When the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14th, 1912 and sank into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic less than three hours later, just over 800 of the 1300 passengers on board would never again see the light of day. While this was a tragedy in itself, what struck home for many at the time was that 56 of the dead were children under the age of fourteen. While most of the children were forever lost, there was one little lad that captured the hearts of those who recovered his remains, and the Unknown Child, as he was named, would create a captivating mystery that endured long after the sinking.
1. Hush Little Baby
When Carpathia arrived the debris field on the morning of April 15th to recover those who waited in the lifeboats for rescue, the crew did not recover any of the bodies because they were focused primarily on rescue efforts. Bodies remained in the sea until a few weeks later, when the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, the CS Minia, the CGS Montmagny, and the SS Algerine were all dispatched to begin the pickup and burial of the bodies. The Mackay-Bennett was the first to reach the scene, and the fourth body they retrieved was that of a small blond boy. He had no identifying marks or tags in his clothing and appeared to be about two years of age.
This anonymous child so moved crew members of the ship that they didn’t have the heart to bury him at sea, as they had some of the other unidentified bodies. While most guessed he was a third-class passenger, none of the surviving adults were searching for lost children. Once the crew recovered and embalmed as many bodies as possible, The Mackay-Bennett headed for Nova Scotia, where many of the bodies would be laid to rest at Halifax Cemetery.
2. Resting the Unknown Child
After the Mackay-Bennett reached port, her crew personally transported the boy’s remains to Halifax Cemetery, where he was laid to rest on May 4th, 1912. The crew also paid to have a headstone installed at the site, engraved, “Erected to the memory of an unknown child, whose remains were recovered after the disaster to the “Titanic,” April 15th, 1912”. The grave was mostly forgotten as the years went by, but as decades passed and people began to study Titanic and her victims, some began to wonder if they could identify the little boy who had gone without a name for so long.
3. Making Connections
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, amateur Titanic historians began to gather online en masse to talk about the ill-fated ship and her passengers, and one of the hottest topics was the identity of the Unknown Child. Curious sleuths began to try and match the little boy to those on the passenger list who were never identified. Eventually, they narrowed it down to four possibilities: Gösta Pålsson, Sidney Goodwin, Eino Viljami Panula, or Eugene Rice. All four were around two years of age, had never been identified, and had traveled as third-class passengers. These children also had something else in common: all family members traveling with them had also died in the sinking. In 2002, a PBS documentary attempted to identify the child via DNA of a bone fragment from the exhumed body, and the child was eventually identified as Eino Viljami Panula. However, the story did not end there.
4. The Famous Tiny Baby Shoes
Although most people believed the remains to be those of Panula, advances in DNA technology several years later urged researchers to perform more testing. One of the most vital pieces of evidence was a pair of shoes that had been preserved by Clarence Northover, a Halifax police sergeant. The shoes, which had been removed from the Unknown Child, had sat in his desk for years before being donated to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic after the sergeant’s death. It was said that Northover kept the shoes to prevent them from being destroyed. When researchers revisited the case, new DNA evidence suggested that the nameless boy was closer to two years of age, while Panula was only thirteen months old. The preserved shoes, while small, would have been too large to fit the baby’s feet.
5. The Unknown Child Is Nameless No More
Thanks to the clue the shoes provided, researchers reached out to some of the children’s relatives to provide additional DNA samples. After testing some of the teeth and the shoes in 2007, mitochondrial DNA samples provided results, with a 98 percent accuracy rate, that Titanic’s Unknown Child was not Eino Viljami Panula: it was Sidney Leslie Goodwin. Goodwin boarded the ocean liner with his mother and five siblings to leave England, join the family’s father in Niagara Falls, New York, and begin life anew in America. Sadly, all the Goodwins perished in the sinking. An additional marker was added to little Sidney’s grave, and he remains a symbol of all the children who perished on Titanic.
The mystery of Titanic’s Unknown Child, now solved, is just one of many that stem from that fateful night in April of 1912. Whether other questions will be answered in the future remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: The RMS Titanic and her passengers will continue to captivate the imaginations of millions around the world for years to come.