Nearly 66 years after the battered body of a young boy was found stuffed inside a cardboard box, police in the US city of Philadelphia have named him as Joseph Augustus Zarelli.
The authorities hope it will bring them a step closer to the boy’s killer and give the victim — known to generations of Philadelphians as the “Boy in the Box” — a small measure of dignity.
The city’s oldest unsolved homicide has “haunted this community, the Philadelphia police department, our nation, and the world”, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a news conference.
“When people think about the boy in the box, a profound sadness is felt, not just because a child was murdered, but because his entire identity and his rightful claim to own his existence was taken away,” she said.
Police say detective work and DNA analysis helped them finally learn Joseph’s name. The homicide investigation remains open, and authorities said they hoped releasing Joseph’s name would spur a fresh round of leads.
Police said both of Joseph’s parents are dead, but he has living relatives.
The child’s naked, badly bruised body was found on February 25, 1957, in a wooded area of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood. The boy, who was four years old, had been wrapped in a blanket and placed inside a large JCPenney bassinet box. Police say he was malnourished. He had been beaten to death.
The boy’s photo was put on a poster put up all over the city as police worked to identify him and catch his killer.
Detectives pursued and discarded hundreds of leads — that he was a Hungarian refugee, a boy who had been kidnapped outside a Long Island supermarket in 1955, a variety of other missing children. They investigated a pair of travelling carnival workers and a family who operated a nearby foster home, but ruled them out as suspects.
An Ohio woman claimed her mother bought the boy from his birth parents in 1954, kept him in the basement of their suburban Philadelphia home, and killed him in a fit of rage. Authorities found her credible but could not corroborate her story.
DNA research has led to a breakthrough in the 65-year-old case of the 'Boy in the Box,' Philadelphia PD’s oldest unsolved murder — here’s the latest— NowThis (@nowthisnews) December 6, 2022
(warning: distressing themes) pic.twitter.com/Nj1aMAMZpE
Originally buried in a pauper’s grave, the boy’s remains now lie just inside the front gate at Ivy Hill Cemetery and a headstone designates him as “America’s Unknown Child”. Services have been held there each year on the anniversary of the boy’s discovery.
People often leave flowers and, this time of year, Christmas decorations and toys.
“The boy has always been special to all of us, because we don’t know who it is,” Dave Drysdale, the cemetery’s secretary-treasurer, said ahead of the news conference.
Now the boy’s name will be etched on the stone, Mr Drysdale said.