The Titanic was the ship of dreams. It was the largest steamer in the world at the time of her launch in 1912. With her watertight doors and the ability to stay afloat with four flooded compartments she was “unsinkable.” Or so they thought.

We all know how the story ends. Not with Jack and Rose living happily ever after. But with more than 1500 people losing their lives, just 4 days after the Titanic sets off on her maiden voyage from Southampton. This is the story of Sidney Goodwin, the “Unknown Child” from the Titanic. And how DNA analyses finally confirmed his true identity more than 89 years later.

The maiden voyage

On 10th April 1912, the RMS Titanic left Southampton, England on her maiden voyage to New York City. More than 1300 passengers and 900 crew boarded the Titanic. Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, one of the wealthiest people in the world at the time, was one of its passengers.

With their exorbitantly prices first-class tickets, prominent businessmen, bankers and politicians enjoyed their extravagant dinners, heated swimming pool and theatre. While third-class passengers, mostly immigrants to the US, traveled in cramped conditions, dreaming of their lives in a new world.

Dining room on the Titanic
The dining room on the Titanic

The fatal crash and the aftermath

Then just four days into the North Atlantic crossing, the Titanic hit a huge iceberg in the middle of the night. The crash split open five of the sixteen watertight compartments.

Statue of Captain Edward Smith
Statue of Captain Edward Smith by Kathleen Scott in Beacon Park, Lichfield, Staffordshire, UK (Image via Bs0u10e01, from Wikimedia Commons)

The ships designer, Thomas Andrews, informed Captain Edward Smith the ship would sink in just two hours. The Titanic could only stay afloat if four of the sixteen compartments flooded, but not five. As the ship rapidly flooded, passengers and crew started evacuating in lifeboats.

But unfortunately, the Titanic only carried lifeboats for about half of the approximately 2200 people on board. And many of the boats were launched only half-full. Less than three hours after the impact, the Titanic split in half and disappeared into the depths.

More than 1500 passengers and crew, including the ship’s captain, perished that night. They either drowned with the ship or quickly perished in the freezing cold waters of the North Atlantic.

The RMS Carpathia reached the crash site less than two hours later. They collected just 712 survivors, and transported them on to New York. This huge loss of lives prompted inquires in both Britain and the United States to improve maritime safety protocols.

Carpathia carrying rescued Titanic passengers and Titanic’s lifeboats

The body-recovery mission

The sinking of the largest ship afloat, required extensive recovery efforts. The CS Mackay-Bennett, a cable repair ship, was the first recovery ship on the scene, five days after the sinking. With the sheer extent of bodies, the Mackay-Bennett quickly ran out of embalming supplies.

Burial and maritime laws directed that bodies had to the embalmed before a ship entered a Canadian port. So, only the bodies of first and second-class passengers were preserved. Many third-class passengers and crew were buried at sea, often without being identified.

Over the next month, 333 bodies were recovered. Authorities confirmed the identity of two-thirds of these bodies. The rest were buried with just a simple number based on the order they were discovered.

Who was the “Unknown Child?”

Grave of the “Unknown Child”

The body of the “Unknown Child” belonged to this latter category. His remains rested in the Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, with a headstone dedicated “to the memory of an unknown child.”

For a long time, this body was believed to be Gösta Leonard Pålsson, a two-year-old Swedish boy. An assumption that was based on the estimated age, a hand-written note reading “Paulson child?” included in the description of the body, and witnesses recalling the boy being washed overboard before the Titanic sank.

The Titanic ancient DNA project

In 1998, the Titanic Ancient DNA project began on behalf of three families (including the Pålsson family) that were hoping to formally identify their lost family members.

Investigators exhumed three bodies. But the acidic nature of the soil had completely dissolved two of the skeletons. They only discovered a small fragment of poorly preserved bone and three teeth in the grave of the “Unknown Child.”

The DNA analyses focused on the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genome. Both males and females inherit their mtDNA only from their mother (passed on mother to child). Hence, mtDNA remains unchanged through the maternal line.

mtDNA regions
Regions of mtDNA amenable to DNA analysis

MtDNA is also useful for the analysis of degraded remains, because it is present in a much higher amount than nuclear DNA. Three regions of mtDNA can be analyzed when tracing ancestry – to hyper variable regions, HVR1 and HVR2, and the coding region.

The initial analysis focused on just the HVR1 region. The mtDNA HVR1 profile from the bone fragment differed from the mtDNA profile generated from a maternal relative of Gösta Pålsson. This ruled out that Gösta Pålsson was the “Unknown Child.”

The researchers then tracked down and collected DNA samples from maternal relatives of the other five young children lost from the Titanic. The mtDNA profiles from female relatives of two of the missing children matched the profile from the bone and teeth fragments.

They were Sidney Leslie Goodwin (19 months of age) and Eino Viljam Panula (13 months). Based on the early stage of dental development in the teeth remains, the “Unknown Child” was identified as Eino Panula.

Reinvestigating the identity of the “Unknown Child”

Shoes of the “Unknown child” at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

However, the original genetic analyses didn’t rule out the possibility that Sidney Goodwin was the “Unknown Child.” It was also noted that the shoes of the  “Unknown Child” (kept in a museum with other Titanic artifacts) appeared much too large for a 13-month-old boy (Eino Panula), and could have instead belonged to 19-month-old Sidney Goodwin.

These speculations of mistaken identity prompted researchers to analyze the remains in more detail. They generated complete mtDNA profiles from all of the living relatives of the six young children lost on the Titanic. This identified three differences between the mtDNA profiles generated from the references for Eino Panula and Sidney Goodwin.

Sadly the bone and teeth fragments from the “Unknown Child” were too degraded to generate complete mtDNA profiles. However, researchers were still able to obtain partial profiles for the HVR2 and coding regions. Only Sidney Goodwin’s references matched the partial profile generated from the skeletal remains. This means the remains are most likely those of Sidney Goodwin.

Benefits of more thorough DNA sequencing

For 89 years, Gösta Pålsson, a two-year-old Swedish boy was believed to be the “Unknown Child.” The first set of genetic analyses in 2001, ruled out this possibility. Preliminary conclusions based on mtDNA profiles and dental age claimed that the remains belonged to Eino Panula, a 13 month-old Finnish boy. A complete mtDNA analysis refuted this hypothesis.

The most recent and complete analysis of mtDNA illustrates the benefits of more thorough mtDNA sequencing. The “Unknown Child” is no longer unknown. He has now been formally identified as Sidney Goodwin, a 19 month-old English boy.

The DNA journey to identifying the “Unknown Child.” Full mtDNA profile from the tooth remains finally confirms his true identify as Sidney Goodwin

These studies have defined the mtDNA profiles of six young children lost on the Titanic. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your mtDNA against these six profiles to see if you may have descended from one of the same maternal lineages.

References:

Just RS et al. (2011) Titanic’s unknown child: the critical role of the mitochondrial DNA coding region in a re-identification effort. Forensic Sci Int Genet. 5(3):231-5.

Titley KC et al. (2004) The Titanic Disaster: Dentistry’s Role in the Identification of an ‘Unknown Child’. J Can Dent Assoc. 70(1):24–8.