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‘The Boy in the Box’ now has a name, police reveal 65 years later

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw departs after a news conference. Nearly 66 years after the battered body of a young boy was found stuffed inside a cardboard box, Philadelphia police have revealed the identity of the victim in one of the city's most notorious cold cases. (Matt Rourke/AP)
5 min

Dave Drysdale stood silently as investigators carried a small white casket toward the grave.

It was a fall day in 1998 when the Pennsylvania cemetery manager watched as the casket was laid beside a new headstone, inscribed with “America’s Unknown Child,” for what would be the final resting place of a boy found dead in a cardboard box in 1957.

“I just hope that we’re all here one day to see his name put on the stone,” he recalled an investigator saying to him after the service.

For more than two decades since, Drysdale has walked past the grave every day on the way to his office, wondering who the boy was.

Now, he knows.

Sixty-five years after the boy was first found naked and bruised on the side of a Philadelphia road, police on Thursday identified him as Joseph Augustus Zarelli. His body was exhumed from the Ivy Hill cemetery in 2019 so DNA samples could go through modern genealogical testing, which ultimately led to the discovery of his birth certificate, officials said. Joseph would have been 4 years old when he was found dead.

The name of Philadelphia’s “Boy in the Box” is another clue in a mystery many have wondered about for decades. Many of the case’s original detectives died without ever knowing it, leaving those in the community and beyond thinking there might never be an update in the child’s case.

“But as you can see, his story was never forgotten,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a news conference Thursday.

Police are still investigating Joseph’s death as a homicide. His cause of death was “more than likely” blunt force trauma, said Jason Smith, commanding officer of the Philadelphia police homicide unit.

Officials did not reveal the identities of Joseph’s parents, who they said have died, or of any suspects. Joseph has living siblings, but they also were not named.

“Joseph has a number of siblings on both the mother and father’s side who are living, and it is out of respect for them that their parents’ information remain confidential,” Smith said.

Philadelphia police found Joseph’s remains on Feb. 25, 1957, after a man saw the box in the woods near a road in the northeast part of the city. The child had blue eyes and brown hair that had been cut close to his scalp and was so malnourished that authorities could not determine his exact age.

After an autopsy, Joseph was buried for the first time at a potter’s field in the city. His plot was the only one with a headstone, which read: “Heavenly Father, bless this unknown boy.”

In October 1998, police received court permission to exhume his body and retrieve DNA samples. But the testing that followed — and the hundreds of tips that came from across the country — led nowhere.

Joseph was reburied at Ivy Hill at the request of Philadelphia police and the Vidocq Society, a group of experts that works on cold cases. The cemetery gave the boy a plot right by its entrance, Drysdale said.

Every February since, he’s seen case detectives come back to the grave on the same date the boy was found. Strangers from other states also would pay their respects, leaving toys and flowers next to the “America’s Unknown Child” headstone.

And when the flowers wilted or the wind blew over the toys, Drysdale and Ivy Hill staff tidied the gravesite, always glancing at the inscription, a haunting reminder of the case’s missing pieces.

“For a boy who was unknown, there’s a lot of love that surrounds him,” Drysdale told The Washington Post in an interview last week.

In April 2019, the court gave permission to again exhume Joseph’s body in the hopes of recovering more DNA, officials said Thursday.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, founder of the genetic genealogy group Identifinders International, said it took 2½ years to “get the DNA in shape, it was so bad.”

The genealogical testing results led police to the identity of Joseph’s maternal relatives, including his birth mother, and a court order was issued for the birth, death and adoption records of her children between 1944 and 1956. Three birth certificates came back.

Two of them were for children of the birth mother whom police already knew about from the genealogical testing — one of whom had provided DNA and been matched as a relative of the boy in the investigation, officials said.

The third was for a boy named Joseph, born Jan. 13, 1953. Based on the birth father listed on the certificate, detectives found Joseph’s paternal relatives and matched DNA to his birth father’s side of the family as well.

After all of the new genetic evidence was presented to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, Joseph’s death certificate was amended from unknown child No. 57-0863 to his full name.

Drysdale first learned that Philadelphia police had found the name on Nov. 30, when reporters came to Ivy Hill to tell the staff there would be an announcement the following week.

He walked outside and stopped beside the headstone, saying to himself: “Finally, we’re going to know who you are.”

Soon, the headstone will read Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

“We can mark all our records that we now have a name for the young man,” Drysdale said.