The Grave of America's Unknown Child: Joseph Augustus Zarelli – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura

AO Edited

The Grave of America's Unknown Child: Joseph Augustus Zarelli

A tragic mystery left this boy nameless for 65 years. 


On February 25, 1957, the deceased body of a young boy was found in a wooded area of a small Philadelphia neighborhood. The child was found in a cardboard box, severely beaten and malnourished, unclothed and wrapped in a blanket. He was estimated to be between the ages of four and six. Blunt force trauma was presumed to be the cause of death.

Sadly, nobody ever claimed the child. And despite countless tips and leads being called in to law enforcement following the discovery, the identity of the boy and what happened to him remained a mystery.

In 1998, the child’s body was exhumed and a postmortem examination was performed. Sadly, this yielded no leads in the investigation. The boy was then laid to rest in Ivy Hill Cemetery beneath a headstone etched with the words “America’s Unknown Child.” 

While the boy was not ever claimed by an individual person, many people who were moved by his story stepped in and ensured that his gravesite would not sit vacant. The boy’s grave was continuously adorned with toys, flowers, stuffed animals, and trinkets from visitors. Cemetery workers reportedly held a soft spot in their hearts for the child, and they have always taken extra care to ensure the sanctity of his grave. Today, it is as vibrant as it has always been with visitors regularly stopping by to pay respect to the child.

In 2019, the child’s remains were once again exhumed in the hopes that modern forensic testing could advance the investigation. The results of this testing were uploaded to DNA databases which ultimately allowed detectives to uncover the identity of the boy’s birth parents. Finally, after 65 years, the boy’s name was uncovered: Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

In 2023, the boy received a new headstone with his name and face etched into the rock. While one aspect of this case has been solved, this is still an active homicide investigation, with the Philadelphia police relentlessly searching for the remaining missing answers.

Know Before You Go

Joseph's grave is located to the left of the front gates at Ivy Hill Cemetery. It is easy to spot, as it is perpetually overflowing with gifts and colorful flowers from caring visitors.

In partnership with KAYAK

Plan Your Trip

From Around the Web