Unknown Child on the Titanic – Part III


A Cell with Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA

To understand what happened next, you have to know a little about mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).  Mitochondrial DNA is contained in small, football-shaped inclusions outside the nucleus of a cell. It’s widely believed that mitochondria were once independent bacteria that invaded primitive cells millions of years ago.  Instead of being digested, these bacteria took up residence in the cell, forming a symbiotic relationship with it.  The cell provided them with food and water, and the mitochondria provided the cell with energy for metabolism and heat.  The arrangement worked out so well that millennia later, a human cell has up to 1,000 mitochondria, each carrying five to ten copies of its own genome.    

A Mitochondrion

Mitochondrial DNA is passed along the exclusively female line of the family.  A mother passes it to all of her children, but only her daughters pass it on to the next generation.  My brothers and my sister and I have my mother’s mtDNA, but only my sister has passed it on to her children.  My brothers’ children inherited their mtDNA from their mothers, who are my sisters-in-law.  

Not many people understand why this happens.  An egg cell is large, containing hundreds of mitochondria.  The sperm is small, with only a few in its tail.  In the act of fertilization, the sperm injects its genetic material into the egg, but is otherwise destroyed along with its mitochondria.  The fertilized egg divides, becoming an embryo that develops into a fetus that eventually is born as a child carrying the mitochondrial DNA of only his or her mother.    

Back to the Unknown Child…    

The mitochondrial genome is shaped as a ring, 16, 563 or so bitpairs (bp) long.  The positions are numbered starting at the “top” with 1 clockwise to 16,563.  Not everyone has exactly 16,543 bit pairs in their mtDNA genome.  It is common for the mtDNA genome to experience insertions and deletions, making it slightly longer or slightly shorter than this.    

Mitochondrial DNA is abundant compared to Y-DNA, the other type of DNA often used for identifying males.  There can be up to 10,000 copies of the small (16,563 bp) mtDNA genome per cell, but there is only one Y-chromosome, about 50 million bp in length.  Identification using ancient or degraded DNA usually relies on mtDNA, since the probability of obtaining enough of the right kind of Y-DNA for analysis is usually much lower. 

The two sections of mtDNA that are used for identification purposes are known as Hypervariable Regions 1 and 2 (HVR1 and HVR2).  These make up the “control region” of mtDNA.  They are well-characterized and easy to work with.  HVR1 is the segment of mtDNA extending between positions 16001 and 16563.  It is usually the segment tested first. 

When the original mtDNA tests had been performed on the Unknown Child, only the HVR1 region had been tested.  That is, only low resolution tests had been done.   This had been sufficient to rule out four of the children.  However, because the DNA profile (called the haplotype) of the Unknown Child is very common – the HV haplotype is shared by about 15% of Western Europeans – it is not surprising that the HVR1 results of two out of the six candidates matched those of the Unknown Child.  Further DNA testing should have been done before an identification was announced, but because the age estimate given by the teeth was thought to be reliable, it had not been considered necessary.  

After doubts arose about the identity of the child, a new round of DNA testing was performed on the HVR2 region, extending between positions 1 and 574.  It is usually the second region that is tested to improve the resolution of the analysis.  The results of the second round of testing again ruled out the same four children.  They also showed that the HVR2 profile of the Goodwin family reference matched that of the remains, but the Panula reference showed one difference, at position 146.  While this might seem to exclude Eino Panula, forensic identification guidelines suggest that an exclusion be made on the basis of two differences because of the high mutation rate of mtDNA.  Family references are often far removed in the famly tree from the person whose remains may be under examination, so that it is possible that in the intervening generations a random mutation can occur in the family genome. Ruling out the Panula baby based on a single mismatch could result in another mistaken identification, considering how common the haplotype was, and the contamination that had been present in the earlier round of analysis. 

So in forensic terms, the second round of testing was still tied.

There were only two remaining DNA tests possible.  One was a last attempt to obtain Y-DNA from the remains, but there was only a remote chance that any Y-DNA had survived, and there had never been any effort made to locate paternal references. The focus had been on finding mtDNA references for the candidate children.  The second hope was to test the coding region of mtDNA, the region outside the HVR1 and HVR2 control region.  However, the first two attempts to distinguish the children using standard testing of the coding region failed.  We were quickly running out of options.

To be concluded…

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV (Conclusion)

Posted in Historical Identifications | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Unknown Child on the Titanic – Part II


After eight and a half decades, there was little left of the child’s body. Only a small piece of wrist bone and the crowns of three tiny baby teeth had survived the inclement weather and damp, slightly acidic soil.

In the spring of 2002, when Parr and Ruffman determined that the child was not Gosta Paulson based on a mismatch between the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) obtained from the bone shard and DNA provided by a maternally-linked Paulson relative, the teeth became more significant in the identification efforts.  Dr. E. J. Molto, an anthropologist and the director of the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University, suggested that the three teeth belonged to “quite a young child”.  The teeth were sent to Dr. Christy Turner at the State University of Arizona in Tempe, who agreed with his assessment.

Alfred Edward Peacock

There were five other male children about two years old or younger who died on the Titanic:  Eugene Francis Rice (2 1/2 years), Sidney Leslie Goodwin (19 mos), Eino Viljami Panula (13 mos), Alfred Edward Peacock (7 mos), and Gilber Sigvard Danbom (5 mos). Parr and Ruffman concentrated on finding maternally-linked relatives of the two youngest children for DNA comparison.  When in the summer of 2002, these two children were ruled out by mtDNA analysis, it was time to take a much closer look at the teeth.

Bruce Pynn, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Thunder Bay, suspected that one of the teeth might contain dentin from which additional mtDNA could be extracted.  Having a second mtDNA extraction would confirm the DNA profile obtained from the first bone-shard extraction, which had been partially contaminated.  Pediatric dentists Keith Titley and Gajanan Kulkarni, and dental anthropologist John Mayhall at the University of Toronto identified the three teeth as the maxillary right second primary molar, the mandibular left primary cuspid, and the mandibular right first primary molar of the child.  Furthermore, based on the state of development of the crowns, the lack of root development, and the absence of wear, the teeth were estimated to have come from a child between 9 and 15 months old.   Eugene Rice was ruled out not only by an mtDNA mismatch, but also because he was 2 1/2 years old.

Tooth #3 from below

Tooth #3 from below.

Upon examination by a scanning electron microscope, one of the teeth revealed dentin where the enamal layer had flaked off.  The dentin was visible around the edges of the interior of the tooth, with debris filling the pulp chamber. The tooth was sent to Dr. Scott Woodward at the ancient DNA laboratory at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, where a new mtDNA extraction was performed.  The mtDNA obtained matched the original mtDNA that had been extracted earlier from the bone shard, confirming that the earlier analysis had been correct.

Eino Viljami Panula

Two children remained, the 13-month-old Finnish child Eino Panula, and the 19-month-old English child Sidney Leslie Goodwin.  The mtDNA of the family references for both children matched that obtained from the remains, indicating that they had a common maternal ancestor within the past 2,000 years.  Neither child could be ruled out on the basis of the mtDNA data alone, but taken together with the evidence of the age of the child provided by the teeth, on November 6, 2002, Parr and Ruffman announced that the Unknown Child on the Titanic had been identified as 13-month-old Eino Panula.

Doubts soon arose about whether the identification was correct, however, based on the shoes of the child that had been preserved at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.  The shoes were thought to be too large for a 13-month-old child; they would have certainly fallen off before the body was recovered almost a week after the disaster.

The shoes of the Unknown Child

Clarence Northover, a Halifax Police Department Sergeant in 1912, helped guard the bodies and belongings of the Titanic victims. According to his grandson Earle Northover, “Clothing was burned to stop souvenir hunters, but he was too emotional when he saw the little pair of brown, leather shoes about fourteen centimeters long, and didn’t have the heart to burn them. When no relatives came to claim the shoes, he placed them in his desk drawer at the police station and there they remained for the next six years, until he retired in 1918.”  Clarence Northover moved to Ontario when he retired as Deputy Chief in 1919. In 2002, his grandson Earle Northover decided the shoes belonged back in Halifax and donated them to the Museum, which performed extensive research to authenticate the shoes before accepting them into its collection.

The 1912 Coroner’s report of the child included a description of a pair of “brown shoes”.  The identification of the shoes as those of the Unknown Child was supported by research through catalogues and consultation with clothing and footwear museums to show that the style of the shoes are appropriate for the period, roughly 1900 – 1925, and that they were likely manufactured in England.  Chemical tests were made to look for traces of seawater and an electron scanning microscope was used to search for saltwater diatoms but the results were inconclusive. The testing found large amounts of salt on the shoes, but the trace elements did not exactly match the proportions in sea water. The testing lab suggested that the chemical components may have been distorted by salts in the tanned leather, by washing or by abrasion.

According to Dan Conlin, the Museum’s Curator,

“We hear from people all the time who think they have objects from Titanic.  Unsually nice people who have something in the family or bought something from an antique shop which they think or hope is from Titanic:  key tags, steward’s badges, door plates, bells, belt buckles and more deck chairs than I can remember.  They inevitably turn out to be wishful thinking.

“However, Northover’s shoes seemed very different from the start.  The family’s story had the ring of plausibility connected to a significant person and institution in Halifax of 1912.  Earle’s grandfather had retired  as Halifax’s deputy polie chief.  He told his sons, who told their children how grandfather Clarence had guarded the Halifax morgue where Titanic’s victims were brought after the sinking.  When the discarded clothes were swept up, he did not have the heart go burn the tiny pair of baby’s shoes but kept them in a box at his desk in the police station and they went to Ontario with him when he retired.

“Museums have a high standard of authenticity  Starting with the Northover’s oral history, we searched newspapers, city directories, police personnel records, coroner’s reports, period footwear catalogues, shoe historians on two continents and the latest in scientific testing.  Taken together, the documentary evidence confirmed Northover’s story.”

If the shoes had indeed belonged to the Unknown Child, could the identification of the child as Eino Panula have been in error?  While the assessment of the age of the child based on the teeth was the opinion of a group of world odontological experts, it was still subjective.  The initial DNA analysis, although objective, had indicated that the child could be either the Panula or Goodwin baby.

The responsibility of identifying the child now returned to the ancient DNA community, with the hope that additional DNA analysis could genetically differentiate between the Panula and Goodwin families.  Identification of the tiny baby who died decades ago now depended on some of the most sophisticated technology on earth.

To be continued…

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV (Conclusion)

Posted in Historical Identifications | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Unknown Child on the Titanic – Part I


Index card from 1912 describing the Unknown Child

On April 20-23 1912, on its mission from Halifax to salvage remains from the Titanic, the crew of the cable ship Mackay-Bennett pulled 306 bodies from the frigid waters of the north Atlantic. Only one of them, body No. 4, was that of a child. At the time, the best that forensic identification could offer was the observations, recorded on an index card, that the child was a boy, about two years of age, probably a third-class passanger.

St. George's Anglican Church, Halifax

Since no one came to claim the baby, the crew of the Mackay-Bennett took responsibility for the child’s remains, arranging a beautiful funeral for him at St. George’s Anglican Church. The child was buried in what would become a well-visited grave at the top of a small hill in Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax.  His tombstone was inscribed:  Erected to the memory of an Unknown Child whose remains were recovered after the disaster to the Titanic April 15, 1912

That is the way things stayed until 1998, when the family of Gosta Paulson requested that the grave be opened and DNA identification be performed on the remains of the child.  It had long been speculated that the Unknown Child was two-year, three-and-a-half-month old Gosta, based on eye witness accounts of the boy being swept into the water as the Titanic sank, and to the recovery of the body of his mother, Alma Paulson, with the tickets of her four children still in her pocket.

Ryan Parr

The Paulson family enlisted Ryan Parr of Genesis Genomics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Alan Ruffman, of Geomarine Associates Limited in Halifax, to obtain permission to open the child’s grave and perform DNA analysis on his remains.  The exhumation took place May 17-18, 2001.

To be continued…

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV (Conclusion)

Posted in Historical Identifications | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Jeni’s Family Reunion


Jeni's husband John, her father Thomas McKay, Jeni and baby Nolan, her sister Heather, and her brother Marc.

Jeni Reed was raised by her maternal grandmother and knew almost nothing about her dad Thomas McKay.  Yet we were able to find him!  I surprised Jeni with the news on June 16.  To add to the excitement, we discovered that Jeni has three sisters and a brother she had never met, plus a new aunt and two new uncles.  She was in shock when she contacted her dad.  He was delighted to hear from her! 

In July, Jeni got to meet many family members for the first time.  As she describes the reunion:

Well, the big meeting was this past weekend and it was so fun. I met my dad, one sister and my brother. We are all getting together again, plus more extended family and my other sister, in August. Here is a pic of us all. From L to R: My hubby John, Dad, me and baby Nolan, sister Heather, and bro Mark. 

What’s crazy is that we found out from 2006-2008 we were living right across from my cousin and didn’t know it. We even bought a blanket off of them at their garage sale before they moved away. My aunt Dori sold it to us and she vividly remembers us that day. Just crazy. Again, I just can’t thank you enough. My fam is so sweet and nice and it’s like we’ve known each other all along. Just amazing. 

On August 7, Jeni got to meet the rest of her family. She sent me more pictures. As she described the family reunion:
 
Yes, we had the party last Saturday and I’ve met most of the fam. It was wonderful; the common theme was “It’s like we’ve known each other all along.” and that I am 100% McKay! I still have one Uncle (Toms twin) and of course my sis Melissa to meet Aug. 31. So looking forward to it. Here are some pics. You may certainly use the photos and I’ll send more when I meet Meli. 
 

Update:
Over Labor Day, Jeni got together with her McKay family at Lake Tahoe for yet another reunion.  It seems the warmth they feel towards each other is drawing them closer than ever.   As Jeni says:
 
My dad is great, my siblings are awesome, and the kids are precious. So much more to learn about each other, yet we are all so comfortable. The Mckays are great people. As my cousin Patti said: “You find your family and get this one! You’re one lucky girl!” Ya, I won the cosmic lottery or something. :) My sweet Uncle Craig told me good things happen to good people.
 

The McKays over Labor Day in Lake Tahoe: Heather, Jeni, Dad, Melissa, Aubri and Mark

 

 

Posted in Finding Birth Parents, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Maurice Conway


Andy and Colleen with Lorna Conway Burke, Maurice's Granddaughter

The best part of our projects is the good friendships we form with the people whose lives we  touch.  On our recent trip to Ireland, Andy and I visited with Maurice Conway and his family in Co. Limerick.  Maurice provided the DNA match that confirmed that the remains found in the wreck of Northwest Flight 4422 were those of his distant cousin Francis Joseph van Zandt.   During our time together, Maurice took us to the old Conway farm where Frank’s mother Margaret Conway was born and grew up.  We walked the road she walked with her sisters and brothers as they started from home for America.  And of course we paid our respects at the Conway family tombstone that played such an important part in solving the mystery of the identity of the Hand in the Snow. 

Andy, Colleen, and Lorna at the Conway Tombstone in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Askeaton, Co. Limerick, Ireland.

Maurice, Andy, and Colleen near the Conway home in Askeaton. The plant where Maurice worked is in the background.

Posted in Military Identifications, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maria the Bag Lady from Buenos Aires


My experience in locating people internationally is quite extensive.  I have located people on all continents except for Antarctica (too cold).  My most spectacular success was the location of a bag lady in Buenos Aires named Maria.  The woman had married a man from an influential Argentinian family.  She was uneducated and had been his nurse.  When the husband died nine years later, the family confiscated all of Maria’s inheritance, forcing her out onto the street.

However there was real estate in the US that had been forgotten, and had been escrowed by the State.  Since her husband was dead, Maria as the owner had to be located for it to be reclaimed.  When I found her, Maria was 68 years old, and had been living on the street for 15 years.  She lived in an apartment with no heat, no telephone, no electricity, and no water.  She picked up cardboad for a living at night.  And now she owned a valuable piece of land in the US.

Maria would never come to the phone to speak with me.  She was terrified.  I could understand her fear of her husband’s family.  They had probably intimidated her, threatened to kill her if she did not relinquish the rights to her inheritance. I could do nothing but turn over her contact information to the investment company that had hired me to find her.  I like to speak to every person I find to reassure them about who I am and to discuss why I have been searching for him.  But in this case, it was not possible.

I was never told by the investment company what happened to Maria’s property.  But I noticed that after speaking with her, my contact with the company was in an unusually good mood.  After thinking about this, I realized that I had innocently placed Maria’s life in danger.  If she sold the property for what it was worth, without means of depositing her money in a bank account, she would have been killed on the street for the cash.  If she kept the property, she could be killed by her husband’s family.  With her out of the way, the family would be the heirs to the valuable property.  Her only hope of survival would be to give the property away for just enough money for survival in the near future.

A year later, I received an email from a woman looking for Maria, probably for the same reason.  She had read a posting I had placed on a bulletin board, asking for information leading to Maria’s whereabouts.  I explained to the woman that any attempt to find her could lead to her murder, but she did not understand and begged me to give her Maria’s contact information.  I refused.

Posted in Unclaimed Property | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

23 and Me Male and Female Haplgroups


I just spent the evening reviewing the male and female haplogroups of Benjaman’s 23 and Me matches that are predicted to be at the 3rd and 4th cousins levels.  I was hoping to find a geographical pattern that might indicate his origins. 

Unfortunately, the haplogroups of his matches do not reveal too much information because of their variety.  His male haplogroups are mostly R1b1b2a and its downstream subclades, with one I1* [European], one Q1a3a [Native American], one E1b1a8a [African America], and one G2a [Turkey and the Mediterranean].  His female haplogroups are quite varied.  These include HV0 and various subclades of H1, H5, and H7, also subclade U2, various subclades of U5, one T1, two T2b, one L3e5, and subclades of both K1 and V.  It is curious to me why his male haplogroups should be relatively similar, but his female haplogroups should consist of such a wide variety.

Posted in Benjaman Kyle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment