Mummy Dire-est: Cursed Egyptian Mummies
While today we are all too well-educated by the Internet to believe the canard about the evil mummy of the Priestess of Amun-re sinking the Titanic, a decade before that maritime disaster there was much discussion about the malign coffin board and about other “cursed” mummies, either whole or in pieces. As I mentioned in a previous post about mummy case photography, it was the Golden Age of ill-omened souvenirs. Bringing home a desiccated fragment of an ancient princess was an essential, if inevitably dangerous, element of one’s Egyptian holiday. Even rightly discarding the Titanic legend, we still find contemporary belief in the coffin board’s malign properties, making it perhaps the precursor to the legend of the Curse of King Tut’s Tomb and the many Curse-of-the-Mummy B-movies.
This article neatly summarizes the legend of the Cursed Mummy of the British Museum. Note how often photography plays a role in these stories.
That Egyptian Mummy Again
A few months ago the list of the calamities which had befallen persons attracting the ill-omened attention of a certain mummy, that of the priestess Amen Ra, in the British Museum, was detailed on this page. The list has lengthened itself, and is thus given complete by a contemporary:
Four young men brought the empty mummy case to England from Egypt. One lost his right arm when his fowling gun exploded. Another was shot dead. A third lost most of his fortune and died soon thereafter. The fourth died in poverty recently.
A sister of one of the men fell heir to the mummy case. Many misfortunes followed. A photographer photographed the lid. The developed negative showed the face of a living Egyptian woman of malevolent aspect. The photographer committed suicide.
Then the case was taken to the museum. The man who took it there died in a week. Another who helped him was badly hurt in an accident.
Another photographer photographed it in the museum. Then, in an accident, his camera was smashed and his face cut. One of his children narrowly escaped drowning a few days later.
B. F. Robinson of the Daily Express wrote a story about the mummy case. Within a few weeks he died. An American magazine employed a man to write the story of the haunted lid. He died before he finished it.
A school teacher ridiculed the stories about the lid as she inspected it. She fell and one of her arms was broken. The daughter of the Marchioness of Salisbury contemptuously cut a caper before the pictured face. Before she left the museum she fell, slipped on the stairs and sprained an ankle.
Another woman derided the story while looking at the face. In an accident later one of her elbows, was fractured.
Evidently even the Museum authorities have become impressed by the deadly uniformity of events, for the case and contents are to be removed from the Egyptian room.
Readers are referred to one of three possible explanations of the matter, which was suggested in this column, issue of April 11 last. But it will hardly find favor in scientific quarters. Student. Century Path: A Magazine Devoted to the Brotherhood of Humanity, the Promulgation of Theosophy and the Study of Ancient and Modern Ethics, Philosophy, Science, and Art, Volume 12, Part 2, 1909.
Here is more detail on one of the four young men who brought the coffin to England:
The first, Thomas Douglas Murray, had travelled down the Nile soon after graduating from Oxford in 1865. He and his fellow travellers bought a mummy case of a striking female figure from the 18th dynasty in Luxor before returning to Cairo. Out by the pyramids, Douglas Murray went quail shooting, slipped and promptly shot his own arm off. He survived and lived on to 1911, but was always associated with the curse whose physical wound he carried. The mummy case itself was alleged to cause much family misfortune until it was donated to the British Museum in 1889. It soon became known as “The Unlucky Mummy” for its fearsome malevolence and nasty tricks performed on visitors to the Egyptian Rooms. The British Museum files show that the curators were (and continue to be) constantly asked to confirm or deny stories of the curse attached to catalogue number 22542. New Humanist (September/October 2012)
And one of the three possible explanations mentioned above, courtesy of Madame Blavatsky:
An Ancient Egyptian Ghost
What follows below is unmitigated superstition—unless you happen to call truth mitigation. A little of the mitigation the reader can administer for himself, if he happens to live in London. The rest he can accept, if he likes, on the authority of the late Mr. Fletcher Robinson, who made personal investigation into the facts narrated below, and narrated also in a recent lecture in London by Mrs. St. Hill. Mr. Robinson’s comment was that the Egyptians had powers which we in the twentieth century disbelieve in. In other words, some of them were magicians, and no all of these were white ones. [then follows the list of casualties.]
We should suppose the original of the mask to have lived a very evil life, to have possessed powers called magical and habitually used them evilly, to be still in disembodied existence, and to be in magnetic rapport with the case that once contained the body.
In which theory we have consciously strayed into deplorable superstition. But it may not seem so outrageous in twenty years. Even now, ghosts—though these are not living entities save in very exceptional cases—are permitted to exist and to have existed during the few decades when their existence was most discredited. Discredited in words at any rate.
May there not reside within the invisible spaces of the ether a universe more complex than the visible and filled with various orders of conscious beings—some, so to say, super-, and some sub– human, element? Student. Century Path: A Magazine Devoted to the Brotherhood of Humanity, the Promulgation of Theosophy and the Study of Ancient and Modern Ethics, Philosophy, Science, and Art, Volume 12, Part 1, 1908
The Malign Mummy Again
Readers may remember two notices which have appeared in these pages, relative to a certain mummy-case in the British Museum, a case remarkable not only for the series of calamities reported as befalling all those who have touched or owned or concerned themselves in any way with it, but for the non-resemblance to it of its photographs. A well-known contributor to an English scientific paper, the English Mechanic and World of Science, stirred by the reports, resolved to test this latter aspect of the phenomenon for himself and in a duly sceptical spirit. Paying a preliminary visit he found his interest and determination greatly stirred by the fact that a bromide print standing near the cover, evidently a photo of the same generally, bears a face entirely different to that of the original.
Later he got his camera and got two plates at full aperture. His proceedings were a little hurried by his desire to be out of the way before the day’s crowd should arrive. Both plates were a little-over-exposed.
But there is no over-estimating the curious results secured. Not only do not the faces on these photos resemble the mask of the mummy-cover, but I cannot see that they are like each other! The better of the two fairly well resembles that of the bromide print alongside, although there is a difference for the worse; and the general details on the rest of the cover, so far as they can be followed, will pass muster for comparison. . . . Those interested may compare the print in the Museum with the original; the more malignant-looking of mine intensifies the difference there shown.
It now remains to see whether an unhappy precedent will be followed by the occurrence of some accident to the courageous photographer. Student. Century Path: A Magazine Devoted to the Brotherhood of Humanity, the Promulgation of Theosophy and the Study of Ancient and Modern Ethics, Philosophy, Science, and Art,, Volume 13, Part 2, 1910
The phenomenon of the mummy-case, which, when photographed, gives a portrait different from that which is painted on it, is explained by one writer as being due to the fact that the camera sees things which the eye does not. And he cites the case of a ship whose name had been painted over but yet came out in the photo. This fact is of course well known to photographers, and it is said that spots indicating a disease have come out in the photograph at a time when they were not visible on the face. The mummy case may have been painted with one portrait and then painted over with another. But people will not care to have a mystery “busted up” in this fashion. Besides, this explanation fails to explain why the visible face was not depicted; and the latter is in bold relief. A writer on the subject asks what is the use of relying on photographic evidence about the stars if the camera can be deceived like this. Century Path: A Magazine Devoted to the Brotherhood of Humanity, the Promulgation of Theosophy and the Study of Ancient and Modern Ethics, Philosophy, Science, and Art, Volume 13, Part 2, 1910
The curse of the malign mummy was not taken altogether seriously in some quarters:
First there is the wonderful news, all freshly dished up, of that deadly mummy case in the British Museum. I have already written twice about it, and anyone who fancies chancing his luck by examining it will find it in the corner reached by turning sharp to the left on entering the last of the Egyptian rooms. By its side is the famous photograph of it. You will remember that the photographer, or his aunt or his cat, or somebody or something, died afterwards. This shows the rash folly of photographing anything. No one can dispute the statement that large numbers of people who have taken photographs have subsequently expired. We cannot be too careful. Anyone who exposes a plate on a mummy-case will certainly die after it. American Photography, Camera Club of New York, Volume 4, 1910
But the British Museum mummy was not the only cursed coffin in the news.
The Mummy’s Curse
Sir William Ingram has made a lordly gift to the community of Roquebrune, Monaco. He presented to it the wonderfully picturesque chateau, Des Lascaris, familiar to all visitors to the Riviera.
Sir William is the head of a family which has a number of American associations. Sir William’s father, the late Herbert Ingram, was the founder of the Illustrated London News, and lost his life in the United States some 30 years or so ago. Together with his eldest son, who perished with him, he was among the 300 passengers of the Lady Elgin when that ill-fated ship foundered in a terrible hurricane on Lake Michigan with all on board. Nor were these the only members of the Ingram family who met with a violent death, for Sir William’s youngest brother, Walter Ingram, was killed by a wounded elephant when shooting on the east coast of Africa.
It is in connection with his death that is told the perfectly true and duly authenticated story concerning the mummy of one of the high priests of ancient Thebes. The mummy was discovered in the presence of the late Sir Henry Meux and of his intimate friend, Walter Ingram, during the course of a winter sojourn in Egypt and was purchased by Ingram for conveyance to London. After keeping it for a time in his office at the Illustrated London News headquarters he sent it one day to the British Museum in order to have it unrolled and examined for any papyrus which the bandages might contain.
Papyri were found, and on being deciphered they were discovered to consist of a blood-curdling curse upon whomsoever should disturb the remains of the Pharaohan prelate, the malediction appealing to the powers above to deny burial to the remains of the sacrilegious ghoul who disturbed the eternal sleep of the corpse and entreated that not one bone should remain with another, but that they should be swept to the sea, so as to render the reconstitution of the offender’s body impossible.
Of course, Walter Ingram and the late Sir Edward Meux scoffed at this curse and made fun of it. Walter Ingram, however, a year later, was trampled to death in Somaliland by an infuriated elephant which he had only wounded instead of killing. His corpse was interred in what seemed to be a sort of stony valley. But when some months later a properly equipped expedition was sent out by Sir William to bring home his brother’s remains, not a vestige of them could be found, save a single fragment of bone and a few buttons of his garments.
The fact was that the valley was nothing more than the bed of a river, dry during the hot seasons, but a raging torrent during the rainy months. Thus had the curse of the Egyptian high priest been accomplished, for the bones of poor Walter Ingram must lie strewn along the bed of that river to this day, if they have not been, as if firmly believed, carried out to sea by the mighty rush of waters. The Cincinnati Enquirer 1 May 1922: p. 4
Like the many people who have claimed under hypnotic regression to be Cleopatra or Marie Antoinette, all mummy parts are, by definition, relics of a queen or princess. [I have not corrected any of the spelling or history in the following piece.]
MUMMY HEAD A HOODOO
ROYAL RELIC BROUGHT DISASTER TO HOME OF EXPLORER.
Because her husband and son have died since the acquisition of the mummy skull of an old Egyptian Queen, near 3,500 years old, Mrs. Jere Bauman, of 466 Nessannuck Avenue, Newcastle, has donated the head to the Carnegie Museum.
Mrs. Bauman says she believes that the mummy worked a spell upon the members of her family, and she is hopeful that she can break this by giving the head away. Her son died four years ago and her husband died last month.
The skull is that of Queen Hatshep-sutt, or Natasu, of the line of Thothmes. It was unearthed by Mr. Bauman in September, [illegible], while he and his wife were traveling in Egypt. The head weights about five pounds, and is covered with a brown black cloth, which is glued tight to the flesh. Openings in the cloth show glistening eyes, and it is believed that they are polished agates. The ears and markings of the face show distinctly.
Queen Hatshepsutt, according to Mrs. Bauman, ruled about 1578 B.C. She followed the reign of Amasis, of the eighteenth dynasty, who overthrew the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings. Amasis’s son Amenophis, or Amenhotep I, became the patron saint of the Theban Necropolis. Thutmas’s, or Thothmes I, next to rule, penetrated into Nubia, beyond the Third Cataract, and also in Syria as far as the Euphrates.
Queen Hatshepsutt followed her father and ruled with her brother Thothmes II, and independently. She is characterized in history as a most energetic ruler and one accustomed to have her way.
“Tradition tells us that moving a body from its native soil-laden tomb will bring ruin to the holder,” said Mrs. Bauman to-day. “I did not give this much thought. I did not like the head, but my husband seemed to place no belief in the superstition.
“The eyes seemed so penetrating. They were a kind of agate and sparkled dimly out of the folds of the cloth. Four years ago my son died here while my husband and I were traveling in Germany. We came home at once. This may have been a warning.
“Last month my husband was taken ill. One night while sitting in his chair he called my name and five minutes later he was dead.
“I am through with the head—in his notes of the Egyptian trip, Mr. Bauman called the head a ‘treasure’—and I will feel safer with it out of my home. It seems to have worked its evil spell here.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 18 November 1915: p. 4.
Let’s finish with a narrative that hovers between the lurid-with-a-grain-of-truth and the sensationally fictional, told by the always entertaining Elliott O’Donnell.
THE TALE OF THE MUMMY
“During one of my sojourns in Paris,” says Mr. Elliott O’Donnell, in his “Byways of Ghost Land,” “I met a Frenchman who, he informed me, had just returned from the East. I asked him if he had brought back any curios such as vases, funeral urns, weapons or amulets. ‘Yes, lots,’ he replied, ‘two cases full. But no mummies! Mon Dieu! No mummies. You ask me why? Ah! Thereby hangs a tale. If you will have patience, I will tell it you.’
“The following is the gist of his narrative: “‘Some seasons ago I traveled up the Nile as far as Assiut, and when there, managed to pay a visit to the grand ruins of Thebes. Among the various treasures I brought away with me was a mummy. I found it lying in an enormous lidless sarcophagus, close to a mutilated statue of Anubis. On my return to Assiut, I had the mummy placed in my tent, and thought no more of it till something awoke me with startling suddenness in the night. Then, obeying a peculiar impulse, I turned over on my side and looked in the direction of my treasure.
“The nights in the Soudan at this time of year are brilliant, one can even see to read, and every object in the desert is almost as clearly visible as by day. But I was quite startled by the whiteness of the glow which rested on the mummy, the face of which was immediately opposite mine. The remains—those of Met-OmKarema, lady of the College of the god Amen-ra —were swathed in bandages, some of which had worn away in parts or become loose; and the figure, plainly discernible, was that of a shapely woman with elegant bust, well-formed limbs, rounded arms and small hands. The thumbs were slender, and the fingers, each of which was separately bandaged, long and tapering. The neck was full, the cranium rather long, the nose aquiline, the chin firm. Imitation eyes, brows, and lips were painted on the wrappings, and the effect thus produced and in the phosphorescent glare of the moonbeams, was very weird. I was quite alone in the tent, the only European who accompanied me to Assiut, having stayed in the town by preference, and my servants being encamped at one hundred or so yards from me on the ground.
“Sound travels far in the desert, but the silence now was absolute, and, though I listened attentively, I could not detect the slightest noise —man, beast and insect were abnormally still. There was something in the air, too, which struck me as unusual; an odd, clammy coldness that reminded me at once of the catacombs in Paris. I had hardly, however, conceived the resemblance, when a sob—low, gentle, but very distinct—sent a thrill of horror through me. It was ridiculous, absurd. It could not be, and I fought against the idea as to whence the sound had proceeded, as something too utterly fantastic, too utterly impossible. I tried to occupy my mind with other thoughts—the frivolities of Cairo, the casinos of Nice; but all to no purpose; and soon, on my eager, throbbing ear there again fell that sound, that low and gentle sob. My hair stood on end; this time there was no doubt, no possible manner of doubt—the mummy lived! I looked at it aghast. I strained my vision to detect any movement in its limbs, but none was perceptible. Yet the noise had come from it, it had breathed—breathed—and even as I hissed the word unconsciously through my clenched lips, the bosom of the mummy rose and fell.
“A frightful terror seized me. I tried to shriek to my servants; I could not ejaculate a syllable. I tried to close my eye-lids, but they were held open as in a vice. Again there came a sob that was immediately succeeded by a sigh; and a tremor ran through the figure from head to foot. One of its hands then began to move, the fingers clutched the air convulsively, then grew rigid, then curled slowly into the palms, then suddenly straightened. The bandages concealing them from view then fell off, and to my agonized sight were disclosed objects that struck me as strangely familiar. There is something about fingers, a marked individuality, I never forget. No two persons’ hands are alike. And in these fingers, in their excessive whiteness, round knuckles, and blue veins, I read a likeness whose prototype, struggle how I would, I could not recall. Gradually the hand moved upwards, and, reaching the throat, the fingers set to work at once to remove the wrappings. My terror was now sublime. I dare not imagine, I dare not for one instant think, what I should see. And there was no getting away from it; I could not stir an inch, and the ghastly revelation would take place within a yard of my face!
“One by one the bandages came off. A glimmer of skin, pale as marble; the beginning of the nose, the whole nose; the upper lip, exquisitely, delicately cut; the teeth, white and even on the whole, but here and there a shining gold filling; the under lip, soft and gentle; a mouth I knew, but—God, where? In my dreams, in the wild fantasies that had oft-times visited by pillow at night—in delirium, in reality, where? Mon Dieu! WHERE?
“The uncasing continued. The chin next, a chin that was purely feminine, purely classical; then the upper part of the head—the hair long, black, luxuriant—the forehead low and white— the brows black, firmly pencilled; and last of all, the eyes!—and as they met my frenzied gaze, smiled, smiled right down into the depths of my living soul, I recognized them—they were the eyes of my mother, my mother who had died in my boyhood! Seized with a madness that knew no bounds, I sprang to my feet. The figure rose and confronted me. I flung open my arms to embrace her, the woman of all women in the world I loved best, the only woman I had ever loved. Shrinking from my touch, she cowered against the side of the tent. I fell on my knees before her and kissed—what? Not the feet of my mother, but those of the long-buried dead. Sick with repulsion and fear I looked up, and there bending over and peering into my eyes was the face, the fleshless, mouldering face of the foul and barely recognizable corpse! With a shriek of horror I rolled backwards, and, springing to my feet, prepared to fly. I glanced at the mummy. It was lying on the ground, stiff and still, every bandage in its place; whilst standing over it, a look of fiendish glee in its light, doglike eyes, was the figure of Anubis, lurid and menacing.
“‘The voices of my servants, assuring me they were coming, broke the silence, and in an instant the apparition vanished.
“I had had enough of the tent, however, at least for that night, and, seeking refuge in the town, I whiled away the hours till morning with a fragrant cigar and a novel. Directly I had breakfasted, I took the mummy back to Thebes, and left it there. No thank you, Mr. O’Donnell, I collect many kinds of curios, but—no more mummies!” True Ghost Stories, Hereward Carrington, 1915
In addition to “genuine” malign mummies and their curses, fictional ghost and horror stories about mummies’ hands, eyes, and bones were also popular. Here are a few. Oddly enough, Louisa May Alcott seems to have been the first to write about this notion in fiction in Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse.
The Mummy’s Foot, by Theophile Gautier
The Jewel of Seven Stars, Bram Stoker
The Egyptian Amulet, Mrs. M Sheffrey Peters
The Ring of Thoth and Lot No. 249, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
An article on various cursed mummies in a rationalist spirit.
A 1923 New York Times article on the Titanic story and some additional dire occurrences.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.