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 2-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. [Photo of Sidney Goodwin]
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 2-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 3 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. [History's Most Overlooked Mysteries]
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.
The shoes had been saved by Clarence Northover, a Halifax police sergeant in 1912, who helped guard the bodies and belongings of the Titanic victims, according to the museum's website. A letter from Northover's grandson, Earle, recounts how the victim's clothing had been burned to stop souvenir hunters. Clarence Northover couldn't bring himself to burn the little shoes, and when no relatives claimed them, he put the shoes in his desk drawer at the police station. In 2002, Earle Northover donated them to the museum. These shoes were too large for a 13-month-old to wear.
Parr and his team attempted the identification again, this time with the help of the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
They looked at another, less mutation-prone section of the mitochondrial DNA, where they found a single difference that indicated that Goodwin might actually be the unknown child. The Armed Forces lab confirmed this when they found a second, single difference in another section of the DNA.
"Luckily, it was a rare difference, so that is what gives you 98 percent certainty the identification is correct," Parr said.
The loss of a family
Before he died, Sidney Goodwin was traveling on the Titanic with his parents, Frederick and Augusta, and five siblings from England to Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Carol Goodwin, a 77-year-old Wisconsin resident, heard about the ill-fated family from Frederick Goodwin's sisters, one of whom was Carol's grandmother.
"I can't say that it really startled me or amazed me," Carol Goodwin said of the news that the unknown child was her relative. "I guess maybe it had been so long in coming."
As a child, she learned about Frederick Goodwin's family by eavesdropping on conversations between her grandmother and her great aunt.
"They didn't talk about the children that much," Carol Goodwin told LiveScience. "It was their brother who was a favorite brother, how kind he was to them growing up."
Goodwin's interest in family history didn't spark until her 13-year-old granddaughter Becky saw a Titanic exhibit and wrote an essay for school. When her teacher wanted to submit the article to the magazine "Junior Scholastic," Goodwin wanted to check the facts first.
Now Goodwin is working on two books on the subject, a smaller one about the unknown child and a larger book she has titled "The Goodwins Aboard the Titanic: Saga of a Third-Class Family." (The family was traveling third class.) And, in a year, she and her husband plan to take a centennial cruise in memory of the Titanic. [Titanic Versus the Lusitania: Time Determined Who Survived]
On Aug. 6, 2008, relatives of the Goodwin family held a memorial service in Fairview Lawn Cemetery where they now believe Sidney Goodwin was buried under the unknown child's headstone. A cousin read the names of about 50 children who had also perished when the Titanic went down and a bell was rung for each, she said.
A soft, drizzling rain began to fall as the first name was read, and stopped when the list was finished, she recalled. Ultimately, the family left the headstone and the grave as it was.
"The tombstone of the unknown child represents all of the children who perished on the Titanic, and we left it that way," she said.
The remains of the rest of the Goodwins family have never been recovered.
"From those (unidentified bodies) that were buried in Halifax, I have read the coroner's reports for each of them, and nothing fits," she said.
An article describing the genetic analysis that led to the final identification of the unknown child's remains is scheduled to be published in the June 2011 issue of the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics and is already available online.