DNA testing of unknown Recovered Bodies

Keith_Baxter

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Apr 29, 2015
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Plan aims to identify unknown Titanic dead
'Let them rest in peace' : American man wants to exhume unidentified Titanic victims

I don't think anything has changed since the last attempts in 2001. If someone could present compelling evidence to the relevant local authorities in Halifax that one of their relatives was an unidentified victim buried in a particular grave, an exhumation could be ordered. But as one of the articles above explained, unfortunately there may be little or nothing left of them because of the water table level in the cemetery, meaning it would be impossible to obtain a DNA sample.
In this thread from 2001, the first post by Tracy Oost, one of the Forensic Anthropologists involved with the exhumations then, explained the situation.
 
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PRR5406

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Jun 9, 2016
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Exhume a bunch of skeletons? To what worthwhile end? These victims are immortal just by the circumstances of their deaths.
 

Mike Spooner

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Jan 31, 2018
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I see Professor Bill Willard is in a 22 catch situation. He claims of over 130 persons have required for a DNA test and there are the ones who do not what the graves disturb! The only way to known who who is to uncover all the 43 unknown named graves!
I enclose some of the recent articles which shows is not so straight forward as there is all chance some of the graves have become waterlogged.
 

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Bill Willard

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Mar 24, 2001
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Well, it has been a few months since I last posted on ET, but I want to respond to a few of the comments here. Hopefully, it will correct the mistakes, educate those who are not aware of what we are doing, and give another perspective on this issue. First, to Mike Spooner, thank you for your observation that I was sincere at the BTS convention. Forgive me - if we met and spoke, I did not know of your reservations then, or we could have met in the Atrium and had some tea and talked about it then.

First, we have closer to 200 family members who support our efforts to find their family members. We have those endorsements on printed affadavits, video interviews, emails, postings, and faxes. I have received none from snail mail yet, interestingly enough. Mike Spooner, at the BTS convention session, heard three people stand and identify their loved one lost, and then express support for the project. We received more than a dozen more after that convention. Many are aware that the chances are low for finding their loved one, but take the stance that "I'd rather know for sure". And remember, we have not even strongly sought out these family members - the BTS helped, our social media group helps, and other than that, it is word of mouth. When we make a strong effort to seek descendants and relatives, we feel that there will be quite a few who will want to know.

Second, we have endorsements from MANY Titanic societies (the BTS is one), numerous Titanic historians, authors and known researchers, and even the city of Southampton has, in writing, supports our project. All of these are in our formal project documents that are in the hands of officials making the decisions. None of the claims here are "just claims" - all are in writing.

Thirdly, someone here used the word "exhume". So did the newspaper articles. We have no idea where that word came from - it has never been a part of the project proposal. Some of the officials had heard ridiculous things - one heard we were going to come in with large excavators and practically strip mine the cemetery area. Another tale - we were going to dig up all the bones and ship them off to labs to do all sorts of things to them. Another rumor was that we were going to sell the DNA sequences to some ancestry group and offer a "see if you are related to a Titanic victim for $100" special. That is ghoulish. All of these, and a few others, were absurd. Our plan was to use a small backhoe to open a site to about 4-5 feet, then to hand-trowel from there. Each bucket of soil would be screened, and when something was found - identified by a professional forensic anthropologist with 30+ years of professional experience, we would use an on-site sequencer (it actually would be at our lodging accommodation). If that sequencer identified the sample as viable, we would close the grave. This is called "in situ" recovery - only a small sample would be disturbed (that for the purpose of obtaining the DNA sequence). That takes care of the "strip mining" and "exhumation" tales. Thirdly, we are using a Genetic Research Facility in the US for first run at our matching. In the US, this would fall under our HIPAA laws - at no time, and for no reason could that Genetic Research Facility Release the results to a private, non-involved entity. That could not happen. So the sequences would be safe. Now, there could be a legal challenge AFTER someone was identified - for example, if we identified "John Smith", then would his current family own the rights to "John's" DNA sequence - if so, then they would have the right to do with it what they wanted - but that would have to go before a court. Interestingly, the people who commented in those Halifax articles have never been a party to any of our discussions - and do not know anything about the scope and sequence of what our plans are. Notice - no of those who speak AGAINST the project NEVER address "what about those Titanic family members who want to find their loved ones?" I also want you to note that NONE of those publications ever sought me out to answer questions. They were not meant to be an informative articles. I've had people FROM Halifax find me on social media and join our project because of these articles and the radio interview there.

Let's see - fourthly - Halifax has not said yes. That is true. And as of today, 9/4/2019, they have not said "no" officially. During August, our representatives met with individuals and groups of people who are the ACTUAL decision makers for all three cemeteries. The first - a wonderful group - had several of their board who actually liked the idea, and had not heard about this before (interesting that the paper articles said they had declined, when the governing body had not heard of the project). This group has not said "yes" but they have not said "no" and we are in continuing discussions to make this a win/win for both sides. At the second cemetery, the decision maker had not heard of the proposal, and when shown/told that someone had said "no" from his office, was not happy that he had not been consulted about this before someone gave the paper a response. In short, he sat and asked excellent questions just in his initial meeting with our rep. We look forward to answering additional questions, to make this a win/win scenario for his cemetery. The third cemetery stated that they had said "no" because there was no formal proposal in their hands at that time. That has been addressed, and discussions continue there as well. All three could say yes; all three could say no; or there could be some say yes while some say no.

Fifthly, and I apologize for using graphic language here - but the claim has been posted that "there is nothing left". That is possible. We announced that at the BTS program, and in every presentation we make. HOWEVER, our experts, led by a Forensic Anthropologist with 30+ years active experience, think otherwise. We also have the opinion of Dr. Ryan Parr, who worked on the Goodwin project starting in 2001, and another expert who worked on that project - that there quite probably will be remains in many of the graves. Here is the basic science logic: first, we know that remains were found in 2001, of a 2-year old infant. An adult male has a SIGNIFICANTLY greater bone mass and bone density than a 2 year old. That means that adult remains would take significantly longer to decompose. Secondly - no testing has ever been attempted at Baron de Hirsch nor Mount Olivet, so to claim Fairview Lawn's conditions will be the same in those other areas is unproven.

Some feel those buried should be undisturbed. But there are many who lost family that night in 1912, that WANT to know if their family member is buried in Halifax. Don't they have the right to find out? We have several seeking grandfathers; one man seeks his uncle; others seek great-grandfathers. If you are into genealogy, you may have seen that two crewmembers of the USS Oklahoma (Pearl Harbor) that were buried in a mass grave in 1941 that were identified in August - they were twins, and their sister's DNA was used for the match. Those twins were returned home, with numerous family members in attendance. Now, the Titanic unknowns will not be removed; they will stay where they are now - but the family will come to Halifax. Thousands will come to see them. Millions will come over time to see them. Don't they deserve their names?

Thanks for reading. Feel free to seek us out on social media and join our efforts.

Bill Willard
 
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Nov 14, 2005
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If its done in the manner described I wouldn't have a problem with it. Bodies are dug up and tested a lot for various reasons. The U.S. military spends a lot of time, effort and money to locate recover and DNA test missing/unknown soldiers. Thats a good thing in my opinion. Much of it might just be a matter time. When King Richard III was dug up and DNA tested and confirmed I didn't hear that anybody thought it was a bad thing. It was a facinating story, especially about the woman and team that found him. Buried under a parking lot of all places. Plus they confirmed some of his living decendants. Also another DNA story that I read about was equally interesting. It was about a stone age body (around 10,000 years old) that was dug up in England. They were able to recover DNA and match it to desendant in a near by village. A history teacher if I remember right. Anyway I can understand why people would have a different opinion on the matter. But like I said earlier its done all the time.
 
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Seumas

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I think Keith Baxter's post at the top of the page makes a good point, only those who have the most compelling evidence for a claim should be allowed to pursuing it. Every claim should be subject to the utmost scrutiny.

Perhaps those allowed to pursue a claim should be limited to only direct descendants of victims such as their Great-Grandchildren and Great-Great Grandchildren. No distant cousins of anything like that.

There's an old post here on ET somewhere making the argument that one of the unidentified bodies photographed at the Halifax morgue (featured in the Secrets of the Dead documentary) had a fair resemblance to a photograph taken whilst he was alive of Walter Ennis, the Turkish Bath masseuse. I actually thought they had a point, there is a resemblance.
 

Mike Spooner

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Jan 31, 2018
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Bill thanks for your reply. I was only at BTS as a listener to your lecture which can be quite a challenge at the best of time! You spoke well and sounded sincere and give the impression you not trying make money out of it. The lecture room is not the best for sound and acoustic, at time I found it quite difficult to hear some of the other lectures had to said. So if I have said some thing wrong in my comments please accept my apology.
I can see how things get blown out proportion quickly. You have made quite clear you not want to dig up the bodies and put them into laboratory for a full blown analysis. Like we see with the recovered bones from the Henry eighth war ship Mary Rose. Which is amazing how they can work out what part of the world they came from and the type work they did.
The real challenge is not so much the mechanical side of taking a small sample and replacing the grave as found, but the human element side for those who don't want touch. When looks at 43 graves it quite significant in numbers as to the thousands of unnamed soldiers in War 1&2. As for civilians that can run into millions.
I have be asked why we want to know of the past bodies? Well I think its in our genes to know of our past history. Those amazing documentaries on the pharaohs 4000 years ago do we complain about them? Time is a healer, is it time for the 43 unknown graves?
 

Bill Willard

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Mar 24, 2001
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Mike, we do have many grandchildren and great grandchildren supporting the project. We also have great nieces and nephews ("he was my grandfather's brother"). It is interesting to know that many of these families - though not direct descendants - are still affected by having lost someone on Titanic. In one family, the grandson has been greatly affect all his life by the Titanic story, while his sister was never interested in it. So, he supports us, she is not that interested. A second fact to note - many of the unknowns were single, and would have no children, therefore not having direct descendants - but they do have the nieces and nephews. We cannot do much for these victims at this point - but if we can, we want to give them the dignity of their names. I agree with you that it is important for us to seek our ancestry. I was shocked to find that I have a direct lineage with the Plantagenets, through the Davenport lines. That makes me cousin - many generations back - to Richard III. And that is neat. I wish you could have heard one of the Lahardane citizens who had been influential with the Addergoole Titanic Society. He had tears in his eyes when he was asked "what would it mean if one of those unknowns was identified as an Addergoole son or daughter?" He said - [parpaphrased - we have it on video] - what would it mean to the family? what would it mean to our town?? It would mean EVERYTHING.... And what would it mean to Ireland - to find one that was lost?" It is for them, and the others who share their stories and their tears with us, that we seek to give those victims their names. It's all we can give them now.
 

Seumas

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Bill thank you for presenting your case openly and I must say, in a very respectful manner here on ET. On this highly emotive subject not everyone will agree with you but we surely respect your sincerity.

I certainly think there is a case for trying to identify a few of the victims if there is a strong circumstantial case for doing so with an individual. Although I do still think that if this does go ahead that it should be strictly limited to only direct descendants but that's just my meaningless opinion.

Where is the funding going to come from for this ?

Also what exactly is your criteria for a claim that would be pursued in the hope of reaching an identification ?

You will also ask people to provide a strong "paper trail" of evidence (births, deaths, marriages, census') that they positively are a relation of a Titanic victim rather than just taking them at their word for it I hope. Unfortunately with things like this there are sometimes time wasters, thrill seekers and just plain ghouls who try to be involved which must be guarded against.
 
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Bill Willard

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Mar 24, 2001
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Seumas, you have an excellent question about the funding. With the 2001 project, there were always questions - people outside the loop wanted more information so they could be a part of the project even as an observer. We have plans for a documentary miniseries, possibly 8 hours of programming, to accompany the project. We want to tell the Halifax story (what happened when the ships returned with Titanic victims). The city had a heroic task in front of them, and they did an incredible job considering the year. We want to tell Southampton's story, the Addergoole story, and stories of third class passengers and crew that have, for the most part, been larger ignored by other documentaries. We will support the history with the science - there will be segments at the recovery sites (showing only appropriate shots from there), at the genetics lab, and with the family members. We want to tell the stories, leading up to a service, memorial service if you will, announcing the names of the identified victims. We already have an interested network (please allow me not to reveal that at this time to the public) who will provide the funding. I will share this with you - the genetics research facility with whom we will be working has volunteered to do the testing for materials cost. That is tremendous. We also have other experts who want to donate their time and expertise (in MANY areas) to contribute to the overall project, because they are impassioned about this, and want to be a part of it.

Allow me to address a side point - "someone is just in it to make a lot of money". I have been accused of that, and specifically asked "How much will you be making off this project" by Rick Howe, Halifax radio show host, in a live interview. Well, I hope to break even, honestly. I've signed no agreement nor has any offer been made to me at this time. I expect to be reimbursed with my costs - I'm already out of pocket over $4000 at this point. I also may have to take a semester away from classes (a sabbatical, perhaps) that would take away from my income. I made one call to Halifax alone that cost over $120. I will also share that we have offered several additional projects at two of the three cemeteries that would help them, at no cost to them, to enhance/upgrade the Titanic graves. If we were in it to make a huge profit, we would not have made those offers. In our process - we when get an approval, then we start with the budgeting process. I will share that I think this documentary will be HEAVILY watched by Titanic enthusiasts from around the world. We anticipate an audience as large as the "Raising the Big Piece/Titanic Live" audience for 1998 - the second most watched live broadcast after the wedding of Charles and Diana. (we do not have plans for a live show - we would rather have time to edit and maximize the information shared). A documentary shares information to the public in a relatively quick, comprehensive way, and to a degree gives transparency.

As far as identification of TRUE family members - we have anticipated your thought above. When we really go public seeking family members, we will get lots of "I was told I was related to a Titanic passenger" stories. We will rely on ancestral lines, and we can use a public service such as Ancestry to verify those familial relationships. That will take some time - best case is to do that over the cold winter months. We have already started a "primary/secondary/tertiary" criteria list that names who will be the best to test (direct sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters) to the distant cousins. You are so correct that we will have many who will want to be involved that may take up valuable time.
 
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Seumas

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Thank you for replying Bill and certainly for providing a good deal of information about this.

I think that as long as an individual case for doing so is a strong one, then by all means try and put a name to them.

Have you had any success at contacting people from non-English speaking countries about identifying their Great-Great Grandfather for example ?

The figures I have before me* claim that amongst others there were 104 Swedish, 79 Lebanese, 55 Finns, 33 Bulgarians, 22 Belgians and a lesser amount from Croatia, Denmark, Armenia, Switzerland and Portugal aboard RMS Titanic when she sank. Most of them perished. Have you found avenues to get your project featured in the media of those countries and find potential blood relations of unidentified victims who now lie in Halifax ?

*Source is "Titanic Lives" by R Davenport-Hines.
 

Keith_Baxter

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Apr 29, 2015
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Exhume a bunch of skeletons? To what worthwhile end? These victims are immortal just by the circumstances of their deaths.
FWIW, there are projects to identify WWI soldiers that could be said to be roughly comparable.
 

Bill Willard

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Mar 24, 2001
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[Have you had any success at contacting people from non-English speaking countries about identifying their Great-Great Grandfather for example ?]

You have mentioned one of our missions. We hope featuring it with many of the Titanic Societies around the world (most of whom endorse us) will help - most of the 42 Unknowns appear to be ship's crew - firemen or stewards. The third class passengers appear to be possibly Irish. One is described as- "possibly Greek" and another "possibly Italian". That helps in our search.

Good thinking!
 
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>>Some feel those buried should be undisturbed. But there are many who lost family that night in 1912, that WANT to know if their family member is buried in Halifax. Don't they have the right to find out?<<

Yes they do, and they have the standing to say as much. I've been involved with the Titanic community for over two decades now, and I've known Bill since the gathering in Florence SC back in 2003. If I thought there was anything underhanded about this, as some parties have implied or stated bluntly, I would never have signed on...quite literally....to support this. Everything here is on the up an up.

I've also met and come to know the decedents of both survivors as well as the victims and count some of them as my friends. I can tell you from some of the discussions I've had with them that there is a lot of pain with not knowing. We're talking about people who grew up hearing fond stories of aunts, uncles, granddads and grandmothers who they never had a chance to get to know because they never made it to the other side of the Atlantic.

Did some of them make it to Halifax?

That's a good question and it's now possible to identify some of these people...if there are any remains...because of technologies which didn't exist a century ago. I have no doubt that if this project goes ahead, some will be identified. For some families, this will bring some satisfaction that they know where a loved one is and for some, a measure of disappointment, but at least they will know.
 

Seumas

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I used to be against the idea of any further identification of Titanic victims but I have been won round by reading Bill's very detailed arguments and am impressed at his openness by engage with the public like this. Bill's endorsement by an ET expert and legend like Michael Standart also impresses me.

The authorities in Halifax should listen to the relatives of the victims and allow this to go ahead. It's their families after all.

How have the local Roman Catholic and Jewish authorities responded to the possibilities of identifying the "unknowns" that lie in their own respective Halifax cemeteries ?
 

Bill Willard

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Mar 24, 2001
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Thank you Seumas, for joining with us. If you use Facebook, join our group "Project NAME THEM ALL" and become a part of the support family. Meet descendants who share their support. This is a project where, in the wrong hands, would be a nightmare. That is why I WANT to talk with people, to let them know who I am and what I believe - that I feel these victims are MY family (having researched them for 45 years).
All three cemeteries have our initial proposal, and were receptive to it. No one said yes or no, and we look forward to the next round of conversations where we can, as I've done here, answer questions, address concerns, and see how we can help them. If all works well, we may can identify some of the 42. We greatly appreciate the cemeteries talking with us, and hearing our proposal so far.
 
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Seumas

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Tanks Bill.

I steer well clear of Facebook and Twitter but rest assured I will keenly following any updates on here, elsewhere and wish you all the best.

The relevant authorities in Halifax I hope and pray will listen to the families of the lost and accede to their requests for potential identification to go ahead. It's the right thing to do.

I am keen to see if body No. 139 and body No. 257 can be identified. From the description of their clothing, especially No. 257, it really does look like they could be amongst the engineers or electricians.
 

Mike Spooner

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My first thoughts was not to disturb any of the unnamed 43 gravesides. But if my calculation is correct that is less than 3% of the 1500 who perished. Then there is the question of the ones whom don't want the graves touch. How can they be sure they are any connection with them? There is all chance some of those graves will never find a name for them. So the odds are further reduced in percentage. As Bill has said the grave disturbance will be done to the minimum and not dig up the bodies, and intention is not make a money making business out of it!
It will certainty settle another untold story of Titanic!