

Authorities investigating the origin of the package learned that earlier in the day a couple, who attracted no particular attention, came to the Railway Post Office in Camden — now an Appanoose County ghost town — and gave the box to the agent, saying that shipping directions were on the attached paper and the charges would be paid in Centerville.

Investigators were baffled by the actions of the couple, who did nothing to conceal the murder but instead made it very obvious.

Neither John A. Pierson nor anyone else could imagine why the box was addressed to him.

☛ Unconfirmed Suspicions ☚

An inquest was held at the old Appanoose County Courthouse.

Within days of the box’s arrival, the Appanoose Times wrote:

“Suspicion rests upon a family in the west part of the county and it is very probable that the mother of the child has been found, but in the absence of proof we withhold names, not wishing to give publicity to the family in such a case only on positive knowledge.

Nothing can be done to develop the case unless someone will push the matter and file any information, a thing that no one has yet consented to do.

Our laws are weak and at fault in cases of this kind, it seems, and no one feels like taking the responsibility of paying the costs that must necessarily accrue in prosecuting the investigation.

The sheriff is unwilling to be at any further personal expense in the matter, but expresses a willingness to serve any and all papers in the case.”

So many mysteries remain. Who was the baby girl? Who were her parents? Why would anyone kill a baby so mercilessly? Why was the body sent to Pierson?

Years have come and gone without any answers to the mystery of the baby in the pasteboard box.

Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • ☛ “Foul Play: An Infant Murdered and Shipped to a Centerville Man,” Centerville Appanoose Times, March 31, 1881.

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