How The Creepy Case Of The ‘Boy In The Box’ Was Finally Solved After 65 Years

Published December 8, 2022
Updated February 21, 2024

Since being discovered in 1957, the "Boy In The Box" case baffled Philadelphia police. But thanks to genetic testing, the four-year-old victim has been revealed to be Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

In the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Cedarbrook, Philadelphia, there is a headstone that reads “America’s Unknown Child.” It’s a permanent reminder of the child who lies beneath it, a boy who was found beaten to death in a box some 65 years ago. Since then, he’s been called the “Boy in the Box.”

One of Philadelphia’s most famous unsolved murders, the identity of the “Boy in the Box” baffled investigators for years. Since his discovery in 1957, detectives in the city have pursued thousands of leads — some better than others — and come up empty.

The Boy In The Box

Wikimedia CommonsThe boy in the box, depicted on a flyer sent out to residents of surrounding towns.

But thanks to genetic genealogy and some old-fashioned detective work, the Boy in the Box finally has a name. In 2022, he was finally identified as four-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

The Discovery Of The Boy In The Box

On February 23, 1957, a student at La Salle College noticed the Boy in the Box for the first time. The student was in the area hoping to catch a glimpse of the girls enrolled at Sisters of Good Shepard, a home for wayward youths. Instead, he noticed a box in the underbrush.

Though he saw the boy’s head, the student mistook it for a doll and went on his way. When he heard about a missing girl from New Jersey, he returned to the scene on Feb. 25, found the body, and called the police.

As the Associated Press reports, police responding to the scene found the body of a boy, between the ages of four and six years old, in a JCPenney box that had once contained a bassinet. He was naked and wrapped in a flannel blanket, and investigators determined that he was malnourished and had been beaten to death.

“It’s something you don’t forget,” Elmer Palmer, the first officer to arrive on the scene, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007. “This one was the one that bothered everybody.”

Then, the race to identify the Boy in the Box began.

Who Was The Boy In The Box?

Boy In The Box Crime Scene

Wikimedia CommonsThe box where the boy was found in 1957.

For the next six decades, detectives pursued thousands of leads in order to identify the Boy in the Box. And they started with the boy himself. An investigation of his body revealed that his sandy hair had been recently and crudely cut — WFTV 9 reports that clumps of hair were still on his body — leading some to believe that his killer had tried to disguise his identity.

Investigators also found scars on his ankle, foot, and groin that appeared to be surgical, and his feet and right hand were “pruny,” suggesting he’d been in water, according to WFTV 9.

But despite these clues, a facial reconstruction, and hundreds of thousands of fliers that were distributed across Pennsylvania, the boy’s identity remained unknown. The Associated Press reports that detectives chased numerous leads, including that he was a Hungarian refugee, a kidnap victim from 1955, and even related to local carnival workers.

Over the years, some leads seemed better than others.

Theories About The Boy In The Box

Of all the leads that investigators pursued while trying to identify the Boy in the Box, two seemed especially promising. The first came in 1960 when an employee of the medical examiner’s officer named Remington Bristow spoke to a psychic. The psychic led Bristow to a local foster home.

While attending an estate sale at the foster home, Bristow noticed a bassinet that looked like one sold at JCPenney, and blankets that resembled the ones wrapped around the dead boy. He theorized that the boy had been the child of the owner’s stepdaughter, an unwed mother.

Though police pursued the lead, they eventually believed that it was a dead end.

Boy In The Box Facial Reconstruction

Wikimedia CommonsA facial reconstruction of the boy in the box.

Forty years later, in 2002, a woman identified as “M” told investigators that the boy had been purchased by her abusive mother from another family in 1954, according to the Philly Voice. “M” claimed that his name was “Jonathan” and that he’d been physically and sexually abused by her mother. After he vomited up baked beans one night, “M” claimed that her mother had beaten him to death in a fit of rage.

The story “M” told seemed credible, as baked beans has been found in the boy’s stomach. What’s more, “M” had said that her mother had tried to bathe the boy after beating him, which could have explained his “pruny” fingers. But ultimately, the police were unable to substantiate her claim.

Thus, the decades passed and the Boy in the Box remained unidentified. But all that changed in December 2022, when investigators in Philadelphia announced that they could finally give him a name.

Joseph Augustus Zarelli, The Boy In The Box

Joseph Augustus Zarelli

Danielle M. Outlaw/TwitterJoseph Augustus Zarelli had just turned four when his body was discarded in the woods.

On December 8, 2022, Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced a breakthrough in the case. The boy found dead in 1957, she said, was Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

“This child’s story was always remembered by the community,” she said. “His story was never forgotten.”

As Outlaw and others explained during a police press conference, Zarelli was identified thanks to genetic genealogy. His DNA was uploaded to genetic databases, which led detectives to relatives on his mother’s side. After pouring through birth records they were also able to identify his father. They also learned that Zarelli’s mother had three other children.

The investigators found that Joseph Augustus Zarelli was born on Jan. 13, 1953, which meant that he was four years old when his body was found. Aside from that, however, the detectives were tight-lipped.

They explained that numerous questions still remain about Zarelli’s life and death. For now, the police are not releasing the names of Zarelli’s parents out of respect for his living siblings. They also refused to speculate on who killed Zarelli, though they noted “we have our suspicions.”

“This is still an active homicide investigation, and we still need the public’s help in filling in this child’s story,” Outlaw said. “This announcement only closes one chapter in this little boy’s story, while opening up a new one.”

After learning about the mysterious boy in the box case, read the tragic story of Joyce Vincent, who died in her apartment and went unnoticed for years. Then, read about Elisabeth Fritzl, who was held captive by her father for over 20 years.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
Citation copied
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "How The Creepy Case Of The ‘Boy In The Box’ Was Finally Solved After 65 Years.", December 8, 2022, Accessed May 18, 2024.