On a chilly February morning in 1957, a man checking his muskrat traps in Philadelphia came across a cardboard box with the naked body of a young boy inside. The child was wrapped in a plaid blanket and exhibited signs of severe malnutrition and trauma. The boy’s hair was also “crudely cut close to the scalp.”

Thus began the mystery of “America’s Unknown Child,” a case that haunted the city of Philadelphia and gripped the nation. More than 65 years later, on December 8, 2022, the boy was finally publicly identified as Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

One of the Country’s Oldest Cold Cases

On February 26, 1957, a day after the body was initially discovered, the Philadelphia Police Department opened an official investigation. The boy’s fingerprints were taken, and detectives were optimistic that someone would soon come forward to identify the body. Despite receiving hundreds of tips, none ever lead to an identification.

An autopsy revealed that the boy was between four and six years old and had suffered “multiple abrasions, contusions, a subdural hemorrhage, and pleural effusions.”

The “Boy in the Box” case attracted local and national media attention, with The Philadelphia Inquirer printing and distributing 400,000 flyers with the child’s face. Post-mortem pictures of the boy fully dressed and seated were shared with the public. These efforts never led to any breakthroughs.

Original poster to the Boy in the Box case with which the police tried to identify the body of the unknown victim.

The child was initially laid to rest in a potter’s field before being exhumed in 1998 to extract DNA from a tooth. He was then buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery under a headstone that read, “America’s Unknown Child.”

In March 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children added the boy’s DNA to their database and released a forensic facial reconstruction. In 2019, the remains were exhumed once more to retrieve additional DNA.

A Positive Identification

On November 30, 2022, the Philadelphia Police Department announced that they had positively identified the boy with the help of a forensic genetic genealogy company. On December 8 — over 65 years since his body was found — the child was publicly identified as four-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli. The names of the boy’s parents, who are now deceased, were publicly reported on January 19, 2023. Joseph has siblings who are still alive.

Joseph was identified through a cousin’s DNA uploaded to a public database. After that person’s mother — Joseph’s first cousin — submitted a genetic profile upon request from investigators, police could identify Joseph’s parents through his birth records and subsequent DNA testing.

Joseph Gets a Proper Headstone at Age 70

On January 13, 2023 — what would have been his 70th birthday — Joseph received a new headstone that contained his full name and image.

His case is still an active homicidal investigation.

By Steph Weaver, contributor for Ripleys.com


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