On a cold day in February 1957, a college student found a boy’s body inside a cardboard box in a wooded area of northeast Philadelphia.
The student waited a day to call the police, who immediately went to work to figure out who the boy was, who had killed him and how his body had ended up in a box. It was a mystery that would endure for decades.
The boy, then believed to be between 4 and 6 years old, had been beaten to death, an autopsy later revealed. But clues were scant, and copious efforts over decades to solve the crime proved futile. The unknown victim became known as “The Boy in the Box.” Others called him, more gently, “America’s Unknown Child.”
His name is now known: Joseph Augustus Zarelli. Born on Jan. 13, 1953, he was 4 when he died, Philadelphia police officials said Thursday, at a news conference where they described a breakthrough using DNA and genetic genealogy techniques that have revolutionized cold case work in recent years.
Capt. Jason Smith said officers did not yet know who killed the boy or how he had died, and that investigations would continue.
“We have our suspicions as to who may be responsible, but it would be irresponsible of me to share these suspicions as this remains an active an ongoing criminal investigation,” Captain Smith said.
The steps that ultimately led to Joseph’s identification began in April 2019, when a court granted investigators approval to exhume his body and apply modern DNA analysis. This helped them track down relatives, including his mother and father, who are now deceased, investigators said. He has living siblings, but the police declined to release their names, in order to protect their privacy.
The genetic genealogy technique worked where the use of hair comparisons, footprints, X-rays and other methods had failed over the years. At the news conference, law enforcement officials also pledged to use the genetic genealogy techniques for other unidentified remains and unsolved cases in Philadelphia.
In an interview for a story in 2007, Elmer Palmer, the first officer to arrive at the scene on Feb. 26, 1957, said he thought at the time that the case would be solved quickly. But many of the investigators who worked on the case over the years died themselves without seeing it solved, officials said Thursday.
The boy was believed to have been dead for a few days, and was believed to be malnourished, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
He was unclothed, and had been wrapped in a flannel blanket, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. His hair had been recently “cut in a way that suggested it was not the work of a skilled barber,” and his fingernails had been trimmed, according to the national system.
“It looked like a doll,” Mr. Palmer said in an interview with The New York Times in 2006. “Then I saw it wasn’t a doll.”
Because cold weather slows the decomposition of bodies, officials could not determine exactly how long the boy had been dead, and the few clues the police had at the time were fruitless.
The college student who waited a day to call the police was presumably frightened. He confided in a priest before calling the authorities.
A man’s corduroy cap was found near the body’s body. The cap was traced to a local store. The store’s owner recognized a strap on the cap, and she recalled that a man with the cap came into her store by himself. But the man was never found.
The police also traced the cardboard box the boy was found in to a different store nearby. The box, marked “Furniture, Fragile, Do not Open with Knife,” had originally contained a bassinet, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Despite the store’s cash-only policy, investigators were able to track down the buyer, but there was no link to the boy.
The police checked out orphanages and other child-care institutions, local doctors and hospitals. They placed pictures of the boy in newspapers and sent out photos with utility bills. Posters with his image were hung on storefronts.
Eventually the clues about the boy’s killer ran out. But the theories about his identity persisted.
One theory was that he was a Hungarian refugee who came to the United States after the country’s revolution in 1956. Some believed he could have been the son of carnival workers who had several children die under strange circumstances. Others thought he was the son of a roofer who worked in the area.
But the theories did not pan out. Eventually the boy’s body was buried, only to be exhumed to obtain D.N.A. and reburied.