The discovery of the “Boy in the Box” in 1957 remains one of Philadelphia’s most infamous unsolved mysteries. This young boy’s body was found naked, beaten, and wrapped in a flannel blanket inside a JC Penney box, hidden in the underbrush.
For decades, despite thousands of leads, the boy’s identity remained unknown, and the case went cold. However, through a combination of genetic genealogy and traditional detective work, the boy has finally been identified as Joseph Augustus Zarelli.
The story of the “Boy in the Box” began on February 23, 1957, when a student from La Salle College was in the area hoping to glimpse girls enrolled at Sisters of Good Shepard, a home for wayward youths. Instead, the student discovered a box in the underbrush that contained the body of a young boy. The police were called, and upon arrival, they found the boy’s body between the ages of four and six years old, inside the JC Penney box.
The investigators found the boy had sandy hair that had been crude and recently cut, which led some to believe that his killer had attempted to disguise his identity. The investigators also discovered scars on the boy’s ankle, foot, and groin that appeared to be surgical, suggesting he had undergone surgery. His feet and right hand were also “pruny,” showing he had been in water.
Despite these clues, extensive facial reconstruction, and the distribution of hundreds of thousands of fliers across Pennsylvania, the boy’s identity remained unknown for decades. They pursued numerous leads to identify the boy, a Hungarian refugee child, a kidnap victim from around 1955, and even related to local carnival workers. Of all the leads pursued, two seemed especially promising.
In 1960, an employee of the medical examiner’s office named Remington Bristow spoke to a psychic who led him to a local foster home. While attending an estate sale at the foster home, Bristow noticed a bassinet resembling a JC Penney model, and blankets also were like the ones wrapped around the dead boy. He theorized the boy had been the child of the owner’s stepdaughter, an unwed mother.
Forty years later, in 2002, a woman identified as “M” claimed that her abusive mother had purchased the boy from another family in 1954. “M” claimed that his name was “Jonathan,” and that he’d been physically and sexually abused by her mother. “M” also claimed she saw her mother beat him to death in a fit of rage after the child vomited up baked beans one night.
While this story seemed credible, the police could not substantiate it. Thus, the boy remained unidentified until December 2022 when the Philadelphia Police Department announced that they had finally identified the “Boy in the Box” as Joseph Augustus Zarelli.
Commissioner Danielle Outlaw made the announcement on December 8, 2022, noting that Zarelli was identified through genetic genealogy. The investigators uploaded Zarelli’s DNA to genetic databases, which led them to relatives on his mother’s side. They could also identify his father after poring through birth records. The investigators found Zarelli was born on Jan. 13, 1953, meaning that he was four years old when his body was found.
While Zarelli’s identity has finally been revealed, many questions about his life and death remain unanswered. The police are withholding the names of Zarelli’s parents out of respect for his living siblings, and they refused to speculate on who killed Zarelli. However, they noted that they have their suspicions, and the investigation remains open.