ON a cold day in February 1957 a box was found by the side of Susquehanna Road, in the Fox Chase area, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania…Inside were the remains of a small boy. He remained unidentified for 65 years…In a world where true crime draws audiences by the millions, the tragic story of an unidentified boy still brings sorrow and empathy to our hearts. Warning graphic photos
The boy was found in a sparsely wooded area, home to rabbits and muskrats. The road was empty of civilization save one building. It was a religious compound called The Good Shepherd School for Wayward Girls. The school was set back from the road and on the other side of the road, it was used by residents as a dumping ground. A bassinet box with a small body inside might go unnoticed. Except two people in a day found the box. One was a trapper of the small animals that lived in the area. He did not report it for fear of his traps being confiscated. The second, on February 24, 1957 was a college student Frederick Benonis. He noticed the box had writing on it that said, “Furniture, Fragile, do not open with a knife” The man saw there was a small body in the box, he did not initially report it.
Benonis did not report it because he often went up that road, and stalked the girls at the school, but that night there was a story about a missing 4-year-old girl named Mary Barker. So Benonis told his priest who advised him to call the police. That is how America’s unknown child was found. It was February 25, 1957 when the small child was brought to the attention of the police. Mary Barker was found trapped and deceased in a hall closet, so now who was the boy in the box?
He had brownish hair with a shabby buzz cut. There were clumps of his hair in the box with him. It appeared his hair was cut after he died. His toes and fingernails were recently clipped. His body was clean, his toes and fingers were wrinkled, suggesting he had been in the water. There was a blue men’s cap in the box with the blanket wrapped around his body. Farther away from the scene was a tan scarf and yellow shirt in a size that would have fit him. Though it was not determined they were his.
The cause of his death was blunt force trauma to his head and neck. He had been beaten to death, there were bruises on his face, arms, and legs. The coroner determined the wounds were all inflicted at the same time. He was 3’4” tall and about 30 lbs. It was determined his hair was cut after his death to possibly conceal his identity. He was malnourished and appeared to suffer from neglect and abuse. After the autopsy it was discovered that he had surgical procedures besides his injuries:
- A cut down scar, used by doctors to insert a cannula. A cannula is a thin tube used to insert medicine, or to do an infusion. It is an emergency procedure. There were scars on his chest and his groin area, they were evidence of a medical procedure. He had other scars, but they were more injurious. All were healed. That is except the blows to his body that took his life.
- One of his eyes glowed a blue color, like a dye had been put into it. It was used to determine injury to the retina. They hoped he may have seen an ophthalmologist and if they could identify the doctor, they could identify him.
It was determined he was 4-6 years old. He was malnourished and was not vaccinated for smallpox. It would have been common at that time. He had not eaten for hours before he died, but a brownish liquid was in his throat, like he was vomiting it up. He had no broken bones.
The police put up posters with pictures of his face at death, looking for clues and even dressed him up deceased for photographs to help identify him. He was never identified. In 1998 he was exhumed to retrieve DNA in hopes of identifying him. He was given a more proper burial, and the police that worked on his case provided him with a headstone and buried him in Ivy Hill Cemetery. He was not just famous in Philadelphia but in the whole nation and they called him “America’s unknown child”. He is still buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery.
There was an eyewitness who drove down Susquehanna Rd. on February 24. A motorist saw a woman and a boy standing at the back of a car digging in the trunk. He thought they might have car trouble and slowed down; he asked if they needed help. The two stopped what they were doing, turned around by the trunk and covered the license plate with their bodies and said nothing…They just stood there. The man eventually just left them there. When he told the police where it happened, it was 200 feet from where the body was found.
There were a few theories as to how he came to Susquehanna Road, but one of the most eerie and seemingly accurate was revealed by a young woman known only as M for Martha or Mary. A psychiatrist from Cincinnati, Ohio contacted the Philadelphia police and said one of his clients knew of the boy. She had suffered much trauma as a child and did not want to come forward…
Eventually she did and told this story:
Her mother was an abusive woman and had bought the boy from a man in 1954. He was known as Johnathon to M. He was at that time very young. He was mentally handicapped and could not speak or take care of himself. The mother abused him both physically and sexually. The boy became sicker. He lived in the basement of their house for two years and did not see anyone else but the family. His hair grew long from lack of care, and he was malnourished.
She said her mother killed him out of anger as she fed him baked beans and he vomited them up. She hit his head against a wall as punishment. She tried to bathe him, and he died in the bathtub from the abuse. She cut his hair, and nails and took him out to an area known as Fox Chase to get rid of the body. As they were on the road a passing car asked them if they had car trouble as they were getting him out of the trunk. M was with her mother while disposing of the body. They found a cardboard box and put his body into the box.
It is believed this story is the correct origin of the boy in the box. It matched so many details of the boy as determined by the autopsy…M stopped talking to police after that. America’s unknown child remained that until 2022. Through DNA genetic family testing, both now deceased parents were identified.
Betsy was a pretty teen-age Catholic girl who loved dancing to Frank Sinatra records in her Tioga neighborhood in the 1950s. She graduated in 1950 and shortly after gave birth to a baby girl. Because she was unmarried the baby was put up for adoption. It is thought a Catholic organization arranged it. I found it interesting that the school across the road was a Catholic organization…Betsy would eventually go on to marry the manager John J. Plunkett of the famous Goldman Theater in Philadelphia, but before that she would meet Gus.
In the spring of 1952 Betsy met Gus. Gus was the child of Italian immigrants, a stone mason in West Philly. When Elizabeth Mary (Betsy)Abel and Augustus (Gus) Zarelli got together, they had a baby named Joseph Augustus Zarelli on January 23, 1953. He would gone to become famous because of his death. Since it was the second baby for Betsy it was thought maybe she put Joseph up for adoption too. From the journey his life took, I would say something else happened to Joseph. By February 25, 1957 Joseph Zarelli’s small lifeless body was found by the side of the road in the Fox Chase area of Philadelphia.
In her obituary in 1991 it shows she had three living children…Barbara Ferrigno, Robert, and Kathleen Plunkett. Gus was five years older than Betsy and did not marry until 1960 to Cynthia Pashko and went on to have 4 additional living children and he passed away in 2014. It was family DNA in 2022 that identified that the remains of Joseph Augustus Zarelli was in fact, America’s unknown child.
Photo 4- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Joseph_Augustus_Zarelli
- Mullins, Natasha, (2021), Decades after he was found there is still hope for American’s unknown child, com, https://medium.com/the-mystery-box/decades-after-he-was-found-there-is-still-hope-for-americas-unknown-child-678ce17ff7ec#
- Nark, Jason, Ruderman, Wendy, Marin, Max, The biological parents of the boy in the box Josephy Augustus Zarelli, com, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/the-biological-parents-of-the-boy-in-the-box-joseph-augustus-zarelli-have-finally-been-identified/ar-AA16HuXa
- Obituaries courtesy of Ancestry.com, and Newspapers.com