Titanic Bodies

Body of RMS Titanic victim aboard rescue vessel CS Minia being made ready for make-shift coffin. Image: Nova Scotia Archives

For the 328 people whose bodies were recovered at the site of the Titanic disaster, unique fatality reports  were created. They speak volumes about those whose bodies were retrieved. From third-class passengers to millionaires, these reports document their lives through what they had on their person that fateful night.

Dr. John Henry Barnstead, a Halifax physician, developed the system for identifying Titanic’s dead. He used a numbering system based on the order in which they were retrieved from the ocean. Mortuary bags were used to hold clothing and personal effects found on the body. This system was used again after the 1917 Halifax Explosion and countless times in other disasters with great loss of human life.

Using Barnstead’s system as its base, these reports document physical characteristics of bodies (typically sex, age, colouring, any identifying marks) and track potentially identifying papers and items found on their person. The reports were used to ensure that family members could claim their loved one’s body and personal effects. Each Fatality Report includes the Medical Examiner’s record listing physical characteristics and belongings, followed in the file by any other documents generated during disposition of the body and its effects. Some include extensive correspondence between White Star and the province of Nova Scotia.


Body No. 124 John Jacob Astor

The record of John Jacob Astor, who was in first class, begins with a description of his person and his belongings:


CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with “A.V.”; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; “J.J.A.” on back of collar.

EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook.


Managing the bodies and communicating with families, was the responsibility of the Provincial Secretary’s Office in Halifax. The correspondence in each file was either addressed to or signed by Frederick F. Mathers, the Deputy Provincial Secretary, or sometimes by George Murray, who was both the Provincial Secretary and Premier of Nova Scotia at the time.

Only 209 bodies were brought in to Halifax. The other 119 files in the Fatality Reports are for individuals buried at sea, and are identified as such.

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Lauren Oostveen

About Lauren Oostveen

Lauren Oostveen graduated from Mount Saint Vincent University with a degree in public relations. She works for the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management in Halifax where she puts old stuff on the internet and helps people connect with the province’s past. Lauren writes a movie column for the Chronicle Herald called SMASH CUT where she celebrates all things horror. Lauren also blogs for Spacing Atlantic and NovaScotia.com. She lives in Halifax with her cat Mia and may or may not have a Netflix addiction. Follow Lauren on Twitter at @laurenoostveen.


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