The letter, possibly signed by French Titanic passenger, was found in New Brunswick
On an April day in 1912, 12-year-old Mathilde Lefebvre boarded a ship with her mother and siblings, hoping to cross the Atlantic and reunite with the rest of their family in the United States after a year apart.
The reunion never happened. The ship they had boarded was the Titanic, which sank just days later.
A team of researchers at the Université du Québec à Rimouski are working to determine if a letter that washed up on shore in Canada was actually written by Lefebvre more than a century ago.
“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,” the letter reads. “If someone finds it, contact the Lefebvre family in Liévin.”
The message, which is signed “Mathilde Lefebvre,” was found by a New Brunswick family in the sands near the Bay of Fundy in 2017.
“So far, we have not caught a smoking gun of a forgery,” said Nicolas Beaudry, a history and archeology professor at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, who is studying the letter.
He said it is known for a fact that there was a passenger on the Titanic named Mathilde Lefebvre.
“She was the daughter of Franck Lefebvre, a miner from northern France who went to try his luck in America,” Beaudry said.
Franck Lefebvre found a job in a mine in Iowa, where he stayed with his four eldest children. Once they earned enough money, he sent for his wife and his four younger children, including Mathilde, to join them.
“They all met their fate the next day,” Beaudry said.
But just knowing her story isn’t enough.
The team needs to carbon date the letter by verifying the materials it was written on and with, as well as the bottle it was found in and the cork that kept it sealed.
“So far, the materials seem consistent with the date,” Beaudry said. “[That] does not exclude that it could be a forgery or a hoax.”
He said someone could have used the old materials to forge the letter, years after the ship sank.
Alternatively, someone could have forged it all the way back in 1912.
“Hoaxes were common at the time because the press would publish messages from the sea, and they would attract a lot of attention from readers,” Beaudry said.
That’s why he says it’s also important for the team to analyze the handwriting in the letter and the language used.
“At first glance, it may look like cursive, early-20th-century handwriting, but there are inconsistencies with what children learned in school in France,” Beaudry said.
‘It’s unlikely … but it’s not impossible’
There is also the issue of where the bottle was found. Could a bottle thrown off a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean make its way to New Brunswick?
“It’s unlikely. It’s quite unlikely — but it’s not impossible,” said Daniel Bourgault, physical oceanography professor at the Université du Québec à Rimouski.
“Where the Titanic was on the 13th of April, it’s the continuation of this big current we call the Gulf Stream,” Bourgault said. “The Gulf Stream flows from eastern North America and goes toward Europe, and so most likely if you throw something in the water there, it would wash up on the European shore.”
Still, he said, there is a chance — albeit less than a one per cent chance — that it could have ended up in the Bay of Fundy.
A team from Norway is currently helping the university by using a computer program to simulate things such as the wind direction in an attempt to further narrow that down.
Bourgault said it is still too early to say whether the letter is authentic or not, and there is a chance they will never know for sure.
Lefebvre’s descendant hopes letter is authentic
Jacques Lefebvre, who lives in the south of France, found out about the letter through a local newspaper article shortly after it was found.
For the past few years, he has been holding out hope that it’s real. Mathilde Lefebvre’s mother was his great-aunt, and he didn’t know much about that part of his family until he found out about the letter.
“This is the only letter we have from the family. I don’t have any written by my grandfather,” Lefebvre said.
“We have no papers, no photos, nothing at all of Jacques’ family,” his wife, Hélène, added.
But even the couple has some doubts about its authenticity.
“It does seem unbelievable,” she said.