Joseph Augustus Zarelli was his name.
Nearly 66 years after a young boy’s battered body was discovered stuffed inside a cardboard box, Philadelphia police say they have finally solved the city’s most notorious cold case: the victim’s identity.
Authorities hope that revealing the name to the public on Thursday will bring them closer to the boy’s killer and provide some dignity to the victim, known to generations of Philadelphians as the “Boy in the Box”
At a news conference, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the city’s oldest unsolved homicide has “haunted this community, the Philadelphia police department, our nation, and the world,”
“When people think about the boy in the box, a profound sadness is felt, not just because a child was murdered, but because his entire identity and his rightful claim to own his existence was taken away,” she explained.
The homicide investigation is still ongoing, and authorities said they hoped that publicizing Joseph’s name would generate new leads. They did warn, however, that the passage of time complicates the task.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle for us to definitively determine who caused this child’s death,” said Capt. Jason Smith, commanding officer of the homicide unit. “We may or may not make an arrest. We may never be able to make an identification. But we’re going to try our hardest.”
Both of Joseph’s parents are deceased, according to police, but he has living siblings. His family was said to live in west Philadelphia.
On February 25, 1957, the child’s naked, badly bruised body was discovered in a wooded area of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood. The four-year-old boy had been wrapped in a blanket and placed in a large JCPenney bassinet box. According to police, he was malnourished. He’d been savagely beaten to death.
The boy’s picture was plastered all over the city as police worked to identify him and find his killer.
Detectives pursued and dismissed hundreds of leads, including the possibility that he was a Hungarian refugee, a boy kidnapped outside a Long Island supermarket in 1955, and a number of other missing children. They looked into a pair of traveling carnival workers and a family who ran a nearby foster home, but they were both ruled out as suspects.
An Ohio woman claimed her mother bought the boy from his birth parents in 1954, kept him in their suburban Philadelphia home’s basement, and killed him in a fit of rage. Authorities found her credible but were unable to corroborate her story, resulting in yet another dead end.
The boy’s missing identity gnawed at police officials for generations, who took up the case.
They obtained permission to exhume his body for DNA testing in 1998 and again in 2019, and it was the latter round of testing, in conjunction with genetic genealogy, that provided police with their big break.
The test results were uploaded to DNA databases, allowing genealogists to find a maternal match. Authorities obtained a court order requesting vital records for any children born between 1944 and 1956 to the woman they suspected was Joseph’s mother, and discovered Joseph’s birth certificate, which also listed his father’s name.
Since 1957, hundreds of investigators have poured their “hearts and souls” into learning the boy’s identity and the circumstances of his death, according to William Fleisher, co-founder of the Vidocq Society, which took up the Boy in the Box case a quarter-century ago.
“Many of these men and women aren’t with us anymore, but I feel their souls are standing here at this moment with us,” Fleisher said at the news conference.
“Our boy is no longer that boy in the box. He’s got a name.”
The boy’s remains were originally buried in a pauper’s grave, but they now rest just inside the front gate of Ivy Hill Cemetery, beneath a weeping cherry tree, and a headstone commemorates him as “America’s Unknown Child.” Every year on the anniversary of the boy’s discovery inside the box, services are held there.
People frequently leave flowers, as well as Christmas decorations and toys at this time of year.
“The boy has always been special to all of us, because we don’t know who it is,” the cemetery’s secretary-treasurer, Dave Drysdale, said by phone ahead of the news conference.
They now do. And now that he has a name, it will be engraved on the stone.