Philly’s newly ID’d ‘Boy in the Box’ gets grave marker at 70

Jan 13, 2023, 5:44 PM
A  gravestone was unveiled for recently identified Joseph Augustus Zarelli at the Ivy Hill Cemetery...
A gravestone was unveiled for recently identified Joseph Augustus Zarelli at the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. Zarelli, who was killed in 1957 and long known as "America's Unknown Child." (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Patty Braxton grimaced as a priest led a few dozen mourners in prayer on a gray, drizzly Friday beside the grave of a small boy found dead in 1957 and long dubbed “America’s Unknown Child” or the “Boy in the Box.”

Her father, retired Philadelphia Detective Thomas Joseph Augustine, worked the high-profile cold case most of his career. The family lived down the street from the potter’s field where the boy was first buried, and placed flowers there on holidays.

But Augustine died in October, just six weeks before advances in DNA and online genealogy records would yield the child’s name. So Braxton, her sister and their families stood in his place Friday at Ivy Hill Cemetery as investigators who spent decades on the case unveiled a new gravestone bearing the boy’s name — Joseph Augustus Zarelli — on what would have been the battered child’s 70th birthday.

“In his heart, he knew he would never live to see the boy identified, and he didn’t, which is just crushing. But we’re so thankful to everybody who had a hand in bringing this to fruition, bringing it to an end,” said Braxton, 53, of San Jose, California.

With the mystery of the boy’s identity solved, police now hope to learn how he died, even if it’s too late to make an arrest. Both of the boy’s parents are dead, although he has living siblings, police said in announcing the slender 4-year-old’s identity last month.

The breakthrough joins a string of cold cases being reexamined and sometimes solved around the country in recent years, including the Golden State Killer, through the emerging field of genetic genealogy.

It’s a confluence of great detective work, cutting-edge science and the careful art of genealogical research, retired city detective William Fleisher said in his graveside remarks Friday.

The revelations, and the truths they tell, can be hard to hear, especially for those learning of long-buried family secrets. The boy’s paternal relatives on the Zarelli side have mostly declined to speak to the press as they grapple with news of their link to one of the city’s most troubling homicides. Police have not yet identified the child’s mother or said who was raising him.

But the clues they disclosed at the press conference last month have thousands of online sleuths in a frenzy trying to unravel Joseph’s life and lineage.

His naked, badly bruised body was found on Feb. 25, 1957, in a wooded area of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood. He had been wrapped in a blanket and placed inside a large JCPenney bassinet box. Police say he was malnourished and had been beaten to death.

Fleisher believes the rest of his story, and our shared history as a society, should be revealed, no matter the pain involved.

“We’re humans, and humans have evolved, in this country and other places, on bumpy roads. It hasn’t always been pretty, but we continue to evolve and hopefully become more civilized,” said Fleisher, who has poured years into the case since his 1996 retirement as a member of the Vidocq Society, a group of retired investigators devoted to cold cases.

“You have to know history and understand history to do better now,” said Fleisher, who recited a Jewish prayer for the boy during the short service as his own small grandsons squirmed nearby.

Joseph’s photo had been put on posters in the late 1950s, and inserted into utility bills, as police worked to identify him and catch his killer. But the answers eluded them.

“It is a big part of our city’s history, a big part of the Philadelphia Police Department’s history. It was the country’s history,” he said. “Everybody knew about this case. So this is everybody’s victory.”

Police now believe the boy lived in West Philadelphia, miles across town from where his body was found.

“My mother and my uncle grew up with his grandparents (in West Philadelphia), a few blocks from the Zarellis. When I was a cop, I patrolled that neighborhood,” Fleisher said. “The coincidences are unbelievable.”

Augustine’s daughters likewise marvel at the similarities between the boy’s name and their father’s. Perhaps they got together in heaven and decided “to finish this out together,” they said.

“This has been our whole lives, with this boy, our whole entire lives, since we were children,” said Kim Augustine, 56, Braxton’s sister.

“We played softball next to the potter’s field where he was buried and we would visit him on the holidays, with flowers and prayers,” she said. “He’s never been forgotten.”


Follow Maryclaire Dale on Twitter at

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 18: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks during the United States Conf...
Allison Gordon and Pamela Brown

Surgeon General says 13 is ‘too early’ to join social media

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says he believes 13 is too young for children to be on social media platforms.
20 hours ago
Saginaw Police K9 Cigan sits behind a table with evidence found inside a stolen car. (WNEM)...
Anna Kathman

Stolen vehicle, multiple drugs located by Michigan K9 officer

Saginaw Police said two suspects are behind bars after a stolen vehicle was located during a traffic stop by a K9 officer.
20 hours ago
A 29-year old woman has been arrested after allegedly posing as a teenager and attending classes at...
Kiely Westhoff and Zoe Sottile, CNN

29-year-old woman posed as high school teen facing charges in New Jersey, police say

A 29-year-old New Jersey woman is facing charges over claims she used false government documents in a ploy to pose as a teenager at a high school, according to police.
20 hours ago
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago on November ...
Meg Kinnard and Michelle L. Price

Trump says beating of Nichols ‘never should have happened’

Former President Donald Trump says the footage of the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers is “horrible” and that the attack “never should have happened.”
2 days ago
One the of climbers in the training camp climbing a wall. (KSL-TV's Alex Cabrero)...
Alex Cabrero

USA Climbing Camp for Paris 2024 begins in Salt Lake City

As the Summer 2024 Olympic Games draws closer, those athletes looking to participate begin their training. 
2 days ago
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 7:  Police investigate the scene of a reported carjacking reportedly...
Adrian Sainz

Memphis police disband unit that fatally beat Tyre Nichols

The Memphis Police Department has disbanded the special unit whose officers beat to death motorist Tyre Nichols
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t Let a Ransomware Attack Get You Down | Protect Your Workplace Today with Cyber Insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Philly’s newly ID’d ‘Boy in the Box’ gets grave marker at 70