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Tsar Nicholas II
Tsar Nicholas II

4 mysteries solved with the help of DNA Add to ...

Did any royal heirs survive the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution of 1917? Who was Kaspar Hauser? What happened to two of the most reviled Nazi war criminals? Modern forensic sciences, especially DNA tests, have helped shed light on some of those historical mysteries.


The Russian empire’s last czar, Nicholas II, was executed with his family by a Bolshevik firing squad in 1918, but a legend persisted for years that two of the children, Anastasia and Alexei, survived because diamonds sewn into their clothes deflected the bullets. When the family’s remains were found and examined in the 1990s, the bones of two children were still missing. The story was put to rest in 2009, after DNA tests on bones found in a nearby grave – those of a female aged 17 to 24 and a male aged 14 to 16 – concluded that they were from two Romanov children.


During the French Revolution, Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were guillotined in 1793 but their surviving son, 10-year-old Louis, was kept captive for two years until it was reported that he died of illness. In the ensuing decades, several claimants stepped forward with tales that the heir to the crown had survived and escaped. In 2000, DNA fragments were collected on a heart that was said to belong to the dead child. The data were compared with a hair sample from Marie Antoinette, and established that they were indeed related.


Barely able to speak or walk, an abandoned young man surfaced at the Nuremberg town square in 1828. Five years later, he was mysteriously stabbed to death by a stranger. Speculation spread that he was a son of the Grand Duke Carl von Baden and Stéphanie de Beauharnais, adopted daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1998, researchers in Munich used DNA from a bloodstain on Hauser’s clothes and from two living relatives of Stéphanie de Beauharnais to conclude that Hauser was not related to the house of Baden.


Martin Bormann, the second most powerful man in the Third Reich, disappeared as the Red Army entered Berlin in 1945. DNA tests helped identify bones found in 1972 as Bormann’s. DNA tests also confirmed remains exhumed in Brazil in 1985 were those of the fugitive “Angel of Death,” SS doctor Josef Mengele.


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