Tiny shoes help unlock Titanic mystery



HALIFAX – A tiny pair of shoes retrieved from the remains of a toddler have helped solve one of the enduring mysteries surrounding the sinking of RMS Titanic almost 100 years ago.

The youngster’s body was found floating in the icy North Atlantic in the days after the ocean liner struck an iceberg and sank southeast of Newfoundland in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

Of the 2,200 people aboard, more than 700 lost their lives. Only 300 bodies were pulled from the water, including one small boy.

He was later buried in Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery, beneath a grey tombstone that identifies him as an “unknown child.”

His identity remained a sad riddle until 2002, when scientists using the latest DNA technology and dental analysis concluded the exhumed remains were that of Eino Viljami Panula of Finland, who was only 13 months old when he died at sea.

However, if the tragedy of the Titanic has taught us anything, it is that even the best technology can fail.

Two years after the news conference announcing the child’s purported identity, a family from Ontario donated a pair of mottled brown shoes to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, claiming they belonged to the boy.

The family told the museum’s curators that their grandfather, Sgt. Clarence Northover of Halifax police, had been in charge of guarding the bodies recovered from the Titanic disaster.

They said Northover had told them that the victims’ families had said that all clothing belonging to the deceased should be burned. But the police officer couldn’t bring himself to destroy the small shoes. He kept them in a drawer in his desk until he retired.

On the bottom of the shoes, Northover wrote: “Shoes of the only baby found. SS Titanic 1912.”

Dan Conlin, the museum’s curator of marine history, says the story was confirmed though a check of city records.

But there was a problem.

The shoes were too big for a 13-month-old.

“That made the DNA team wonder about their first conclusion,” Conlin said in an interview.

As well, footwear experts confirmed the shoes were made in Britain, not Finland, and a police description of the shoes worn by the child, known then as Body No. 4, matched the museum’s latest artifact.

Another round of genetic testing was conducted on the samples exhumed in 2001. This time, the team used a more advanced form of DNA decoding.

Preliminary results in 2007 were subjected to a rigorous peer review process, which has resulted in a research paper that will be published next month in the journal “Forensic Science International: Genetics.”

“It wasn’t the Finnish boy,” says Conlin. “It was an English boy … He fit the shoes, quite literally.”

His name was Sidney Leslie Goodwin. He was 19 months old when he perished in the sinking.

His shoes are now part of the Halifax museum’s permanent display.

“A lot of visitors find them very moving,” says Conlin. “It’s one of our most compelling objects from the Titanic … The fact there was once a small person in those shoes really tugs at the heartstrings for a lot of people.”

Conlin says Sidney was the youngest of six children in the Goodwin family, travelling from Southampton, England to New York on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The boy’s father, an engineer or electrician, had planned to start a new life in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he had landed a job at a hydroelectric generating station.

No one from the Goodwin family survived the sinking, as was the case for more than 500 other people travelling third class.

Conlin says the initially faulty, protracted process of determining the child’s identity serves as a reminder of the limits of technology.

“Technology can often surprise us and not do the things we expect it to do,” he says. “It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a story about the fallibility of science and engineering.”

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