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Clues and Evidence

Canadian historian Alan Ruffman began the quest to find Catherine Wallis at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Searching through a back storage room, Ruffman came upon an assortment of documents left over from the recovery efforts of the Mackay-Bennett — letters, photographs, and coroners reports for all of the bodies found at sea. After carefully sorting through the collection, Ruffman found a description of a victim that sounded like Joan’s grandmother:

Titanic's Ghosts: Clues and Evidence

Alan Ruffman at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia
Alan Ruffman at the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

NO. 281. – FEMALE. – ESTIMATED AGE, 30. – HAIR, BROWN.
CLOTHING – Black coat; blue skirt; red jersey; green blouse; woolen singlet; grey underskirt; black boots and stockings.
LARGE WART ON INDEX FINGER OF LEFT HAND.
EFFECTS – $26.00.
NO MARKS ON CLOTHING.

In order to prove that body #281 was that of Catherine Wallis, a DNA comparison was needed between Joan and the remains recovered from the grave. The man in charge of this DNA work was Ryan Parr, a bio-anthropologist at the paleo-DNA lab of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which specializes in the extraction of DNA from degraded biological material. But before Parr’s team of scientists opened the grave of body #281, Ruffman and Parr agreed to take the opportunity to try to identify more victims of the Titanic disaster, including the “unknown child.” There were still 44 unidentified bodies left in Fairview cemetery; 44 bodies left to name.

“A lot of the grief focused on this baby,” says Parr of the “unknown child.” “At the time, people from all over the world sent flowers. The headstone reads ‘an’ unknown child, not ‘the’ unknown child. I think that’s because you think, ‘Here’s this child that lost its life, its mother, its whole future, tragically.’ And in a sense it represents all the lost, and in particular those with the most life and potential yet to be realized.”

Titanic's Ghosts: Clues and Evidence

Extracting DNA from the lone bone fragment of the “unknown child.”

According to the records from the archives, the boy was originally thought to be two-year-old Gosta Paulson, whose body was never recovered. In fact, the grave of the “unknown child” — body #4 — is located near the grave of Gosta’s mother, Alma, whose body was identified by the third class ticket stub still in her coat pocket. Also in the records was a description of body #240:

NO. 240. – MALE. – ESTIMATED AGE, 24. – HAIR, DARK.
CLOTHING – Grey overcoat; blue serge suit; white sweater.
EFFECTS – One pipe; key; silver watch and chain; £1 6s. in purse.
NO MARKS.

The watch mentioned in the above description bore the name of a shop located in Brighton, England, and thus Ruffman was able to connect this description to a twenty-three-year-old passenger named Charles Shorney.

Ruffman tracked down living relatives of Gosta — Ola Lindfeldt and Lars Inge in Sweden — and Charles — Gillian Wilkinson, and her siblings Imelda and Hillary Sutton in England. But there was a problem. There are two kinds of DNA, nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA. In this situation, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is preferred because its molecules are present in hundreds to thousands of copies per cell compared to nuclear DNA, which contains two copies per cell. After ninety years decomposing in the ground, any remnants of the bodies would be scarce, and mtDNA would be much more likely to provide an adequate sample. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother only, so in order to compare the samples they were hoping to get from the corpse, mtDNA needed to be obtained from maternally related relatives of Catherine, Gosta, and Charles. This was easy in the case of Catherine, since Joan is her maternal granddaughter. But none of the relatives of Gosta or Charles are maternal descendants.

Titanic's Ghosts: Clues and Evidence

Magda Schleifer stands at the grave of her uncle, Eino Panula, formerly known as the “unknown child.”

For Gosta, Ruffman enlisted the help of Swedish genealogists to locate a distant relative of Ola and Lars, John Heylan, who is a maternal cousin to Gosta. No such relative could be found for Charlie Shorney. Yet hope was not lost. Gillian and her siblings decided to exhume the grave of their great uncle, Austin Shorney Sr., Charlie’s father, who could provide nuclear DNA to compare with body #240. Dr. Parr’s Canadian forensic team was able to remove Austin Sr.’s right femur for DNA extraction.

The results of Dr. Parr’s grave exhumation at Fairview cemetery were mixed. The cemetery is built into the gently sloping side of a hill, and when the scientists began digging, they found that water had seeped into the graves of bodies #281 and #240. They continued their search, but the flooding had amplified the earth’s power to decay and eliminated any shred of human remains, greatly reducing the chances that Joan and the English siblings would be able to identify their ancestors.

Perched higher up on the slope, the grave of body #4 escaped the erosive effects of water damage, and scientists found a 6 cm sliver of bone and three teeth in the grave of the “unknown child.” An analysis of these teeth by two separate dental experts showed that they belonged, not to a two-year-old, but to a child less than one year of age. This revelation suggested that Gosta might not be the “unknown child,” and a DNA comparison performed at Lakehead University and at the Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases at Hebrew University in Jerusalem proved that, indeed, body #4 was not Gosta Paulson. The teeth suggested that whoever filed the original coroner’s report, misestimated the age of the child. Furthermore, the age of the teeth also eliminated the possibility that two other potential third-class passengers, two-year-olds Eugene Francis Rice from Ireland and Sidney Leslie Goodwin of England, might be the “unknown child.” Nevertheless, the search continued, focusing on three more third-class passengers: a five-month-old child from Sweden, a seven-month-old child from England, and a thirteen-month-old child from Finland.

Meanwhile, hope was not lost for the English relatives of Charles Shorney. Ruffman had found a photo of corpse #240, which Gillian and her siblings compared to photos of Charlie. Employing techniques developed by the FBI, forensic investigator Gerry Richards performed a photographic analysis of the photos of Charles and the corpse. “[We] take the known photograph of Mr. Shorney,” explains Richards, “and move it right directly side by side in a juxtaposition so that we can very closely examine the ear patterns.” Yet the ears were different. Charlie’s ear lobe was attached to his cheekbone, with the picture of the corpse showing a man with unattached ear lobes. Charlie was not body #240.

Finally A Name…
On November 6, 2002, Alan Ruffman and Dr. Ryan Parr announced that the remains of the “unknown child” had finally been identified through DNA analysis. Blood samples provided by descendents of a child from Finland named Eino Panula matched the DNA extracted from the tiny bone fragment recovered from Fairview Lawn Cemetery.

Eino, who was just over a year old at the time, was traveling as a third-class passenger with his mother and four brothers. Eino’s mother, Emilia Maria Ojala, and father, Juho Panula, had married on February 14, 1892 before immigrating to Coal Center, a small community near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Five children were born in Coal Center before the family moved back to a small farm in western Finland in 1904. There, two more children were born, including Eino on March 10, 1911. Shortly thereafter, the Panulas decided to move back to Coal Center, and Juho preceded his family to the U.S. sometime in 1910 or 1911. Maria stayed, finalizing the sale of the family’s farm on February 1, 1912 before booking third-class tickets for her family on the Titanic to join her husband in America. None of the family members traveling on the Titanic survived the disaster, and Eino is the first of the Panulas to be identified.

The discovery of the child’s identity stands as the first time that an unknown victim of the 1912 Titanic sinking has been named through DNA analysis.

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