Truth Of Mysterious Titanic Letter May Never Be Known, Researchers Say

Experts examining a message in a bottle possibly written by a French girl on the Titanic have said they may never know if it is genuinely from aboard the doomed ship.

RMS Titanic's billing by its operator White Star Line as "unsinkable" is a byword for tempting fate, but a letter signed by French girl Mathilde Lefebvre and dated April 13, 1912, gave no inkling of what was to befall the liner on its maiden voyage.

"I am throwing this bottle into the sea in the middle of the Atlantic. We are due to arrive in New York in a few days. If anyone finds it, tell the Lefebvre family in Liévin," says the letter written in French and found in 2017 sealed in a bottle on a beach in Hopewell Rocks, Bay of Fundy, in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

RMS Titanic left Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, on its way to New York. Like millions before her and since, the girl from Pas-de-Calais in northern France, who was only three weeks shy of her 13th birthday, was en route to North America for a new life with her three three siblings and her mother, Marie Daumont.

They travelled third-class on five tickets which according to Encyclopedia Titanica cost a total of £25 pounds, nine shillings and four pence—or about $4,000 in today's money.

Their plan was to join her father, Franck Lefebvre, a collier who had left France two years before and had settled in Mystic, Iowa.

Tragically, these hopes for the opportunities that the New World held were never realized. Mathilde and her family were among the 1,500 people who perished when the 882-foot vessel sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912.

Whether thrown out to sea spurred by a premonition or simply due to optimism before destiny intervened, the message has focused the minds of experts at the University of Quebec at Rimouski (UQAR).

Titanic letter
The team from the University of Quebec at Rimouski is examining the authenticity of the message in a bottle purportedly from the Titanic. It was signed Mathilde Lefebvre and dated April 13, 1912.

Fake letters from the Titanic have emerged before and the team's first aim was to dispel as much doubt about the authenticity of the missive.

"We didn't take it because we thought it could be authentic, we took it because it was interesting whatever it is—without preconceived ideas," said Nicolas Beaudry, historian and archaeologist who is among the team examining the document. "We may never know whether it is authentic or not."

Experts in oceanography, chemistry and calligraphy have forensically looked at the bottle and its contents, all the while trying to preserve the precious object.

"The first thing you do is try to trap the prankster red-handed, so you go for the easiest, material analysis that is non intrusive," Beaudry told Newsweek.

This involved examining the bottle first to make sure that the chemical composition was compatible with the industrial practices of the early 20th century. The cork stopper was radiocarbon dated as well, and this and the bottle were in keeping with the era. So far, so good.

Archaeologist Nicolas Beaudry
Archaeologist Nicolas Beaudry examines the letter which may have been written by a 12-year-old girl on board the Titanic. She was among the 1,500 passengers who died. Supplied/University of Quebec at Rimouski

However, an old bottle and old paper do not make an old message. After all, bottles, corks and paper from that time are easy to find.

So, the analysis then zoomed out from the micro to the macro level to decipher the likelihood of a bottle ending up on a Canadian beach.

A computer simulation of 100,000 virtual flotsam was devised, based on a database of currents and winds at the time. The vast majority of virtual objects did end up on European shores, but a small amount were carried along the North Atlantic, towards the Caribbean.

"It is obviously very counterintuitive because the currents there are a continuation of the Gulf Stream and they would lead flotsam to European shores.

"There were also a few individual items that followed alternate routes to the north, and one or two of them ended up on Newfoundland and Canadian shores," Beaudry said, adding that even if the probability is low it would end up in North America, it was not impossible.

Letter from Titanic
A letter signed by HMS Titanic passenger Mathilde Lefebvre, a 12-year-old girl from France. A team from the University of Quebec at Rimouski is analysing whether it is genuine. Supplied/University of Quebec at Rimouski

The focus shifted to the handwriting and here, the team is uncertain whether a girl that age would have that kind of penmanship. At the start of the 20th century, cursive handwriting as seen in the letter was common among French schoolchildren but what was unusual was the way the individual letters seem to be cut off from each other, rather than merging into each other.

"If we look at it closer, we see inconsistencies with what school children were taught and what was expected from them," Beaudry said. "It could have been written by someone else on the boat, but not the mother—we have the mother's handwriting. That possibility is ruled out."

The team has received global media interest over the message in a sign of the grip on the public imagination the Titanic still has despite having been 2.5 miles deep on the ocean floor, 370 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, for more than a century.

Bottle of Titanic letter
Experts from the University of Quebec at Rimouski are examining fragments of the bottle in which a letter from a Titanic passenger was found. Supplied/University of Quebec at Rimouski

"If it is a hoax it just adds a layer of meaning to the bottle, because then you may ask new questions from it. It still remains a poignant reminder of Mathilde and her family, and of the fate of those millions of immigrants to the New World," Beaudry said.

"It is one of the rare voices of a female, a non-English speaker on the tragedy in a myth that was built around first-class male, Anglo-Saxon passengers."

Beaudry notes that unlike the English phrase, the French expression for a message in a bottle, "bouteille à la mer" which literally means "bottle in the sea", does not emphasize the letter but rather the wish against all odds that someone would find it.

It is in this spirit that the UQAR team will continue trying to unravel the mystery.

"Maybe an archive, a school is keeping Mathilde's handwriting or maybe a prankster will come forward or another institution has come across another hoax from the same handwriting," said Manon Savard, an archaeologist with the team.

"We just wanted to present our preliminary results and, in doing so, we ourselves are throwing a bottle out at sea."

RMS Titanic
The ill-fated White Star liner RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Experts are examining whether a letter which may have been thrown from the ship is genuine. Getty Images