December 13, 2022
Warning: The following post contains details of the abuse and murder of a child. Reader discretion is advised.
On 27 Feb 1957, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article titled: "Beaten boy’s body found in box," detailing the discovery of a murdered child found in a large cardboard box in the Fox Chase area of Northeast Philadelphia.
The large, corrugated box had indications that it was used in furniture shipping, but did not bear any clues as to its origin. The victim was naked, wrapped in a plaid blanket described as faded and ripped into halves, and was laid flat on his back with his face up.
Later reports would reveal that the box was a JC Penney bassinet box.
Around thirty feet from the victim, police discovered what they said to be “an Ivy League style plaid cap.”
A huge search of the area was performed, resulting in the discovery of a man’s handkerchief with an embroidered letter G and a child’s scarf.
The article detailed the driver’s discovery of the boy in a box found in brush off of Susquehanna Road, close to Verree Road. Frederick Benonis, a LaSalle College junior, was driving along Susquehanna Road when he saw a rabbit dart in front of his vehicle and pulled over to chase it. The rabbit disappeared into the undergrowth and Benonis lost sight of it, but noticed some unset muskrat traps in the vicinity, which he then set, to see if he would catch anything. While there, he noticed the large cardboard box, and approached it to look inside. He told police that at first, he thought he was looking at a toy doll in a box that someone had thrown away, and actually left the scene.
It wasn’t until the next day, when he returned to check the musk rat traps sometime after 10am, that he made the horrifying realisation that what he had first believed to be a doll, was actually a murdered child, and quickly contacted the police to report the grisly finding.
The article described the victim as male, between 4 - 6 years old, writing that the child had been "apparently molested and brutally beaten by a sadist."
The victim was heavily bruised, with large concentrations of bruising to the head and limbs, as well as scars and scratches to his body, including surgical scars on his ankle and groin. It was obvious to officers that the child had likely died due to blunt force trauma to the head and an autopsy would later confirm this to be the cause of death. It was also later revealed that he was severely malnourished.
Because of the location of the victim’s body, investigators determined that the killer likely murdered the child in a different area and transported the victim by vehicle to the area where they callously dumped the body.
It was determined that the child had been dead for around two to three days before the body was found.
The victim weighed around 30lbs, had blue eyes, and although covered in abrasions and scars, had been washed and his fingernails trimmed.
He had dark hair in what was described as "crudely cut in a crew style." Because of the nature of the haircut, detectives believed it likely that the child belonged to an orphanage or institution. They contacted various orphanages in the area to enquire about any missing children, however, none of the institutions were missing any child of that description. A message containing the description of the child was delivered to forty-eight states over a teletype system and phone calls were made to more rural communities in the vicinity, but none could place the missing child.
Some reports state that the victim’s hair may have been cut post-mortem, as cut hair was found stuck to his skin.
Although Frederick Benonis was never considered a suspect, he voluntarily took a lie detector test to clear his name, which he passed.
The following month, on March 13, 1957, The Gettysburg Times published an article detailing the police search for a 36-year-old roofer named Charles Speece, of Lancaster PA, and his 8-year-old son, who had disappeared from a boarding house in Camden, N.J, a couple of days before the body of the boy in the box was discovered. After residents reported their disappearance to the authorities, police theorized that the slain child may have been Speece's son, however, both father and child were confirmed to be alive and well, with Speece explaining that his work as a roofer often saw him and his son moving from place to place for work. His estranged wife also confirmed that the victim was not her son.
Police never stopped searching for the child’s identity and over the years there have been various theories attributed to the case, including that the unidentified victim could have possibly been a Hungarian refugee, or a victim of kidnapping.
In 2002, a woman referred to as "M" or "Martha", came forward to police and told them that she believed the boy in the box could be a child her mother had bought from his biological parents in the summer of 1954. Martha claimed that the child had been tortured physically and sexually by her mother for over two years, before he was violently beaten for vomiting his final meal. She described how the child had eaten baked beans as his last meal and died while having a bath later that evening. Although police were hesitant to believe the story, as Martha allegedly had mental health issues that made them cautious of her account, the coroner had detailed that the victims stomach contained baked beans and that his fingers appeared wrinkled, likely from being bathed. Martha said her mother cut the child’s hair to change his look, and forced Martha to go with her to the Fox Chase area to dispose of the body. Martha's story remained unverified, and neighbours said they had never seen a child at the home.
In more recent years police attempted to identify the child using DNA testing, however, samples obtained were insufficient.
The unidentified child was given the place holder name: “The Boy in the Box,” and lay unidentified in a cemetery for decades, with America’s unknown child, and Heavenly Father, bless this unknown boy, inscribed on his gravestones, until later last month, on November 30, 2022 , when at a press conference, Philadelphia Police announced that they could finally reveal the victims identity thanks to DNA testing.
A viable sample was obtained following an exhumation of the child’s body in 2019 , allowing investigators to create a DNA profile of the victim that aided them in tracing his relatives. At this point, both the victim’s parents had passed, however, he did have living siblings, who have not been named in the media to protect their privacy.
From there, this information was used to search both birth records and adoption records to reveal the victim’s identity.
Philadelphia police were finally able to announce the victim’s identity: Joseph Augustus Zarelli, born 13 January 1953, making him just four years old at the time of his brutal murder.
Joseph Zarelli has finally been identified; however, his killer still remains unidentified. Police say they will continue to investigate the case.
Capt. Jason Smith said of the killer: “We have our suspicions as to who may be responsible, but it would be irresponsible of me to share these suspicions as this remains an active and ongoing criminal investigation.”
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