Who Is The Unknown Child Of The Titanic?

Just three people shy of 1,500 passengers and crew members died when the Titanic sunk after hitting an iceberg on  April 15, 1912, according to Live Science. Five days prior, 2,209 people boarded the luxury ocean liner in Southampton, England, per National Geographic. One of the smallest passengers aboard the Titanic was just 2 years old when the ship started taking on water. Only about 300 bodies were ever recovered, with just a few being children. But there was one child who stood out to rescuers. And for nearly 100 years, no one knew the identity of this Unknown Child of the Titanic.

The small body was recovered on April 21, 1912, by the crew aboard the "Mackay Bennet." Someone aboard the rescue ship grabbed the body of a little boy with light-colored hair. They estimated the baby was about 2 years old. Encyclopedia Titanica reports that the rescuers were distraught to find a child so small, and were surprised that no relatives came forward to identify the baby afterward. The "Mackay Bennett" crew personally paid for the child to be buried in Halifax at the Fairway Lawn Cemetery. He was given a funeral service on May 4, 1912, and his gravesite was dedicated to the Unknown Child of the "Titanic".

Digging into an old mystery

For many years, the grave of the Unknown Child of the Titanic has been a site of reverence in Nova Scotia (via Insider). People still decorate the grave with flowers, coins, and little toys. The gravesite is so well-loved, that even 100 years later, there are enough visitors that grass does not grow around the tombstone (via The Star).

For many years, the child really was unidentified, but things have changed with more modern scientific developments. Ryan Parr, who was an adjunct professor at Lakehead University in Ontario, became curious about the Titanic's missing children in the early 2000s after studying video footage. He told Live Science, "I thought, 'Wow, I wonder if anyone is interested or still cares about the unidentified victims of the Titanic.'" 

He asked permission from a relative of a family that was on the Titanic that was known to have a small child: the Pålsson family. The living relatives agreed to let Parr and a group of scientists exhume the remains at the Halifax cemetery to see if they could shed light on the unknown children's true identities. American and Canadian researchers worked collaboratively to extract as much DNA evidence as possible, according to The Star.

Collecting DNA

The remains were exhumed in 2001 — but there was not much evidence to gather (via Live Science). Several child coffins were examined. Two only contained mud, and a third coffin had just three teeth and some fragments from an arm bone. Even with these scant remains, scientists were able to extract DNA from the unknown child's bone.

Scientists thought that they had discovered the correct child. They wondered: could the unknown remains belong to ​​Gösta Leonard Pålsson? This little boy came from a family of five, none of whom survived the sinking. His mother's remains were recovered, and she had the tickets for her four children in her pocket. Pålsson was only about 2 years old when he was washed overboard as the Titanic sunk. His mother was buried behind the grave of the Unknown Child. They compared his DNA with that of his living members of the Pålsson family but discovered that it was not a match.

Expanding the search

Live Science reports that scientists began to expand their search, examining all remains of boys under age three who perished. There were at least five boys, ages 5 months to 2 years old, who were also aboard the Titanic (per Encyclopedia Titanica).

The Star reports that the team next compared the exhumed evidence to another little boy who died in the Titanic crash, named Eino Viljami Panula. This baby was just 13 months old when he and his parents boarded the "unsinkable ship," and tragically, the whole family drowned. The DNA evidence from the bones suggested it was either Panula or another little boy named Sidney Goodwin (via Live Science). An expert examined the teeth and concluded that they belonged to a child between 9 and 15 months old. So for years, it was presumed to be solved: Eino Viljami Panula was considered the Unknown Child of the Titanic.

Shoes become new evidence

But that's not the end of the story. Per The Star, the mystery of the little boy was finally solved when the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic received some new evidence.

Apparently, a police officer named Clarence Northover was assigned to guard the bodies and possessions of the Titanic's deceased in 1912. Most of the clothes were burned to prevent thieves from keeping them as souvenirs. But after coming across a tiny pair of leather baby shoes, Northover couldn't bring himself to burn them. He instead kept the shoes in his office at the police headquarters. When Northover died, his grandson donated the baby shoes to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, giving them a crucial new piece of evidence.

With the additional evidence of the shoes, researchers realized that there had been a mistake in the evidence from 2001 (via Live Science). These shoes would not fit 13-month-old Panula, meaning that they had mistakenly identified the boy that was pulled from the water in 1912. Combining the new evidence from the shoe with genetic technology from the early 2000s, the scientists realized that the shoes didn't belong to either Panula or Pålsson.

Legacy of the Unknown Child Memorial

DNA evidence proved with 98% certainty that the DNA collected from the unknown child's remains actually belonged to a different child (via The Star). Sidney Goodwin was a 19-month-old boy who had five siblings and appeared to be traveling with his mother and father aboard the Titanic (per Encyclopedia Titanica). The entire family died in the disaster.

Sidney Goodwin's living family members did not change the tombstone to the child's name (via Insider). They said, "The tombstone of the unknown child represents all of the children who perished on the Titanic, and we left it that way." Live Science reports that in 2008, the Goodwin family held a public ceremony for the 50 or so missing children from the Titanic. They read all the children's names aloud, ringing a bell for each name. Although the rest of Sidney Goodwin's family was never discovered, one long-standing mystery surrounding the Titanic disaster has finally been solved.