Days after the Titanic hit an iceberg, a Canadian morgue ship was dispatched to the North Atlantic where sailors were confronted with a grisly sight: Hundreds of frozen bodies floating on the cold, choppy waters. Among the dead was a young boy.
“He came floating toward us with a little upturned face,” John Snow Jr., an embalmer aboard the Mackay-Bennett, told a reporter from the Halifax Herald after the telegraph-cable ship returned to port with more than 200 bodies in late April, 1912. Dozens of the dead they found were so disfigured they had to be buried at sea, he said.
Unable to identify the toddler, the sailors were so moved that they held a funeral service and buried him in a Halifax cemetery with a headstone dedicated to the “memory of the unknown child.”
The identity of the boy remained a mystery for nearly a century until a group of forensic experts gradually pieced it together, using breakthroughs in DNA technology and the discovery of a pair of tiny shoes, which had been kept by a Halifax police sergeant tasked with burning all the victims’ clothing in 1912. He just couldn’t bring himself to destroy what remained of the youngest victim recovered by the sailors.
The riddle of the young Titanic victim is recreated in “The Curious Life and Death of …,” a new Smithsonian Channel documentary series premiering Sunday. Hosted by award-winning author Lindsey Fitzharris, a London-based historian, the six-part series examines in painstaking forensic detail the circumstances surrounding the deaths of everyone from Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar to illusionist Harry Houdini and Rolling Stones musician Brian Jones.
“The ‘Unknown Child,’” which airs Sept. 20, is one of the most poignant episodes in the series,” said Fitzharris, 38. “The story is really moving and continues to fascinate.”
Scientists began to probe the mystery in the late 1990s when the Scandinavian descendants of a family who were among the 1,500 victims of the Titanic became convinced they were related to the toddler, according to Fitzharris.
In 2002, the remains were exhumed — a six-inch bone fragment and three teeth were all that was found in the grave. Researchers using the latest available DNA technology at that time seemed to solve the riddle, even though two of the young children who perished in the Titanic seemed to share nearly identical mitochondrial DNA, which are passed from mothers to their children through the egg cell. Nevertheless, they concluded that the remains were those of Eino Viljami Panula, who was 13 months old when he died at sea.
But the mystery deepened when a Canadian family came forward to donate a pair of brown shoes to Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic two years later. They claimed that the shoes had been taken by their grandfather, Sgt. Clarence Northover of the Halifax police, who had been in charge of guarding the recovered bodies.
Northover kept them in his desk drawer at the police station until he retired. On the bottom of one shoe, he wrote “Shoes of the only baby found. SS Titanic 1912.”
The team of researchers went back to the drawing board. For one thing, the shoes were too big for a 13-month old, and after exhaustive testing, researchers found that the shoes had actually been made in England, not Scandinavia. The shoes likely belonged to a British boy, and thanks to advances in DNA technology, this time scientists were able to make a definitive match.
In 2008, the unknown child was finally identified after testing at the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Maryland.
He was Sidney Leslie Goodwin, 19 months old, the youngest son of Frederick and Augusta Goodwin, who had sailed from England with their six children to join family in Niagara Falls, NY, and begin a new life. Frederick was set to take a job at a new hydroelectric power station, according to reports.
But the family switched ships at the last minute when it became possible for their eldest child, 16-year-old Lillian, to join them on the voyage. They exchanged their second-class tickets on the SS New York for steerage fares on the Titanic. They even hoped the savings “would give themselves a faster start when they arrived” in America, a descendent told The Toronto Star.
All eight members of the family — six children in all — perished.
“The story is heartbreaking,” said Fitzharris, who also relates “interesting side histories” of the Titanic in the documentary
“For instance, when the Titanic first hit the iceberg, the initial news reports said there were no casualties,” said Fitzharris, whose lifelong fascination with death stems from the “ghost-hunting” expeditions she took as a child with her grandmother through cemeteries in Chicago, she told The Post.
Wires were literally crossed when the various rescue ships operated the wireless telegraph, a new technology in 1912. The full horror was only revealed days after the April 15 collision when reporters were able to interview survivors who had returned to England.
“It wasn’t the fake news of its time, just a lot of crossed signals,” Fitzharris said.