PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — His name is Joseph Augustus Zarelli.
He was found dead in a cardboard box in February 1957, naked, scratched, bruised and scarred.
🎧 A boy gets his name back
More than 65 years after the discovery, investigators have answered maybe the most important question in the mystery of the “Boy in the Box.” The case has gained worldwide notoriety through the years, captivating hundreds of investigators and fostering a dozen theories. Now a technology boom has played a huge role.
The discovery of Joseph's name was in large part due to the work of genealogist Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, who built a family tree based on DNA extracted from the body, and the hundreds of investigators who have tried through the years to identify where the child came from. But it all started with Philadelphia Police Officer Elmer Palmer.
On Feb. 25, 1957, Palmer was called to Susquehanna Road, between Veree and Pine roads, at the top of a wooded hill, which was often used as a dumping ground.
🎧 The son of the first officer on the scene in '57
A man who had been trapping muskrats nearby saw something odd inside a box.
Palmer looked inside. The muskrat trapper thought maybe it was just a mannequin.
It was a naked child, a thin and wounded boy, wrapped in a blanket. He was dead.
Detective Sam Weinstein arrived at the scene and looked around. Nearby was a royal blue cap with a leather strap, from a South Philly store. It had some tissue in the sweatband pocket. There was also a delicate white handkerchief embroidered with the letter “G.”
Palmer and Weinstein transported the boy to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, where his body was examined.
They believed the child was about 3 to 6 years old. His hair was “crudely cut,” his fingernails trimmed, though not well. On a poster distributed by police, the child was described as very thin, borderline emaciated: 40 ½ inches tall but only 30 pounds.
The discovery made international headlines: Who was the Boy in the Box?
He had been found wrapped in an Aztec-bohemian-patterned blanket, with green, rust and cream hues. A chunk was missing, and another portion had been sewn with “poor-quality” thread, police said.
In the days that followed, investigators knocked on neighbors’ doors, displaying pictures of the child’s face and asking if anyone they knew was missing.
Nothing came from it; none of them knew of a missing child who had been found.
Police Commissioner Thomas Gibbons Sr. greenlit the distribution of photos of the dead child to the community. Inside grocery stores, the gaunt, scarred, oval-shaped, fair-complected face with cold, blue eyes peered into every customer who walked in.
The dead boy in the photo was dressed well. A fellow detective had donated clothes from his own children to dress the boy in a white button-down shirt, dark vest, dark corduroys and black shoes.
The boy’s description on the flier included other details: light- to medium-brown hair, full set of baby teeth, tonsils, no broken bones, clothing size 4, shoe size 8D. The box was from a JCPenney store in Upper Darby at 69th and Chestnut streets and had contained a bassinet that sold for $7.50 some time between Dec. 3, 1956, and Feb. 16, 1957.
The poster brought in a few tips, but no name.
A sketch artist drew a picture of the boy — smiling, and with color, as if it were a school picture a proud mother would frame on her wall.
As months and years passed, theories developed: the M theory, the foster home theory, the carnival worker theory. Each year, on the anniversary of the boy’s discovery, the media would resurrect the story. Sometimes, another theory developed.
🎧 Related: More on these theories
The boy was buried in a wooden box, in a potter’s field, alongside other people with unknown names.
In 2015, the investigators and police officials who spent years visiting the burial site, caring for him, found a gravesite, donated by the cemetery, and interred the little body at Ivy Hill Cemetery. A charcoal-gray headstone adorns the site, etched with the words “America’s Unknown Child” and an image of a little lamb.
Year after year, on Nov. 9 — the anniversary of his interment — those who cared for the boy gather at the site. Some leave little trinkets and toys, others place flowers. In 2019, a group of Eagle Scouts collected enough money to erect a historical marker on the street where the boy was found.
The boy now has a name, but two questions remain: Will the headstone and marker be replaced?
And, most importantly, what happened to Joseph?