On a gray, rainy Friday, a priest led a few dozen mourners in prayer next to the grave of a small boy found dead in 1957 and known for a long time as “America’s Unknown Child” or the “Boy in the Box.” Patty Braxton grimaced as the priest spoke.
Her father, retired Philadelphia detective Thomas Joseph Augustine, spent most of his career working on a high-profile cold case. The boy was first buried in a potter’s field, which was across the street from where the family lived. On holidays, the family put flowers there.
But Augustine died in October, just six weeks before advances in DNA testing and online genealogy records revealed the name of the child. So, Braxton, her sister, and their families stood in his place Friday at Ivy Hill Cemetery as investigators who had been working on the case for decades unveiled a new gravestone with the boy’s name, Joseph Augustus Zarelli, on what would have been the boy’s 70th birthday.
“He knew in his heart that he wouldn’t live to find out who the boy was, and he didn’t. It’s so sad. But we’re so grateful to everyone who helped make this happen and bring it to an end “Braxton, who is 53 and from San Jose, California, said.
Police want to find out how the boy died, even if it’s too late to make an arrest. Now that they know who the boy was, they can do this. Police said last month that the skinny 4-year-old boy has siblings who are still alive, but that both of his parents have died.
In the past few years, the new field of genetic genealogy has helped reopen and sometimes solve a number of cold cases around the country, including the case of the Golden State Killer.
How the mystery of “The Boy in the Box” will help solve other crimes
William Fleisher, a retired city detective, said at a funeral on Friday that it was a combination of good detective work, cutting-edge science, and the careful art of genealogical research.
When family secrets have been kept hidden for a long time, it can be hard to hear the truths that are revealed. Most of the boy’s father’s relatives on the Zarelli side haven’t talked to the press about their connection to one of the most troubling murders in the city. Police haven’t said who the child’s mother was or who was taking care of him yet.
But the hints they gave at the press conference last month have made thousands of online detectives go crazy trying to figure out Joseph’s life and family tree.
On February 25, 1957, his naked and badly hurt body was found in a wooded area of Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighbourhood. He was wrapped in a blanket and put in a large bassinet box from JCPenney. Police say he had been beaten to death and was not getting enough food.
Fleisher thinks that the rest of his story and our collective history should be told, no matter how painful it might be.
“We’re people, and people in this country and elsewhere have grown and changed on bumpy roads. Even though it hasn’t always been pretty, we continue to change and hopefully get better “Fleisher has worked on the case for years since he retired in 1996. He is a member of the Vidocq Society, which is a group of retired investigators who work on cold cases.
“To do better now, you have to know and understand history,” Fleisher said as he recited a Jewish prayer for the boy during the short service while his own small grandsons wriggled around him.
In the late 1950s, police tried to find out who killed Joseph by putting his picture on posters and putting it on utility bills. But they couldn’t find the answers.
“It is an important part of the history of our city and the Philadelphia Police Department. It was the history of the country, “he said. “This case was talked about by everyone. So this is a win for everyone.”
Now, the police think that the boy lived in West Philadelphia, which is miles away from where his body was found.
“My mother and uncle grew up in West Philadelphia with his grandparents, just a few blocks away from the Zarellis. When I was a cop, I walked around that area “Fleisher said. “The coincidences are unbelievable.”
Augustine’s daughters are also amazed by how much the boy’s name sounds like their father’s. Maybe they all got together in heaven and said, “Let’s finish this together.”
Kim Augustine, Braxton’s sister, is 56 years old. She said, “This boy has been a part of our lives since we were kids.”
She said, “We played softball next to the potter’s field, where he was buried, and we would bring flowers and pray to him on holidays.” “He’s never been forgotten.”