Antiques Roadshow: Titanic artefacts valued by expert
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Famously struck by an iceberg on her maiden voyage, the Titanic was a passenger vessel owned and operated by the White Star Line that set sail from Southampton to New York — via Cherbourg and Cork Harbour — on April 10, 1912. The fateful collision occurred at around 23:40 local time, leading to six narrow openings in the craft’s starboard hull that caused Titanic to take on water fifteen times faster than it could be pumped out. After two-and-a-half hours, the stricken liner broke into two section and sank, with around 1,500 people — including 815 passengers — lost in the tragedy.
The letter was found washed up on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, in Canada, back in 2017.
It is dated to April 13, 1912 — the day before the ocean liner struck an iceberg — and bears the signature of one Mathilde Lefebvre, a 12-year-old, French, third-class passenger.
Translated, its text reads: ““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 her, tell the Lefebvre family in Liévin.”
According to historical records, Ms Lefebvre, her mother Marie, and three of her seven siblings were travelling to New York on the Titanic to reunite with the rest of their family.
The note apparently penned by Ms Lefebvre made headlines when its contents was made public by researchers at the Université du Québec à Rimouski early last year.
Initial analyses of the letter and the bottle it was found in seemed to suggest it was authentic — with the bottle bearing the hallmarks of being manufactured in the late Edwardian era.
In addition, radiocarbon dating of the cork that sealed the bottle yielded an age range including the time of the Titanic’s maiden voyage.
However, researchers remained cautious about the letter’s provenance, and appealed to members of the public for assistance in confirming its authenticity.
Now, a detailed study of the note, painstakingly undertaken letter-by-letter, has suggested that the communication is most likely an elaborate hoax.
Handwriting and psychology expert Coraline Hausenblas said that the main problem with the note is that it was primarily not written in cursive — a type of penmanship in which letters are joined-up in a flowing manner to allow for faster writing speeds.
Ms Hausenblas explained: “In 1912, only cursive writing was accepted in French schools and in society in general.
“By the end of this analysis, I found that only four letters were written in cursive only.”
The rest of the note, she added, was composed of separated letters of a mixture of that and cursive, called “personal writing” which is unique to a particular author.
Ms Hausenblas added: “Today it is very common to have such a mix, but not in 1912.”
“The author probably thought that just the inclination of the writing would give a general aspect of ‘ancien’ handwriting.
“But they forgot to research what were the norms of French schools in 1912.
“The letter is not convincing because the writing is too far away from the norms of 1912, but has every aspect of a modern handwriting.”
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The expert’s analysis also indicated that the writer may have had a form of dysgraphia — a condition which impairs one’s writing skills.
This, Ms Hausenblas said, “It revealed a lot of what we in the psychology of lying call ‘behavioural leaks’. These are cognitive processes occurring when someone is lying.
“Strange dysgraphia occurred in some very personal words linked to Mathilde Lefebvre. The hypothesis is that this dysgraphia, which doesn’t occur in other words, can show the theft of identity.
“The author, as an actor, tries to be Mathilde Lefebvre but knows very well he or she is not.
“The author is not capable of playing the part for a very long time and his or her personal writing habits came back really quickly.”
According to historian Professor Maxime Gohier of the Université du Québec à Rimouski, however, there is still the possibility that an adult who had outgrown cursive penmanship had penned the note on Ms Lefebvre’s behalf.
He told the Canadian press: “It actually looks more like adult writing.
“Nothing prevents an adult from writing, on the boat, on behalf of Mathilde. This is a hypothesis not to be ruled out.”
Professor Gohier and his colleagues are now looking to carry out further analyses on the note, with the aim of identifying the type of pen used to write it — which, in turn, could clarify it was written far more recently that it claims.
Additional reporting by Michael Havis.
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