Special Report: Joseph Augustus Zarelli (f/k/a The Boy in the Box)

A decorative image with a black background, blue and green flowers on the left that says The Mission Within Special Report.

[Note: This post talks about crimes against children. While there won’t be photos in the post, there’ll be links that contain photos of an abuse victim’s injuries. If this is something you’re not in the headspace to hear about, I encourage you to give this post a miss, and go check out some of my other stuff. That said, if you decide to move forward w/ this post and it brings up difficult feelings for you, I encourage you to reach out to the ppl at the Crisis Text Line. As always, if you witness, have knowledge of, or even suspect a crime against children is happening, call your local social services agency number, or reach out to Childhelp. For those of you in the U.K., reach out to Childline. If whoever you reach out to won’t listen and makes it clear they don’t give a rat’s ass, find someone else. Also, call 911 or your area’s equivalent if they’re in imminent danger.]

It was February 25th, 1957. World War II had ended just over 10 years earlier, and many military personnel on the front lines who made it back home had gone back to school on the GI Bill. The war in Korea was going on, and TV was gaining popularity. In the music world, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Motown, and the girl groups were where it was at. It was also a time where the first wave of the Civil Rights Movement had gained traction, and while many out there held prejudiced and racist worldviews, there were many others who didn’t think like that.

It was the height of winter in the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Snow covered the ground for miles around. Off the side of Susquehanna Road was a wooded area, turned into an illegal dumping ground where neighborhood residents would take trash and leave it there. One night, a local came by the dumping ground to check on some muskrat traps he set up, which was apparently a no-no. He saw the large box and saw something in it that seemed off.

Out of fear of getting busted for the muskrat traps, he said nothing when he saw something. A few days later, someone else passed by after seeing a rabbit run across the road, and he decided to check it out. He saw the box, saw what was in it, and came forward the next day.

It was a young boy, found wrapped up in a blanket. He had so many bruises and injuries, and there was no way they came from falls or kid games. This boy had a recognizable face, but nobody came forward to claim him. The detectives working the investigation came up w/ the idea to make fliers w/ the boy’s pictures from the medical examiner, and bomb the neighborhoods in the hopes that someone would come forward to ID him and claim him.

That never happened. The detectives then came up w/ the idea to dress the boy in the fashion trends of the time, and take photos hoping this may help someone recognize him. No luck once again.

One of the detectives even reached out to a psychic to get some answers, anything. Regardless of my own personal feelings toward psychics, I’ll say that the detective went off of what they understood to be true at the time, and I understand their need for any kind of answers and closure.

The boy’s identity remained unknown, and the detectives sent him to his final resting place in a pauper’s grave. Years later, he was reburied in a different cemetery, w/ a headstone that reads “America’s Unknown Child.” Neighborhood residents and tourists leave decorations at the boy’s gravesite, even now.

There were theories about the boy’s life, and theories about what happened to him. There were many leads over the years, but none panned out. America’s Most Wanted profiled him, and while it garnered some new leads, they ended up going nowhere at the end of the day.

A woman known as “M” or “Martha” came forward in early 2002, and while some of the allegations she made in the lead she had matched up w/ what law enforcement knew at the time, they were neither able to confirm or disprove her story. I’ve also seen mention of Martha’s history of struggling w/ mental health issues, and that this likely played a role in her lead still being up in the air.

Martha, if you’re out there, and if you’re still alive, I hear you, and I’m so sorry for what you went through.

There was also a theory involving a foster family in the area, but everyone from there was accounted for.

Over the years, the Vidocq Society helped out w/ the case, made up of retired law enforcement personnel who dedicated their lives to working cold cases. The Boy in the Box was among them. As the Internet became a hot and happening thing, a website dedicated to The Boy in the Box, w/ all information made available to us members of the general public went live. In the late 1990s, the boy’s remains were exhumed for DNA sampling, but all they were able to get was mitochondrial DNA and largely unusable, beyond ruling someone else out who matched the boy’s description and went missing around the same time.

Or so they thought. Technology hadn’t quite caught up w/ the times, so over 20 years later, the authorities exhumed the boy’s remains again in 2019 for more DNA sampling. According to the Wikipedia article, there was speculation about the boy’s identity in 2021.

Until December 2022. Authorities officially put that speculation to bed, and released his identity to the world. Genetic genealogy identified the boy’s surviving relatives, who remain unnamed out of respect for them. It also gave him his name back, Joseph Augustus Zarelli. Joseph was born in 1953, which matched up w/ the earlier end of medical examiner’s estimated age range.

According to this post, extracting usable DNA from Joseph’s remains was difficult due to the amount of time that’s passed since his death, even w/ all the advancements in technology that have happened since 1998. However, they were able to piece together a DNA profile, and go from there.

There is indeed speculation going on about Joseph’s birth parents, and what has been confirmed is that they weren’t married at the time he came onto the scene. At that time, society here in the U.S. attached a stigma toward births that resulted from unions outside a marriage, whether it was a consensual union or not. It’s a very sad and shitty statement about society back then that it even mattered whether a child was born out of wedlock or not.

I’m hoping times have changed since then, by and large.

Back in college, when the Internet came to my house, I went down the rabbit hole about the boy now known as Joseph Augustus Zarelli, this story has stayed w/ me ever since. I remember seeing an episode of Cold Case, loosely based on the case. In the fictionalized version, it turns out that the boy, named Arnold Culliver, had been living in a religious-run orphanage. The story was set in 1958, a year after Joseph’s murder.

In short, what was an unidentified child case has now become an active murder investigation. There’s a strong possibility the perpetrators who subjected Joseph to heinous acts of abuse are still alive, and if not, there’s a chance their enablers are still alive and could be charged as accessories. If you know anything at all about what happened to Joseph, or if you know of someone who knows something, do the right thing and come forward. It’s still not too late to hold Joseph’s abusers accountable for their actions.

Over to you, readers. Have you heard the story of The Boy in the Box, now known as Joseph Augustus Zarelli? Did it stick w/ you the way it stuck w/ me? I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways, so drop it all like it’s hot, and let’s talk.

Liked this? Then check these out!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: This content is protected and copyrighted.