The Story Of 'The Boy In The Box,' Who Was Finally Identified After 65 Years

In February 1957, law enforcement discovered something that shocked Philadelphia: the battered body of a young boy, who had been stuffed inside a cardboard box and dumped by the side of a road just outside the city. When Philadelphia police found the body after a local college student called in a tip, they had no idea it was just the beginning of a mystery that would remain unsolved for 65 years.

In December 2022, Philadelphia police announced they had finally identified the "Boy in the Box” as Joseph Augustus Zarelli. They also informed the public that while Zarelli's killer may have died long ago, the criminal investigation is far from over.

  • In February 1957, A Young Boy Was Found Beaten To Death And Stuffed In A Box

    On February 25, 1957, police discovered a cardboard box that had been dumped off the side of a country road near Philadelphia, PA. Inside the box, which had once contained a bassinet purchased from J.C. Penney, officers found the nude body of a young boy, partially wrapped in an inexpensive flannel blanket.

    The child's body was covered in bruises, and a medical examiner later concluded the boy had died after sustaining multiple blows to the head. Detectives unsuccessfully tried to identify the child, whom the media eventually named "the Boy in the Box” and “America's Unknown Child.”

  • Someone Had Chopped Off The Boy's Hair

    Investigators surmised someone had cut off most of the child's light brown hair around the time of his death. When they discovered the boy, tufts of his own hair were stuck to his body; however, according to the medical examiner, the person who cut the boy's hair had done so in a rushed and haphazard manner.

    Reportedly, there were four distinct bruises on the child's forehead, as well as signs of a cerebral hemorrhage. Law enforcement then theorized the cause of death may have been accidental. Whoever trimmed his hair with clippers could have inadvertently applied too much pressure while holding the child's head in place.

    A Philadelphia barber came forward soon after to say he was certain he'd cut the child's hair approximately one week prior to police finding the boy. The barber maintained the boy had come into his shop with his older brother and left unharmed. The barber then directed authorities to the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood near Fairmount Park, which was where he claimed the boy lived. Investigators followed the lead but made no further discoveries.

  • The Boy Was Extremely Malnourished When He Died

    Doctors who examined the unidentified boy discovered many signs of prolonged abuse. With the help of X-rays, a doctor determined the child had probably been between 3 and 5 years old when he died, but he weighed just 30 pounds and stood at only 40.5 inches tall. According to a medical examiner, the boy had the body of a child who was just over 2 years old, and the X-rays showed evidence of "arrested growth."

    The child's body was covered in bruises, his lips were dry and bloody, and he was so emaciated, his ribs showed through his skin. Examiners also found evidence the child may have had an eye infection that was treated with medication prior to his death.

    The medical examiner was unable to pinpoint his exact time of death, saying it could have occurred days or weeks before the discovery.

  • The Person Who Found The Boy's Body Waited A Day To Contact Police

    While police didn't discover the boy until February 25, 1957, Frederick Benonis reportedly found the boy’s body the day before. Benonis, a 27-year-old student at LaSalle College, told law enforcement he came across the boy when he was chasing a rabbit, but he didn't contact the authorities because he thought the body was a doll.

    The college student said he decided to call police the next day when he learned a New Jersey child, who later proved not to be the Boy in the Box, had gone missing.

    Investigators eventually learned Benonis hadn't reported discovering the body because he had been spying on girls at a nearby school, not chasing a rabbit as he'd initially claimed.

  • Philadelphia Officials Went To Great Lengths To Try To Identify The Boy

    After law enforcement discovered the Boy in the Box, they assumed someone would come forward to provide the police with the child's identity; however, when no one contacted the authorities to offer the boy's name, Philadelphia officials used a variety of different methods to try to uncover the boy's identity.

    Philadelphia authorities created a poster featuring the boy's face, as well as details about the child's physical appearance and the items found near his body. They disseminated copies of the flyer all over Philadelphia and handed them to people on the street. Officials even included a flyer about the Boy in the Box in every gas bill the city mailed to residents.

    While the poster resulted in many tips, it didn't help police discover the child's identity.

  • Police Thought The Boy Was A Child Who Was Kidnapped Two Years Earlier

    On October 31, 1955, less than two years before Philadelphia police discovered the Boy in the Box, an unknown perpetrator abducted a 2-year-old boy named Steven Craig Dammanon from a grocery store in East Meadow, NY. When authorities found the Boy in the Box, people questioned whether he was actually Damman because of their similar ages and physical characteristics.

    Investigators followed up on this lead, only to learn Damman had broken his arm prior to his disappearance, while the Boy in the Box didn't appear to have suffered the same fracture. In addition, their footprints didn't match, leading examiners to conclude the Boy in the Box most likely wasn't Damman.

    In 2003, law enforcement compared DNA taken from the Boy in the Box with biological evidence collected from Damman's sister, and they confirmed there was no link between the two children.