University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Identifying the Victims of the Halifax Explosion

System for Identifying Mass Casualties from the Titanic Used at Halifax

Halifax the dead

Victims of the explosion laid out on a sled.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Immediately after the Halifax Explosion, search teams began to look for survivors and the dead. Unconscious patients arrived at hospitals without identification, and bodies of the dead were often delivered without identifying belongings.

Only a few hours after the explosion, Arthur S. Barnstead was appointed head of the Mortuary Committee, and a central morgue was set up in the basement of the relatively lightly damaged Chebucto School. Mr. Barnstead was the Registrar of Deaths for Halifax, already responsible for keeping municipal death records.

Arthur Barnstead’s father, Dr. John Henry Barnstead, a Halifax physician, had been responsible in 1912 for identifying the bodies of Titanic victims that had been picked up and brought to the nearest large port, which was Halifax. Faced with identifying so many unknown victims, Dr. Barnstead developed the first system for identifying the dead from mass casualties. He established a numbering system and the use of mortuary bags, which held any clothing and effects found with the body.

Now, only five years later, Arthur Barnstead used his father’s system for identifying the dead from the Halifax explosion.

Professor R. N. Stone arrived from Toronto and took over the morgue at Chebucto School. Working with a team of physicians and military personnel, he organized the processing of bodies, completing death certificates when possible, and embalming and release for burial. In three weeks, they completed work on more than 1100 bodies.

Of the 1601 people who died in the explosion and soon afterward, 60% (959) were identified, and 15% (242) were never identified. A funeral for the unidentified victims was held eleven days after the explosion. Coffins held the remains of from one to six people. Another 25% (410) were known to be missing, but their bodies were never found.

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