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Forensic Identification of Titanic Victims

Discussion in 'Exhumation of Titanic Victims' started by Tracy Oost, Oct 28, 2001.

  1. Tracy Oost

    Tracy Oost Guest

    Hello to all,

    For those who don't know me yet, I am one of the Forensic Anthropologists that was involved with the exhumation of three Titanic victims in Halifax this past May. I was directed to this site by a friend, due to the discussion that was taking place regarding 1912 death photos of victims being auctioned on Ebay. Having now spent a couple of very late nights going through most of the ET archives I realize that most people don't understand the technicalities of the exhumation project, and I would like to correct some erroneous assumptions, as well as provide as much info as I can.

    First, someone referred to Mr. Alan Ruffman (a Halifax geomarine scientist and amateur Titanic Historian) as the project coordinator. This is incorrect. Mr. Ruffman was a local resource for information regarding the cemetary and specifically the Titanic graves. Lisa Stone mistakenly identifies him ( the man with the white beard, usually in a sweater) in some of her pictures on her web site of the exhumations as the provincial coroner or something to that effect. Dr. Ryan Parr from Lakehead University is the principal investigator of the DNA/exhumation project.

    Second, there seems to be confusion as to who exactly instigated the exhumations. Let me explain a bit about the familial connections to the three graves in question. I always refer to there being three "families" involved, due to there being three individuals as subjects of this investigation. However, these three larger "families" are actually made up of several smaller immediate family groups, comprising about 35 people. All believe that they are descendants of one of the three subject individuals. All of these families have done years of research in order to try to determine on their own which victim in Halifax is their relative, if any. All have amassed a large amount of circumstantial evidence that lead to the pinpointing of a particular grave for exhumation. Thus, this was not happenstance, nor was anyone suggesting that other graves be dug up if DNA testing did not work in the first instance.

    The first indication that any family wanted to try for a positive ID came approx. three years ago. One family approached the region of Halifax with their evidence and asked that a name be put on a gravestone. Halifax struck a committee to review the case, and they felt that even though the circumstantial evidence was strong, it wasn't quite good enough. Consequently, DNA testing was suggested as a way to settle the question. After much consultation between all three families, Halifax, and Dr. Parr, the families submitted official documentation to Halifax's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Strang, requesting the exhumations in order to obtain DNA samples. As one of the forensic scientists on the team I was very much involved in this process, and I can assure you that Dr. Strang did not make the decision to allow the exhumations to occur lightly. Many judicial hoops had to be jumped through first.

    I had the pleasure of being the guest of one family in Britian during this project, and the dedication that the generations of that family exhibited regarding identification was incredible. I was told that the father of one of the victims never gave up trying to find out what exactly happened to his son. This cause has been taken up by his decendents, and they are just as fervent in their quest. As a matter of fact one family member stated that the father had alway said that he "would give up his right arm to have his son back", and therefore the family considered sampling for DNA to be entirely appropriate.

    As you can see, this project was certainly not a whim, or publicity seeking ploy. The families asked to remain annonymous because they did not want members of the media hounding them for information. As a forensic scientist I always work for the victim, to be their voice, and do my utmost to protect their dignity. In all cases we use tents to keep the media from obtaining gratuitous pictures, whether it's a homicide, mass disaster, or exhumation.

    In this case I was the one who ended up dealing with the press in Halifax, and we were inundated from the moment we got to our hotel. Unfortunately, we discovered that a local member of the team never met a microphone he didn't like, and had arranged interviews with the press at graveside. I spent the first six hours in Halifax on the phone, begging and pleading, and wheeling and dealing with reporters in order to persuade them that this type of coverage was not right. Thankfully, I only encountered one who was incredibly rude and uncaring. Fortunately, by the following morning, after steadfastly digging my heels in, her boss superceded her and we came to an arrangement. I have a policy with media: those that do not respect the rules of the investigation, and the dignity of the deceased are cut off, permanently. I will have nothing more to do with them, ever. It took a lot of effort, but I believe we did keep the project from becoming a three-ringed circus, as some of you were worried about.

    As this posting has become very long, I will leave it there for now. I invite anyone that has a question to go ahead and ask. It is the only way to learn something new. I teach both college and university students, and another of my policies is that there are no such things as stupid questions.

    Tracy Oost
    Curator, Forensic Osteology Laboratory
    Laurentian University
    Sudbury, Ontario, Canada P3E 2C6
  2. David Seaman

    David Seaman Guest

    Dear Tracy
    Thank you for your professional and personal insite into this topic.
    You have given me (and I am sure many others) a better idea of the process and emotions that go into such a task.
    I was just wonding how conclusive the DNA samples are the futher down the family tree you go. This is probably worded very poorly (but it is the best i can come up with at the moment...lol).This is not so much a Titanic question... rather trying to understand in DNA analysis a little more (i should have really listened harder in Human Biology)
    Thank you in advance Tracy
    David Seaman
  3. Inger Sheil

    Inger Sheil Member

    G'day Tracy -

    Thank you for giving us that insight into the background that lead to the decision to attempt the identifications via exhumation and DNA analysis.

    I've posted elsewhere on the subject of the exhumations, but not on ET. As I indicated in my comments, I believe that if the families instigated the attempts at identification, given that the material required to satisfy officialdom of the liklihood of the identifications being made has to have some considerable weight, then I am in favour of the procedure.

    I'm (sometimes, when the mood is upon me) an Australian. Like many of my fellow Australians, the memory of the First World War battlefields and the number of our dead buried in the fields of Flanders is deeply embedded in my emotional and cultural consciousness. Of those victims that died in the 1914-1918 war, 472,469 are listed as identified burials and nearly 50%, some 415,325 are commemorated only on memorials (as of 1998). Thanks to the ongoing efforts of family members and the remarkable work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, coupled with advances in communication technology, identifications are becoming more commonplace - as many as 20 or 30 per year. There has even been a new addenda panel added to the Thiepval Memorial.

    I travelled a good deal in childhood, and the family - given that many members on both maternal and paternal sides had served in WWI - frequently visited memorials. My Grandmother, in every war cemetary we visited or memorial we saw, would scan for the name of a childhood friend who had gone missing. Even into her eighties she never ceased to wonder what had become of the somewhat wild and wayward young stockman who had marched away to war. She never did find out.

    As the efforts to identify the lost of the war continue - not to satisfy the media or the sometimes intrusive interest of the public, but to bring closure to families - I believe that the efforts to identify the Titanic dead should continue.

    All the best,

  4. Thank you for that Tracy. It's good to have some of the background put in context, as well as the facts from someone directly involved rather than speculating from the sidelines. Thanks too for your comments on the media and 'enforcement' of your rules - marvellous!
    Ditto on what Dave S and Inger wrote, too.
    Looking forward to more,
  5. This is a fascinating thread, and many thanks to Tracy for the very detailed help given.

    I'm afraid I'm not up to speed on this - may I ask what the results of the exhumations were? Have the families had their questions answered? Is laboratory analysis still ongoing? Have more details been given in an official statement (or even press account) accessible on the internet?

    Best wishes and thanks

  6. Tracy, thanks for posting this information. If nothing else, it puts to rest the notion that there couldn't be any interested family members after 90 years.

    From the information that got back here, I understand only one grave yeilded anything where any useful DNA could be obtained. I would be interested in hearing how it's going and what testing protocols are being used.

    Michael H. Standart
  7. Mike Herbold

    Mike Herbold Member

    Thank you for the very detailed and thoughtful explanation of the events leading up to the Halifax exhumations this past summer. Realizing that the families in question remained secret, I'm wondering what will happen if and when the Titanic victims are positively identified. Will the headstone then be corrected to read the correct name, or will only the families know?

    A question about the results from last summer. Is it definitely true that two of the gravesites produced no DNA evidence? When do you expect to know one way or another the identity or identities?

    What types of things might lead to a match? Thanks to the hit show "CSI," we know about hair and other things, but we're used to all of this taking place in a one hour show. Perhaps, if you have time, you could exlain some of the painstaking process you go through.

    Mike Herbold
    Lakewood, California
  8. Tracy. I am so glad that you decided to open up this thread. You are correct that there are more questions and unknowns available then facts. There are quite allot of us, who take this part of the investigation as science and although it is not a pretty chapter, it is one that should have proper perspective on it.
    I am anxiously awaiting the replies to the above posts.
  9. Tracy. Here we go.....
    (1)Can you explain the "points of congruency" process, and how many it takes to make a positive identification.
    (2)What features do not change and are used, even after a body is found intact but in an unidentifiable state?
    (3)Did they have dental records back then to assist with this procedure you are doing?
    (4)Is there technology available for the family that does not wish to disturb the graves, but possibly could find results by taking an x-ray of sorts, putting the data into a computer, and making a computer generated analyses to produce a picture of what they may have looked like?
    (5)Can you determine an unidentified person by DNA from several generations lineage of descendants?
    (6) If a photo you obtain from a family member is in black and white, or all they have is a discription of their beloved, how are you able to determine from a morgue photo if they had the blonde/brown hair, olive/white skin, green/blue eyes you are looking for? (Is this where points of congruety comes into play?)
    (7) There were several bodies with no entry what so ever. How can they be properly identified today?

    Thank you! :)
  10. Tracy Oost

    Tracy Oost Guest


    I tried to reply to you directly from my email system regarding your DNA question, but it looks like the message didn't get through. So here goes again.

    The DNA undergoing analysis here is mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA. It is only passed from generation to generation through the maternal line. For the area of mtDNA that gets tested each familial line in the world has its own mtDNA profile/fingerprint/signature. Naturally, as we go back in time these signatures converge anywhere there is a maternal familial connection. This is a vast oversimplification, but it is how DNA researchers have tracked all of our DNA back to a "mitochondrial eve". Not being a DNA specialist myself it is a bit difficult to explain although I understand the concepts. Basically, if you take my mtDNA, my mother's, my grandmother's, etc., and test a particular segment of it, they would all show areas that are the same. This is the type of testing that was done on the Romanov's, when a DNA sample was required from Prince Phillip because he shares a maternal connection to them. So, it is very accurate, even down through the generations.

    Hope that helped,
  11. Teri Lynn Milch

    Teri Lynn Milch Senior Member


    Thank you very much for coming here to ET and enlightening us with the truth on some matters.


  12. David Seaman

    David Seaman Guest

    Thank you very much for your words of wisdom. They have helped greatly to get a little more depth into how the DNA testing works.
    It's funny... I spent weeks on this very subject when i was in highschool and learnt more in one paragraph and 30 seconds of reading.
    Thank you once again... your a Treasure
  13. Tracy Oost

    Tracy Oost Guest

    G'day Inger!

    Thanks for sharing your own insight regarding idenfication of remains. We Canadians are known the world over for our apathy :) so I don't believe we have a government sponsored program that has as its goal identification and repatriation of our war dead, however, colleages of mine in the U.S. are directly involved in that type of work for their war dead. I know that the Vietnam victims are a particular sore spot for them, and they work painstakingly to ensure that the motto "none left behind" is a reality.

    So, it is not so difficult to see how even decendants that had never met their family's Titanic victim would be dedicated to determining the fate of the remains.

    For Bob, Michael, and Mike,

    It is true that the first two graves, those of the adult male and female, did not yield any useful DNA samples. Both graves were subject to extensive water erosion. We were optimistic when the first coffin lid was uncovered and appeared to be intact, and in relatively good condition. However, Murphy always has a way of dropping by uninvited. As it turns out there are French drains under the cemetary's paved pathways, at least under the one closest to these two burials. I seem to recall that French drains not only channel water in a certain path, but also disperse it to the sides to prevent erosion. Someone with some engineering knowledge please correct me if I am wrong. In any case, this and another upkeep project sponsored by the province just before the movie was released have resulted in at least the lower graves being subject to a lot of water. Rather ironic isn't it?

    The unknown child's grave is near the top of the slope that the graves are all on, so it is much drier in this area, and I was able to obtain the appropriate, albeit small samples. Because of the sample size, decomposition, and the fact that in this case we are also dealing with juvenile bone (considerably different from adult) special protocols are being utilized to obtain the best DNA possible. This takes some time, but I have it from Dr. Ryan Parr that the tests should be complete by the end of November. Naturally, the families involved with this one will be notified first, then there will be a press release of some sort.

    My understanding from all families involved in this project is that they want to remain annonymus for as long as possible, if not in purpetuity. However, they do realize that if a name is to eventually go on a grave stone they may very well be innundated by the press. They are taking things one step at a time.

    More later,
  14. I heard and commented on the water problem a few months ago when this first got out into the public. It's a shame about the remains of the adults, but time favours nobody and nothing. I hope it all works out with the child.

    Just what sort of protocols are being used though? While I'm no pathologist or biologist, I have a passing aquintance with a couple of them, but I would like to hear about from somebody (yourself) that knows beyond question what she is talking about. (I don't trust the Discovery Channel. wink.gif )

    Michael H. Standart
  15. Tracy Oost

    Tracy Oost Guest


    Points of congruency is a term that used to be used in my neck of the woods more for fingerprints than my type of anthropological identification. It refers to having a certain threshold number of points that are consistent with each other. So, in some jurisdictions 16 points on a finger print were required, in some only as few as nine. Even fingerprint experts don't really use that terminology anymore because the new philosopy is that even if you only have five points, if they are unique enough you can make a positive ID.

    Things that don't change about an individual, whether soft tissue is present or not, that we can use to make an ID, include stature, certain bony features that allow us to determine sex, others that allow us to determine age at death, and still others that allow us to determine "race" (we prefer genetic affiliation - less cultural nonsense). Also, we can assess any pathology that also affected the bone; anything from fractures, and cutmarks, to diseases.

    I have never seen anything during my research to indicate that an assessment of dentition/dental work was done on the bodies. This might have been helpful, but probably only the first class passengers, and maybe some of the second had regular dental care that might have been documented by a dentist. Most third class and crew probably never went to a dentist. Typically on modern forensic cases dental comparisons are commonplace. For Titanic victims the only dental comparisons that could possibly be done at this point would be if anybody's mouth was slightly open in the death photos, enough to show configuration of the front teeth, and we used that as part of the comparison with a photo of the person when alive. A point of congruency could be shown if they matched.

    Unfortuately, it looks like any of the graves on the bottom half of the slope are eroded so badly that exhumations for DNA would be pointless. At least, I would have to have exceptionally compelling evidence for a likely match to even consider trying. The graves on the upper half of the slope may (and I only mean may) still contain useable bone, based on the condition of the unknown child's grave. We have actually suggested the use of ground penetrating radar in order to visualize the graves and help in determining their condition, but this is not like taking an x-ray of an entire grave, which is impossible. You just don't get an image showing all of the bones lying in an anatomically correct order, body on its back, arms folded across chest kind of deal. We are going through the channels to see if the GPR can be done. It could give us a scientific basis for determining which graves hold viable bone, therefore eliminating exhumations when there is no hope of obtaining useable samples. No one wants to do an exhumation just to do one, or to get publicity. Let me make it clear though, that we are not planning any more exhumations. No other families have approached us at this time, and maybe none ever will.

    Yes, DNA can be used, even to match Titanic victims with subseqent generations. This is why mitochondrial DNA, that is only passed through the maternal line, is being used. Please see my previous explanation to David Seaman.

    Finally, it doesn't matter if the photos are in black and white, or colour, or if you have one of each. Looking at things like hair, eye, and skin colour is all relative. Too many variables involved, like type of film, ambient lighting when the picture was taken, age of the photo, and observer's ability to judge things like colour (all of us females for instance know what the difference is between periwinkle blue, teal blue, and powder blue, but to most men they are all just blue, or maybe they will distinguish intensity like light blue/dark blue). What we compare in these photos is anatomical structure. I'll give you one example. The ears. Did you know that whether your ear lobes are "lobed" or "attached" to your head is determined genetically? This is something that will stay the same after death. Also, did you know that the entire configuration of the pinna of the ear (the part on the outside of your head) is just like a fingerprint? Go to your mirror, turn your head to one side and take a eyeliner or lipliner and trace the outline of your ear on the mirror. Then do the same thing for the "inline" (the inner curve) leading into the vestibule of the ear. Now, have your spouse or a friend do the same thing. Each one will be different. And so will everybody else's! Ears alone will not usually prove a case but taken in context with a series of other comparisons and measurements of particular landmarks of the soft tissue the results will be conclusive. We can also perform facial superimpositions using a life photo and superimposing it over a photo of a skull. Again, comparing bony landmarks with the soft tissue features that we know they influence. And, we can do facial reproductions: using standards for tissue depths and bony landmarks on a skull to mold clay onto the skull in a reconstruction of the face. This type of photo work can be done for any of the Titanic victims that were photographed in Halifax, whether there were any other details about the body recorded or not. These are then compared to life photos from families, news papers, old records, where ever. So, you see DNA has its uses, but it isn't necessarily the be all and end all. Forensic scientists have many other methods at their disposal that can be used depending on their suitability to the case at hand. This is why it is so important at this point to track down as many of these missing death photos as possible. Photo comparisons may be the only way, and certianly the least intrusive way of identifying some of these victims.


    "somebody (yourself) that knows beyond question what she is talking about."

    Gawd! Flattery will get you everywhere (;-), but really, nobody has hung a sign on my door that reads "God" yet! :)-)

    Seriously, I am not the DNA expert of the group. That would be our fearless leader Dr. Ryan Parr (are you lurking out there?). I haven't actually asked him what the protocols are, so I can't tell you, but when I am talking to him next I will ask. Or if he sees this he may want to go ahead and answer himself.

    Great questions everyone. Please keep them coming, but forgive me if I am a little tardy in answering them, we have just had another case come into the lab, and I'm spending most of my time excavating in a swamp in the bush. I'll reply to all as quickly as I can.

  16. Well, if Dr. Parr is out there, bring him on! proud.gif

    Michael H. Standart
  17. George Behe

    George Behe Member

    Hi, Tracy!

    >We can also perform facial superimpositions using >a life photo and superimposing it over a photo of >a skull. Again, comparing bony landmarks with the >soft tissue features that we know they influence.

    I've seen this process done with Josef Mengele and with Mitch Bouyer (whose remains were recovered from the Little Big Horn battlefield) and was impressed by the closeness of the matches. However, I've always wondered how accurate this skull/facial 'matching' is in *all* cases. Is it possible that two unrelated people with superficially-similar facial structure would also have similar skull structure -- and that superimposition of the faces and skulls of those two people would therefore yield results that might actually be misleading? (I realize that photo superimpositions would not be the *only* tests that skeletal remains would undergo, but -- by themselves -- might such superimpositions be misleading or unreliable?)

    Thanks very much for giving us such a thorough description of your efforts to identify the Titanic's dead -- much appreciated!

    All my best,

  18. Tracy, this is FASCINATING ! Thank you so much for your input.
  19. Elaine: Spoken like a true Barnes! Let's hope that our namesake on board this ship gets their true reward of recognition. (I have faith that they will.) :)
    Colleen Collier (Barnes)
  20. Colleen,
    Hi there! It's always nice to meet another Barnes. I've been reading your messages for a while and I love the interplay you have with some of the other members.( I also have faith they will).
    P.S. My grandfather was an Irishman on my mother's side.