Image: Baby Sidney Lesilie Goodwin
Photo copyright by Carol Goodwin, used by permission.
A photograph of the baby Sidney Leslie Goodwin, who is now believed to be the Titanic's unknown child.
By
updated 4/25/2011 6:23:54 PM ET 2011-04-25T22:23:54

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.

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.

Image: Members of the Goodwin family
Photo copyright by Carol Goodwin, used by permission.
A photograph of the other members of the Goodwin family, all of whom perished when the Titanic went down on April 15, 1912.

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.

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.

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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.

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"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. 

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: 10 shipwrecks that have enriched our imaginations

  • Image: scroll fragment
    Ralph White  /  Corbis file

    The Titanic, the 46,000-ton "unsinkable" ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 and sank within hours to the bottom of the North Atlantic, is the world's most famous shipwreck. To this day, the voyage, its passengers, even the mysterious Cold War details surrounding its 1985 discovery continue to capture the public's fascination. But the Titanic is not the only wrecked ship steeped in history — if not treasure — discovered on the bottom of the sea. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about nine more shipwrecks that have enriched our imaginations.

    -- By John Roach

  • An ancient Greek oil ship

    Image: pottery shards
    Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities

    An ancient Greek cargo ship, described by one researcher as a UPS truck of its day, sank with what appears to be a load of oregano-flavored olive oil. At least, that's the result of a genetic analysis of residue in one of the ship's earthenware jars that were hauled up from the 200-foot depths of the Aegean Sea where the ship sank around 350 B.C. The wrecked ship, which was discovered by an underwater robot, contained several hundred of the jars, called amphorae. More than two-thirds were of the style of the one containing the olive oil. Other containers likely held wine, a well-known export from the island of Chios.

  • Diamond geologists find sunken treasure

    Image: Gold coins
    AP

    Geologists hunting for diamonds off the coast of Namibia stumbled upon a different sort of riches when they hit upon a shipwreck full of copper ingots, elephant tusks and gold coins. The discovery was reported by Namdeb Diamond Corp, a joint venture between diamond giant De Beers and the government of Namibia. Preliminary analysis indicates the well-worn Spanish or Portuguese ship likely went down in stormy weather in the late 1400s or early 1500s. Judging from the cargo, researchers said the ship was likely looking for material to build cannons or was perhaps trading in ivory. This image shows coins and a brass divider recovered in the wreckage.

  • Santa Margarita loot a long trail of discovery

    Image: Pearls
    Dylan Kibler  /  AP

    In 1622, a fleet of 28 Spain-bound ships laden with gold, silver, copper and other riches reaped from the New World was snared by a violent hurricane in the Florida Strait. At least six of the boats sank, their loot no longer bound for the crown. Modern day explorers, however, have scoured the waters for the sunken treasure. Riches from the heavily armed Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha started coming to light in the 1970s and the scattered fortunes of a second ship, the Santa Margarita, were hit upon in 1980. In more recent years, divers from Blue Water Ventures Key West have been hot on the Santa Margarita's trail, recovering millions worth of treasure including the pearls shown here.

  • Captain Kidd's ship discovered in Dominican Republic

    Image: possible wreckage
    Indiana University

    The wreckage of the Quedagh Merchant, a ship abandoned by Scottish privateer William Kidd in the 17th century, has been discovered in shallow waters off a tiny island in the Dominican Republic and turned into an underwater preserve. Captain Kidd spent much of his life as a privateer – and captured the Indian-owned Quedagh Merchant which was laden with satin, silks, silver, gold, and other riches. But he abandoned the ship in 1699 to address charges in New York that he was a pirate, not a privateer. According to historians, the men entrusted with the ship looted it, burned it, and set it adrift. It was found just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Island at a depth of only 10 feet.

  • Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge Found?

    Image: cannon
    Chuck Beckley  /  Jacksonville Daily News

    Archaeologists believe the cannon shown here being hauled up off the coast of North Carolina was part of the notorious pirate Blackbeard's flagship. According to legend, Blackbeard, whose real name was thought to be Edward Teach or Thatch, commandeered the French slave ship La Concorde in 1717 and renamed it the Queen Anne's Revenge. Blackbeard abandoned the ship when it ran aground off the North Carolina coast. Several artifacts recovered from the wreck appear to support the belief that it was Blackbeard's flagship, though the findings have been questioned by some scholars. Ongoing excavations may one day solve the mystery.

  • HMS Victory, famous British warship

    Image: archaeological site in Masada
    AP Photo/Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. |

    A famous British warship sunk by a violent storm in 1744 was discovered 330 feet deep in the English Channel, more than 50 miles from a group of rocky islets long implicated in the vessel's demise. The discovery exonerates the HMS Victory's commander, Sir John Balchin, and a lighthouse keeper near the rocks who was prosecuted for failing to keep the lights on, according to researchers with Odyssey Marine Exploration who found the sunken vessel that carried at least 900 men. What's more, the 110-gun ship is thought to contain 4 tons of gold coins. This image shows one of the ship's bronze cannons with the royal crest of King George I.

  • Court battles over $500 million shipwreck loot

    Image: Found coins
    Odyssey Marine Exploration via A

    The governments of Peru and Spain are caught up in court battles with a Florida-based exploration firm that recovered an estimated $500 million worth of silver coins from a Spanish frigate sunk by a British warship in 1804. Marine Odyssey Exploration announced the discovery of the treasure in 2007, though tried to keep the ship's origins and exact Atlantic Ocean location a secret. The details began to leak in 2008 as the Spanish government laid claim to the treasure if it indeed was from the sunken Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. Peru has since weighed in with a court challenge of its own, saying the coins were made with Peruvian silver and minted in Lima. In this file photo, Odyssey Marine Exploration co-founder, Greg Stemm, left, examines the loot with a co-worker at an undisclosed location.

  • Ore ship found, mystery endures

    Image: Ore freighter ship
    AP

    The discovery of an ore carrier some 460 feet beneath the surface of Lake Superior has only raised the intrigue over why the vessel sank on just its second voyage. The Cyprus was hauling iron ore from Superior, Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York, when it encountered a moderate gale on October 11, 1907. But the storm was insufficient to bother other ships that day. At the time, some mariners suspected water entered through the ships newly designed hatch covers, though a labor riot at the time of the vessels construction could have created other flaws. While this remains unsolved, shipwreck researchers have another mystery to resolve: The Cyprus was found 10 miles north of where its sole survivor said it went down. The ship on her maiden voyage is shown in this image.

  • Graf Zeppelin, unused Nazi Germany carrier

    Wojtek Jakubowski  /  AP

    The Polish Navy is almost certain they've located the remains of Nazi Germany's only aircraft carrier, the Graf Zeppelin. The ship was launched in 1938, though it never saw action as Adolf Hitler's interest in the navy waned during World War II. The Soviet Union took control of the ship after Germany's defeat and used it for target practice in 1947, according to historical accounts. The carrier eventually sank but its exact whereabouts were unknown until the Polish Navy found remains with an underwater robot. In this image, Polish Navy Commander Daniel Beczek holds up a photo with three views of the ship: the top is a drawing, the middle is a sonar image made by the navy, and the bottom is a 1930s construction photo.

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