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The Mummy’s Curse: The Truth Behind an Edwardian Rumour

By Katherine Aitchison, on 29 May 2012

Anyone who knows anything about the horror genre will have heard stories of curses placed on tombs in Ancient Egypt to deter grave robbers and those who would plunder the graves of priests and pharaohs. But where do these stories come from and is there any truth behind them?

On 21 May Professor Roger Luckhurst of Birkbeck College presented the true story of a mummy’s curse to a packed Petrie Museum audience.

Or perhaps, I should say, he presented the truth behind the rumour as far as he could piece it together drawing from numerous different accounts. A little more convoluted as a turn of phrase, but much more accurate.

The mummy in question is, in fact, simply a coffin lid known as “The Unlucky Mummy”, or to give it its official name: British Museum object-22542.

This lid, once part of the last resting place of an unknown woman from a high-ranking family in the priesthood, was donated to the museum by the sister of Arthur F. Wheeler, the man who was believed to have brought it back from Egypt.

But the story surrounding the lid is full of intrigue, featuring a number of shooting accidents and suspicious deaths as well as a lost fortune and a picture of a ghostly face.

The truth is hard to pin down because of the numerous different accounts from sources of varying reliability; however, it can certainly be said that many of the men associated with 22542 suffered a degree of misfortune.

The story has been told and retold several times and details vary between accounts: in one version Mr Wheeler is said to have shot off his own arm shortly after purchasing the lid, in another version it is a servant who shot one of his party.

The majority of these accounts appeared in the press (and are often associated with the untimely demise of the reporter) and the story was first told by The Express in 1904. The reporter is often said to have been one of the mummy’s victims, dying a mere three years later of typhoid fever.

One of the most intriguing stories is that the lid may have been on board the Titanic when it sank in 1912, and what is certain is that Mr W.T. Stead, a friend of Wheeler was on board and was the most famous man to die in the sinking.

His dining companion on the night of the tragedy later said that that very evening Stead had related the story of the Unlucky Mummy and had sworn never to write it down (although he had previously published the tale in 1909). The British Museum denies this as strenuously as it denies all of the ghostly rumours surrounding 22542.

In Edwardian England, tales of the supernatural abounded with séances being commonplace among the upper class. It is, therefore, entirely understandable that the story of the curse passed through many hands and that the truth became somewhat distorted.

Another reason for the discrepancies between accounts and the difficulties in divining the truth (excuse the pun) is that most of the accounts that we have surrounding the mummy come from tabloid newspapers and information from mediums.

Stories of cursed tombs unleashing horrors on impertinent Westerners are still popular today, and to get an insight into where such stories come from (although I was slightly sad to hear that Egyptian tombs don’t actually bear curse warnings) paints a fascinating picture of the creation of a myth.

Katherine Aitchison is a Second year PhD student at the UCL Institute of Child Health.

Image: Cover of 1909 Pearson’s Magazine featuring the story of the Unlucky Mummy (British Museum ref AE 22542). (Source: Wikimedia Commons – Pearson’s Magazine)

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