The following content contains disturbing accounts of violence. Discretion is advised.
The “Boy in the Box” would be around 70 years old if he were alive today. The world will never know how his life would have turned out, whether he would have lived an everyday life filled with family, work and community—or perhaps an extraordinary one highlighted by great contributions to society.
Instead the murdered boy remains a longstanding mystery 61 years after his still-unidentified body was found in a cardboard box in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The child, whose age was determined to be 3 to 7 years old, was discovered on February 25, 1957 naked, battered and alone.
No one came forward to provide his name. He was never reported missing.
Despite the decades, however, the case remains open with the hope that one day someone will figure out the identity of the young victim and what happened to him.
“I believe it would take an out-of-the-blue surprise to ever identify the boy and then, possibly, find out who killed him,” says David Stout, a former New York Times reporter and author of the 2008 book The Boy in the Box: The Unsolved Case Of America’s Unknown Child.
Stout tells A&E True Crime that DNA testing might be possible if such a revelation ever emerges, perhaps by way of an older person coming forward to say it was their own mother or father who killed him, or someone else who claims to be a long-lost relative of the child.
After weighing many possibilities during his research, Stout came up with what he believes is a plausible scenario:
The boy’s parents were poor and overlooked, perhaps carnival workers or migrant laborers who traveled “the back roads of life, literally and figuratively” and would have left little if any paper trail, he says.
“These people would have been in a constant state of anxiety and frustration,” he speculates. “One of the parents snaps; he or she slaps The Boy, hard, which makes him cry and whine more, so here’s another slap, even harder, and now The Boy is screaming, and the little baby is crying, and now the parent loses it entirely. Slap, slap, slap, until…”
Other sleuths have also devised theories of who could be the killer or in some way involved in the death, but so far those have turned up no credible leads in the mysterious death of the “America’s Unknown Child.” They include:
-The child was a victim of human trafficking who was purchased by a local couple to be used for sex, a premise that comes from a woman known by the pseudonym “Mary,” who claims to be the couple’s daughter and to have witnessed some of the horrors endured by the boy.
She reported that her mother beat the child to death as she was giving him a bath after he had thrown up a meal of baked beans. Mary then accompanied her mother to a remote spot, where the woman placed the boy in a cardboard box and left, she says.
-Frederick J. Benonis, who found the body and reported it to police, may have had some involvement. But the 26-year-old college student voluntarily took a lie detector test and was cleared.
-Arthur and Catherine Nicoletti may have had something to do with it. They ran a foster home near where the boy’s body was discovered. A medical examiner’s office investigator, Remington Bristow, working off a tip from a psychic, looked into the family and came to believe they were somehow involved, but no hard evidence ever emerged.
-A man who reported to the Philadelphia police department that his older half-brother had gone missing around the same time period had a valid tip. He said his sibling’s disappearance was a long-time family secret and that a hypothetical bust of the Boy in the Box’s father created by forensic sculptor Frank Bender looked like his own father, now dead. No connection was ever made.
One apparently newer line of investigation appears underway in the hunt for evidence to unlock vital clues. Amateur genealogy expert Barbara Rae-Venter, who helped crack the Golden State Killer case using DNA and genetic research, confirmed to The Mercury News in August 2018 that she is working on the “Boy in the Box” case.
Rae-Venter did not respond to requests for comment. A number of others also didn’t respond or declined to comment, including the Philadelphia Police Department and the Vidocq Society, a Philadelphia-based group of investigators working on cold homicide and other unsolved death cases, including the Boy in the Box.
It’s clear the Vidocq Society still wants answers. An “urgent” request from the organization seeks input from anyone who could hold pieces of the puzzle. The society is asking those aged 55 or older if they remember from the early 1950s a young boy possibly named Jonathan living in or within a 40-mile radius of Philadelphia. They also are hoping for tips from current or retired physicians who may have treated such a boy for a condition that would have left scars in the groin area and the ankles.
“Someone out there knows who this child was!,” the society said on their site.
“Could that ‘someone’ be you?”
At least for now, the mystery endures.
On February 26, 2022, community members held a memorial service to mark the 65-year-anniversary of the discovery of the unidentified boy’s remains.
On December 8, 2022, investigators announced that using DNA and genetic genealogy techniques, they discovered the boy’s name: Joseph Augustus Zarelli. The investigation around the circumstances around his death and who killed him is ongoing.
Cold Cases That Had Major Breaks in 2018
The Cold Case Murders That Keep Retired Detectives Up at Night
Phenotyping: How a DNA ‘Snapshot’ Can Create the Face of an Unknown Criminal
Citizen Detectives Uncover Crime Clues on Websleuths Online Forum