'They all deserve to have their name' — Working to ID


PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — In an effort that may take decades, city investigators are banding together to identify all human remains buried in a Northeast Philadelphia’s potters field — the same field where the “Boy in the Box,” now known as Joseph Zarelli, had been interred for years.

The Philadelphia Police Department’s homicide, special victims and forensic units now meet regularly with the offices of the medical examiner and district attorney to go through more than 200 files of unidentified remains. Their goal: to put a name to each one.

“They all deserve to have their name,” said Ryan Gallagher, forensics lab manager for the department’s Criminalistics Unit.

Gallagher says they are reviewing the details about each of the people buried in the potter’s field and files of missing people, prioritizing homicide cases and juveniles.

“It’s really identifying what’s been done on these cases,” he said. “Is there anything else that can be done on these cases? And if the answer is no, then what else is there? And that’s where we look at the DNA and genealogy aspects of things.”

An early potter's field grave marker for the

An early potter’s field grave marker for the “Boy in the Box,” long before he was identified as Joseph Augustus Zarelli, had an inscription that read “Heavenly Father, bless this unknown boy.”

Photo credit used with permission

They look at each file to see if there are fingerprints, dental records or some other identifying detail that can help match remains to a missing person file, before turning to genealogy — “because sometimes there is an easy identification that can be made, and it was just missed for whatever reason.”

More than 500 people are buried in the field. Some were kids when they died; some were elderly. Many have names, but they were never claimed by family or loved ones.


The KYW original podcast Gone Cold first investigated Philadelphia’s potter's field a few years ago.

The KYW original podcast Gone Cold first investigated Philadelphia’s potter’s field a few years ago.

Photo credit KYW Newsradio, file

“It’s a large task to undertake for these cases.  Not so much financially but more just manpower and resources,” said Gallagher.

The process of going through case by case and identifying the hundreds of people still nameless, could take decades.

Featured Image Photo Credit: KYW Newsradio, file


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