Betsy, as everyone called her, liked to skate and dance, and raved about Italian boys stylus-snapping Frank Sinatra records at their home in Tioga, Philadelphia, after World War II.
“She was a real beauty,” a close family member recalled this week.
Gus was a concrete and stone mason, a hard worker in a proud family of Italian immigrants in West Philly.
In the spring of 1952, Augustus J. “Gus” Zarelli and Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Abel gave birth to a child whose brief, painful life became one of Philadelphia’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Investigators now know, based on interviews with members of both families and sources close to the investigation, that police believe Zarelli and Abel are the parents of Joseph Augustus Zarelli, a child known for 65 years only as “The Boy.” in the box” is known. ”
Betsy was 21 years old when Joseph was born on January 13, 1953. Her close relative, who asked not to be identified, said she could have put him up for adoption because she had done that before with a daughter. The Inquirer could not confirm if anyone adopted Joseph.
A police spokesman declined to comment on the inquirer’s findings.
Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Abel graduated from Murrell Dobbins Career & Technical Education High School in North Philly in 1949 and, like most graduates at the time, was quickly promoted to adulthood. A few years after planning proms, she was dealing with a pregnancy. A daughter was born in 1950 and immediately put up for adoption. The relative believes that a Catholic organization took care of it.
Abel later became a cashier at the Goldman Theater, one of the large movie theaters in Center City on 15th Street. John J. Plunkett, a man her obituary said she would later marry, was her manager.
The relative, who is several years younger than Abel, does not remember her pregnancy at the time, but expressed doubts that she was involved in Joseph’s abuse or death.
“Betsy? No way in the world,” said the relative. “There was no cruelty, meanness, or cruelty that swelled in her heart and soul.”
Joseph’s body was discovered in February 1957 in a bassinet box in a weedy lot in Fox Chase, far from West Philly. Investigators said the child died of blunt force trauma and no one came forward to identify him for six decades.
On December 8, 2022, police first released the boy’s name, citing DNA evidence from both the paternal and maternal sides, along with a birth certificate that had slightly misspelled the father’s name. Police said at a news conference that the boy was around 61 and Market said they had “suspicions” about his final days but little else, and while they didn’t publicly name a parent, the Zarelli surname is uncommon in Philadelphia.
The media, together with internet detectives and genealogists, quickly discovered the small, close-knit family in the region. Gus Zarelli’s four children have not responded to repeated requests for comment, but on Thursday Dan Bush, a West Chester attorney representing them, said in a statement to the Inquirer that both Gus and his family are “in all sorts of… social media, implying the most horrific things, all of which are unfounded.”
“Each of his children has extraordinary sympathy for the death of this little boy and is appalled by the events that are being discussed,” Bush said in the statement. “However, until recently, they had never heard of it. They were never shown anything that would connect their father or any member of their family.”
The Inquirer confirmed that Gus Zarelli’s niece submitted DNA matching Joseph’s. Previously, Abel’s relatives had uploaded their DNA for genealogical research. Misty Gillis, a forensic genetic genealogist and cold case contact at Identifinders International, created Betsy’s extended family tree.
Finally, the police knocked on their doors to speak to their relatives.
Betsy’s close relative, who declined to be identified, said the Abel family only learned the investigation was into the boy in the box 48 hours before the press conference. Most of the questions, said this relative, centered on the five Abel sisters, including Betsy. Who was pregnant when? What connection, if any, did you have with West Philly?
“I was stunned,” said the relative. “I remembered the story. We used to get utility bills with his face on them and asked if anyone recognized him.”
According to Bush, the Zarellis have received “sparse” information from police and “are continuing to investigate whether Augustus John Zarelli is the father of this boy.”
“There has been no credible claim by anyone, including the Philadelphia Police Department, that their father knew of the birth of this child or had anything to do with the life of this child, and certainly nothing remotely suggesting that he knew of it.” knew or had anything to do with harm being done to that child,” the attorney said.
While police said Joseph lived in the area around 61st and Market Streets in West Philly, records show that the Zarelli family lived at Block 6300 of Callowhill Street.
It remains unclear for the time being how or where Zarelli met Abel, whether he knew that she was pregnant and had a child. He was five years older and living with his family in the Callowhill house when the 1950 census was taken. Abel’s relative said one of her sisters may have lived in West Philadelphia. Abel too, the relative said, on the second floor of a walk-in apartment with Plunkett and their daughter, who was born in December 1956. The couple later moved to Ruffner Street in Nicetown. Plunkett drove a cab. They had four children together, one of whom died in childbirth.
Gus Zarelli married in 1958 and left Callowhill Street. The family business grew into a lucrative construction and real estate business in Chester County, where most of his children still reside. By all accounts, he was loved by his children, highly respected by his peers, and showed signs of grace in difficult times.
When Zarelli died in 2014 at the age of 87, Legacy.com noted his “strength and character.”
“The world has lost one good soul,” wrote one mourner.
On January 13, some of Joseph’s paternal relatives attended a rededication of his headstone at Ivy Hill Cemetery. Some of them try to research the case themselves.
“Our family was taken by surprise,” said a family member at the grave. “We want to honor him by finding out his full story. We want to give the story a real ending.”
Abel’s relatives said she later worked at the Crown Can Company and other warehouses on Erie Avenue. She died as Mary E. (Betsy) Plunkett in 1991 after “a prolonged illness,” according to her obituary. Her relative said she died of lung cancer, probably from exposure to asbestos.
“She was friendly and calm,” said the relative.
The death of Joseph A. Zarelli, who was 4 years old, remains an active homicide investigation.