Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SECRETS OF THE DEAD . Titanic's Ghosts

Joan Allison's grandmother, Catherine Wallis

Joan Allison's grandmother, Catherine Wallis.

On April 10, 1912, the largest, most elegant luxury liner in the world set sail from Southampton, England. At 46,000 tons, the Titanic was, at the time, the largest moving object ever built.

On the evening of Sunday, April 14, 1912, three passengers on board the Titanic were anticipating their arrival in America. Catherine Wallis was a 35-year-old widow with four children at home in Southampton, England. As a third-class matron, she tended to the needs of the third-class passengers. Two-year-old Gosta Paulson and his three siblings were traveling from Sweden with their mother, Alma, to meet their father, Nils, in Chicago. Two years earlier, Nils was forced to leave the country in the wake of a coal mining strike. He had since been working as a trolley operator and saving enough money to move his family to the United States. Although born and raised in rural England, Charlie Shorney's work as the valet for a wealthy family had enabled him to travel. His worldliness spawned an ambitious plan; with half the family silver in tow, Shorney was on his way to meet his fiancée Marguerite and start one of the first taxi cab companies in New York City. Inspired by the notion of sailing on the world's greatest vessel, Shorney had changed his ticket so that he could ride on the Titanic. It was a fatal decision. Titanic was headed directly into an ice field 80 miles long.

Fairview Lawn cemetery

Fairview Lawn Cemetery

Titanic's monstrous size and extravagance was part of a plan by the Aberdeen White Star Line to create a new breed of massive, lavish ocean liners. The White Star Line sailing clipper fleet had been founded in 1845 to transport prospectors rushing to Australia in search of recently discovered gold. Eventually the company began building steamships, famously operating a high-class passenger service between Britain and North America. In an attempt to compete with the Cunard Line's pair of speedy, quadruple-funneled liners, the Lusitania and Mauritania, White Star hatched a plan in 1907 to build its Olympic-class luxury liners -- three ships larger, heavier, and far more opulent than any the world had seen. Each ship got progressively larger, starting with the 45,000-ton Olympic, launched in 1910. Yet the ambitious Olympic liners were doomed from the start. The Olympic was plagued with mechanical problems, the Britannic sank in the Aegean Sea after colliding with a mine or a torpedo, and as for the Titanic ...

At 11:40 p.m., April 14, lookouts spotted an iceberg in the ship's path, but it was too late. Titanic hit the iceberg and water began to flood into the forward hull. The ship was totally submerged by 2:20 a.m. Catherine, Gosta, and Charlie never made it to America.

More than 1,500 passengers perished when Titanic sank. Two days later, a Canadian salvage ship, the Mackay-Bennett, left port in Halifax, Nova Scotia, sailing 700 nautical miles southeast to the scene of the ocean liner disaster. All in all, the sailors were able to recover over 300 bodies from the water. The sailors numbered each of the bodies, buried some at sea, and brought the rest back to Halifax. Many of the unidentified vctims were buried in graves in Halifax's Fairview Lawn cemetery.

Among the unidentified victims recovered by the shipmates of the Mackay-Bennett was a young blond boy described in the coroner's report as being around two years of age. The sailors were so moved by the fate of this unknown child that they arranged a funeral service for the boy and had a headstone placed on his grave, which they dedicated "to the memory of an unknown child." The little boy's grave has come to symbolize all the children who perished on the Titanic.

Ninety years later, Catherine Wallis' granddaughter, Joan Allison, is trying to put her grandmother to rest. Hopeful that her grandmother might have been buried in one of these graves, Allison contacted historian Alan Ruffman. Searching through coroner's reports in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Ruffman identified a victim that fit the description of Catherine Wallis and, with the help of DNA expert Dr. Ryan Parr of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, sought to solve Joan Allison's mystery. Inspired by their task, Ruffman and Parr continued working to identify victims of the Titanic. With a little luck, they hoped to pinpoint the resting-places of Gosta Paulson and Charlie Shorney.

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