Petronella Wyatt

Who’s who?

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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As I wrote last week, Florida, not to mention the United States, is full of surprises. Many practising Christians show a marked lack of opposition to scientific advances that cause hysteria in Britain. One of these is cloning. Expressing my distaste for recreating human beings I used the specious argument that, surely, for the religious, God was meant to create man, so was it not wrong for the latter to usurp that role? This met with the response that God created man in His own image and cloning was simply creating more human beings in His own image.

I was also enlightened during conversations with some of the matriarchs of the Gulf coast as to their positive views on the use of such techniques as DNA testing. Personally, however, I refused to shift ground on this one. I am beginning to regard DNA as both a curse and a killjoy. A curse, because of the recent alleged plot to steal Prince Harry's hair and compare it with James Hewitt's, and a killjoy from a romantic point of view.

Where, after all, would the past be without its mysteries? Did the Dauphin, Louis Charles, heir to Louis XVI, die in the Temple prison in Paris, or was another boy substituted in his place? Did the Tsar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, escape the Bolshevik firing squad? Were the skeletons found hidden in the Tower really those of Edward IV's sons?

Revolutionary officials insisted that the dauphin had died in prison at the age of ten in 1795. But, according to a new book by Deborah Cadbury, the doctor who performed the autopsy, Jean Petellan, found that he had never seen a brain and legs so well developed in a child of that age. During the 19th century a series of men appeared claiming to be the lost king. The most plausible was a gentleman from Russia named Naundorff. On his demise in Holland, the death certificate, stamped by the Dutch minister of justice, read: 'Charles Louis de Bourbon, Duc de Bourbon, Louis XVII'.

The puzzle of Anastasia, meanwhile, spawned a whole series of books and films. The most convincing claimant was Anna Anderson, who surfaced in an asylum in Germany in 1920, despite a Polish farmworker called Felix Schanzkowski recognising her as his sister Franziska.

Then, in 1990, it became clear that we speculators might be in for a nasty shock. Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys at Leicester university was able to blow the first significant puzzle out of the water by proving that the 'Wolfgang Gerhard' who had died in South America in 1979 was Josef Mengele.

In 1992 DNA was used to identify the remains of the Tsar and his family. The Russians had uncovered nine bodies in shallow graves near Ekaterinburg which matched the description of the imperial family. But one of the daughters was missing. Had Anderson been telling the truth all along? Her tissue was compared with DNA profiles of the Romanovs and their relative Prince Philip. There was no match. The same experiment was made with DNA taken from a living grand-nephew of Franziska Schanzkowska. The match was perfect. The mystery surrounding the dauphin was the next to go. It transpired that, during the autopsy of the boy who died in the Temple, his heart had been stolen by Petellan. Taking DNA from the remains, scientists compared it to DNA extracted from Naundorrf's bones. The experiment proved Naundorrf to be an impostor. But who was the boy in the Temple? DNA had also been collected from samples of hair belonging to Marie Antoinette and two of her sisters. The sequence was an exact match to that of the heart.

So bang went another one. What will be next to go, I wonder? The legend of the false Dmitri? Ivan the Terrible's heir was supposed to have died or been killed in 1591, so Boris Godunov, Ivan's most trusted adviser, became Tsar. The following year a monk called Gregory Otrepieff appeared claiming to be Dmitri. In 1601 famine struck Russia - was this God's curse on Boris? Support for the claimant grew. Boris died suddenly and 'Dmitri' was crowned.

Another tale which has enchanted writers and film makers is the story of the Tichborne claimant, which electrified Victorian Britain. A man had arrived from Australia claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, 13 years after Tichborne had been given up for drowned. Finally the case was sent to trial - the longest of the century. Eventually the verdict was that the claimant was an impostor, a butcher's son called Arthur Orton. But the claimant and his supporters continued to argue the truth of his story until his death.

This mystery, or conspiracy, too, will doubtless soon be blown apart by the scientific experts, as will others. As for the bones found in the Tower it would be a cinch to prove whether or not they were those of the princes by comparing their DNA with that of living Plantagenets. What a pity. Sometimes it is satisfying to have answers but sometimes it is better simply to wonder. As Professor Higgins might have said, a pox on those imposterologists. Indeed, we could never have had Pygmalion or the enchanting My Fair Lady, if Zoltan Kaparthy, the Hungarian uncoverer of frauds, had been a 21st-century DNA specialist.