Police reveal identity of murdered ‘Boy in the Box’ six decades on

The authorities hope it will bring them a step closer to the boy’s killer.

Boy in the Box Identity
Boy in the Box Identity

Nearly 66 years after the battered body of a young boy was found stuffed inside a cardboard box, police in the US city of Philadelphia have named him as Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

The authorities hope it will bring them a step closer to the boy’s killer and give the victim — known to generations of Philadelphians as the “Boy in the Box” — a small measure of dignity.

The city’s oldest unsolved murder has “haunted this community, the Philadelphia police department, our nation, and the world”, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a news conference.

“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 said.

Police say detective work and DNA analysis helped them finally learn Joseph’s name. The murder investigation remains open, and authorities said they hoped releasing Joseph’s name would spur a fresh round of leads.

But they cautioned 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 Captain Jason Smith. “We may not make an arrest. We may never make an identification. But we’re going to do our darndest to try.”

Police said both of Joseph’s parents are dead, but that he has living siblings. They said his family lived in west Philadelphia.

Boy in the Box Identity
Philadelphia Police Captain Jason Smith at a news conference in Philadelphia where police revealed the identity of the victim (Matt Rourke/AP/PA)

The child’s naked, badly bruised body was found on February 25, 1957, in a wooded area of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighbourhood. The boy, who was four years old, had been wrapped in a blanket and placed inside a large JCPenney bassinet box.

Police say he was malnourished and had been beaten to death.

They got permission to exhume his body for DNA testing in 1998 and again in 2019, and it was that latest round of testing, combined with genetic genealogy, that gave police their big break.

The test results were uploaded to DNA databases, allowing genealogists to make a match on the maternal side.

Authorities obtained a court order for vital records of any children born to the woman they suspected was Joseph’s mother between 1944 and 1956, and found Joseph’s birth certificate, which also listed the name of his father.

William Fleisher, the co-founder of a group called the Vidocq Society that took up the Boy in the Box case 25 years ago, said that hundreds of investigators had poured their “hearts and souls” into learning the boy’s identity and the circumstances of his death since 1957.

“Many of these men and women aren’t with us anymore, but I feel their souls are standing here at this moment with us,” Mr Fleisher said at the news conference.

“Now our lad is no longer that boy in the box. He has a name.”

The boy’s photo was put on a poster put up all over the city as police worked to identify him and catch his killer.

Detectives pursued and discarded hundreds of leads — that he was a Hungarian refugee, a boy who had been kidnapped outside a Long Island supermarket in 1955, a variety of other missing children. They investigated a pair of travelling carnival workers and a family who operated a nearby foster home, but ruled them out as suspects.

An Ohio woman claimed her mother bought the boy from his birth parents in 1954, kept him in the basement of their suburban Philadelphia home, and killed him in a fit of rage. Authorities found her credible but could not corroborate her story.

Boy in the Box Identity
The gravesite of Joseph Augustus Zarelli before his identity was uncovered (Matt Rourke/AP/PA)

Originally buried in a pauper’s grave, the boy’s remains now lie just inside the front gate at Ivy Hill Cemetery and a headstone designates him as “America’s Unknown Child”. Services have been held there each year on the anniversary of the boy’s discovery.

People often leave flowers and, this time of year, Christmas decorations and toys.

“The boy has always been special to all of us, because we don’t know who it is,” Dave Drysdale, the cemetery’s secretary-treasurer, said ahead of the news conference.

Now the boy’s name will be etched on the stone, Mr Drysdale said.

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