Five days after the passenger ship the Titanic sank, the crew of the rescue ship Mackay-Bennett pulled the body of a fair-haired, roughly two-year-old boy out of the Atlantic Ocean on April 21, 1912. Along with many other victims, his body went to a cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the crew of the Mackay-Bennett had a headstone dedicated to the "unknown child" placed over his grave.
When it sank, the Titanic took the lives of 1,497 of the 2,209 people aboard with it. Some bodies were recovered, but names remained elusive, while others are still missing. But researchers believe that they have finally resolved the identity of the unknown child -- concluding that he was 19-month-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin from England.
Though the unknown child was incorrectly identified twice before, researchers believe they have now conclusively determined the child was Goodwin. After his recovery, he was initially believed to be a two-year-old Swedish boy, Gösta Leonard Pålsson, who was seen being washed overboard as the ship sank. This boy's mother, Alma Pålsson, was recovered with the tickets for all four of her children in her pocket, and buried in a grave behind the unknown child.
The effort to verify the child's identity using genetics began a little over a decade ago, when Ryan Parr, an adjunct professor at Lakehead University in Ontario who has worked with DNA extracted from ancient human remains, watched some videos about the Titanic.
"I thought 'Wow, I wonder if anyone is interested or still cares about the unidentified victims of the Titanic,'" Parr said.
A name for the unknown child?
In 2001, with permission from the Pålsson family, the unknown child's remains were exhumed from Fairview Lawn Cemetery, one of the Halifax cemeteries where Titanic victims were interred. Parr had hoped to investigate the identities of other victims as well, though decomposition interfered. Two of the coffins held only mud, and only a 2.4-inch-long (6 centimeter) fragment of an arm bone and three teeth remained of the unknown child. But this was enough.
From these remains, Parr and his team extracted DNA from a section of mitochondria (energy-producing centers of the cells) that rapidly accumulates mutations, called HV1. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to offspring, so the team compared the unknown child's DNA sequence with samples from the maternal relatives of the Pålsson child. These didn't match.
They broadened their search to include five other boys under age three who had died in the disaster. Alan Ruffman, who became involved in the project as a research associate of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, ultimately tracked down the maternal lines of all six children (including the Pålsson child) with help from genealogists, historians, Titanic researchers, translators, librarians, archivists and members of the families.
By comparing the unknown child's HV1 with these other young Titanic victims, the researchers eliminated all but two of the boys -- Eino Viljami Panula, a 13-month-old Finnish boy, and Sidney Goodwin.
An expert analysis of the child's teeth put his age somewhere between 9 months and 15 months -- seeming to eliminate Goodwin, who was older. So, the researchers concluded the boy was Panula and, in 2004, published their results.
A second try
But doubts remained. Ultimately, a pair of leather shoes recovered from the unknown child and held in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic caused the researchers to question the identification.