A case study of one urban legend – the Unlucky Mummy

How to create an urban myth or urban legend? I suppose you need not more than three-four components. First an interesting artifact with an obscure provenience which would move people’s imagination. The popular interest in such artifacts never vary. Then you think of a believable story – one which would seem probable, even with elements of truth scattered here and there like raisins in a bun. Spread it around, join it with some true facts easy to remember and voila, you get your myth without too much hassle.

The original mummy case which was the source of this urban legend

I heard about the Unlucky Mummy while gathering materials for another essay about Arthur Conan Doyle. I admit that it stirred my imagination, especially that the artifact wasn’t a mummy at all. Still before I present the legend created around it  let me wax philosophical for a short while and if you don’t feel like reading philosophical musings of yours truly skip the following paragraphs and move forward a bit.

Let’s start with feelings and, more precisely, guilt. Guilt is unpleasant and I guess the Victorians knew about it pretty well. On the one hand they behaved as if the whole world belonged to them and they felt entitled to make a good use of it – after all they were the proud, strong and fearless builders of the British Empire, the heirs of the strongest and the best! On the other hand I bet some of them felt there was something seriously wrong with such an insatiable appetite for treasures and lands of other people. Really, truly wrong, perhaps even unchristian. The word ‘greed’ comes into mind. Let’s face it, wherever they went the Victorians tried to conquer what they could or at least ransack and take the spoils home – the more the better. If they had to, they paid and/or bribed their way in; when it wasn’t necessary they just took what they liked and never cared.

If not for that bad habit there would be no British Museum among other institutions; at least not as we know it. After all it started with a donation of one physician, naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). Sloane’s collector’s career began in 1687 when, as personal physician, he accompanied the new Governor, the Duke of Albermarle, to Jamaica. He collected some 800 species of plants and other live specimens to bring back to London. Over his lifetime, Sloane added to that more than 71,000 objects which he wanted to be preserved intact after his death. So he bequeathed the whole collection to King George II for the nation in return for a payment of £20,000 to his heirs. The gift was accepted and on 7 June 1753, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum – the rest is the endless chain of other donations and acquisitions, more often than not results of outward rapine and more or less veiled plundering.

Anyway the guilt engenders a strong need for the atonement and what better atonement could you think of than a ‘curse’ of people long dead whose tombs, homes and inheritance has been invaded, despoiled and robbed? Thus such stories, also known as urban legends, have been very popular even if they sound quite far-fetched. This one I would call the sudden and unexpected career of Unlucky Mummy’s curse. The whole legend is of course false but that fact never prevented people from believing in it.

Here starts the urban legend pure and proper or how things have been told (relax, my philosophical rubbish is over)

Who is to say she didn’t look like that?

Once upon a time, roughly some 1,500 years before Christ, lived a Princess of Amen-Ra (see the pic on the right). Ok, nobody knows that she was actually a Royal but she was definitely rich, totally able to fund herself a lovely, expensive burial with all the frills ancient Egyptians appreciated so much. She loved the wind whispering in the papyri, she painted her toenails blue and she bathed in the Nile with her pet crocodile. Or she hated the wind whispering in the papyri, she painted her eyelids green and every night she drank sweet date wine until she passed out  under the watchful eyes of her concerned pet baboons. Or maybe not. Nobody knows. We are not sure who she was, who fathered her and what her real name was, whether she was lucky or miserable, whether she was beautiful or ugly. We know nothing about her as a real person. It is not important; in fact it is even better for the urban legend that her life remains so vague. When she died, she was rich enough to be embalmed, laid in an ornate wooden coffin and buried deep in a vault at Luxor, on the banks of the River Nile. From that time on that coffin started to define her – one look at it and somebody in a different country far, far away from Egypt said: ‘here lied a Princess.’ Cool. Remember, they didn’t even know her name because it wasn’t included in the Egyptian inscriptions.

Luxor at the cusp of the 19th and 20th century

Fast forward to late 1890s. Meet, four rich, young, cocky Englishmen visiting the excavations at Luxor –  typical British Victorians eager to bring home spoils from exotic lands and prepared to pay a lot for the privilege. After all it is the latest fashion. All of them were given a splendid opportunity – they were invited to buy an exquisitely fashioned Mummy case containing the remains of Princess of Amen-Ra. One case, four takers. What to do? They drew lots. The man who won paid several thousand pounds and had the coffin taken to his hotel. A few hours later, he was supposedly seen walking out towards the desert. He never returned. Had the Princess addled his brains? Had he taken one whiff of hashish too many? Who knows? Who cares?

The next day one of the remaining 3 men was accidentally shot by an Egyptian servant. His arm was so severely wounded it had to be amputated. The third man in the foursome found on his return home that the bank holding his entire savings had gone bankrupt. The fourth suffered a severe illness, lost his job and was reduced to selling matches in the street. All of these unlucky occurrences were supposed to be the revenge of the Mummy because…they dared to buy its case?

One of many mummy unwrapping parties

Preposterous, don’t you think BUT such is the logic or an urban legend. Nothing bad can happen to us unless we make it happen by doing something evil. Forcing the mummy case of an Egyptian Princess to go to London fitted that quite nicely. The coffin eventually reached England (causing undoubtedly other misfortunes along the way), where a London businessman bought it. After three of his family members had been injured in a road accident and his house damaged by fire, the businessman donated it to the British Museum. As the coffin was being unloaded from a truck in the museum courtyard, the truck suddenly went into reverse and trapped a passer-by. Then as 2 workmen were lifting the casket up the stairs, one of them fell and broke his leg. The other, apparently in perfect health, died unaccountably two days later.

An angry Hollywood mummy – and small wonder, with so much mud on your face…

Once the Princess was installed in the Egyptian Room, trouble really started. The Museum’s night watchmen frequently heard frantic hammering and sobbing from the coffin. Other exhibits in the room were hurled about at night. One watchman died on duty. Other watchmen wanted to quit their jobs. Cleaners refused to go near the Princess too. When a visitor derisively flicked a dust cloth at the face painted on the coffin, his child died of measles soon afterwards. Coincidences? Maybe but the Victorian guilty conscience saw only the curse and the Mummy (or its case) taken against its (her?) will from her native country full of sand and crocodiles to a different climate which didn’t agree with her painted effigy.

Finally, the authorities had the Mummy carried down to the basement figuring it could not do any harm down there. Within a week, one of the helpers was seriously ill, and the supervisor of the move was found dead on his desk. By now, the papers had heard of it. A journalist photographer took a picture of the Mummy case and when he developed it, the painting on the coffin was of a horrifying, human face (I bet he did something wrong in the darkroom but hey, a horrifying face sounds loads better than a stupid mistake). The photographer was said to have gone home then, locked his bedroom door and shot himself. Soon afterwards, the museum sold the Mummy to a private collector. After continual misfortune (and deaths), the owner banished it to the attic.

A well-known authority on the occult, Madame Helena Blavatsky, allegedly visited the

Helena Blavatsky

premises. Upon entry, she was sized with a shivering fit and searched the house for the source of an evil influence of incredible intensity; She finally came to the attic and found the Mummy case.’ Can you exorcise this evil spirit?’ asked the owner. ‘There is no such thing as exorcism’ she replied. ‘Evil remains evil forever. Nothing can be done about it. I implore you to get rid of this evil as soon as possible.’ But no British museum would take the Mummy; the fact that almost 20 people had met with misfortune, disaster or death from handling the casket, in barely 10 years, was now well known.

Eventually, a hard headed American archaeologist (who dismissed the happenings as quirks of circumstance), paid a handsome price for the Mummy and arranged for its removal to New York. In Apr 1912, the new owner escorted its treasure aboard a sparkling, new White Star liner about to make its maiden voyage to New York. On the night of April 14, amid scenes of unprecedented horror, the Princess of Amen-Ra accompanied 1,500 passengers to their deaths at the bottom of the Atlantic. The name of the ship was of course the RMS TITANIC (insert manic laughter).

Some accounts of the story go on to say that the American collector bribed the crew of the Titanic to put the Mummy in a lifeboat and was smuggled on board the Carpathia when she picked up the Titanic survivors and landed safely in New York. In America the Mummy continued to bring tragedy to those that handled the coffin and so it was shipped back to Europe on the Empress of Ireland which then sank with the loss of 840 passengers on the 29th May 1912. Somehow, the Mummy was saved again. The collector decided to ship the coffin back to Egypt on a third ship, the Lusitania. The ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. What happened after that is not known to humans (but you can always ask the fish).

THE END. Or the beginning. Now let’s present some sound facts.

Also the French caught the ‘Unlucky Mummy’ virus.

The name ‘Unlucky Mummy’ is misleading as the artifact in question seems to be  not a mummy at all, but rather a gessoes and painted wooden ‘mummy-board’ or inner coffin lid. In the British Museum it is known by its serial number EA 22542.  The beardless face and the position of the hands with fingers extended show that it was made to cover the mummified body of a woman.

The lid was found at Thebes. Its shape and the style of decoration dates to the late 21st or early 22nd Dynasty (c.950-900 BC). The identity of the woman the board belonged to is not known due to the brief hieroglyphic inscriptions containing only short religious phrases, and omitting mention of the name or the title of the deceased. The high quality of the lid does indicate that the owner was a person of high rank but nothing else can be said. It is also true that it was usual for high born Egyptian ladies to participate in the musical accompaniments to the rituals in the temple of Amen-ra; hence early British Museum publications described the owner of 22542 as a ‘priestess of Amen-Ra.

The dimensions of the mummy-board, according to the British Museum staff, are as follows: length: 168.5 centimetres, width: 38 centimetres, tickness: 12 centimetres. The board was made out of wood and plaster. The detail is painted upon the plaster, and hands protrude from the wooden mummy-board. For its age, the mummy-board is of good quality –the colours are bright and the inscriptions quite legible. The mummy-board was donated to the British Museum in July 1889 by Mrs Warwick Hunt of Holland Park, London, on behalf of Mr Arthur F Wheeler, her brother. It was displayed in the ‘First Egyptian Room’ of the Museum from the 1890s and has remained on public view ever since, with the exception of periods during the First and Second World Wars, when it was removed from its case for safety. It has left the Museum on a number of occasions, in 1990, when it formed part of a temporary exhibition held at two venues in Australia and between 4 February to 27 May 2007 along with 271 pieces the ‘Unlucky Mummy’ was exhibited at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum during a press conference. The mummy to which the article belonged is said to have been left in Egypt since it never formed part of the collections of the British Museum. If these are the facts, who started the whole rumour?

On the 12th April 1912 the Titanic was crossing the Atlantic on her way to New York on her maiden voyage. All seemed to be going well. A group of eight people gathered in the first class smoking room to discuss the meaning of life. One of the group was William T Stead, the English journalist and Spiritualist. As the evening progressed Stead began to tell a ghost story which would open the flood gates to legends and myths surrounding the Titanic and her sinking for decades to follow. He boasted that he was not superstitious as he pointed out that his story began before midnight on the 12th April and ended shortly after midnight. The story concerned the finding of an Egyptian Mummy and the translation of the inscription on the Mummy’s case. The inscription warned that whoever should verbally recite the inscription would meet a very violent death.

The seven other members listened with sinister curiosity. Could Stead have been serious? Was there such a curse? Where was the Mummy – surely not onboard the ship they were travelling on? Seven men out of the eight went down with the ship, including Stead himself although he had already had a premonition about his death some time before (and I beg you why didn’t he act on that premonition?). The only survivor from the group was Fred Seward, who later when asked about the Mummy story told them that he would never dare retell it. Over the years there have been many different accounts of the Mummy’s curse but after careful research the answer seems quite clear. The whole story is nothing but an elaborate ghost fairy tale created by two over-imaginative minds of William Stead and Douglas Murray . They actually made up two distinct stories. The first concerned an acquaintance of theirs who acquired an Egyptian Mummy and displayed it in his drawing room. But the morning after setting it up all breakable items in the room were smashed up. Each time the Mummy was moved all pieces of breakables were broken. The second story followed a visit to the British Museum.

They saw the coffin lid of the Priestess of Amen-Ra and imagined a coffin whose picture on the front was one of sheer terror and anguish in the face depicted on it. The coffin’s original occupant was a tormented soul and her evil spirit was loose in the world to bring misery to those who got in her way. Stead and Murray sold their story to the press who were not bothered about investigating it and published it in its most sensational form.

In 1985 Charles Haas, President of the Titanic Historical Society gained access to the original Titanic’s cargo manifest only to find no mention of a Mummy. In Haas’ words “the cargo manifest throws those myths right out of the window.” There was no Mummy on board the Titanic. The only Mummy in question was the Priestess of Amen-Ra. Her coffin lid did not leave its display in the British Museum and so was never onboard the Titanic. However, the British Museum was never presented with the actual Mummy. Mr Taylor and the Egyptian Artefacts team think it is most probable that the Priestess’ remains were left behind in Egypt. It is perhaps this fact that William Stead used to concoct his macabre tale.

My sources:

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6 Responses to A case study of one urban legend – the Unlucky Mummy

  1. Carole Rae says:

    Fantastic post! How crazy would that be if these ghost stories were 100% true and an evil force caused the Titanic to sink and many to die/bad things happen to them. I feel you hit it on the nose along with Victorian values pulling at the heart, but also their christian values pulling too, it is not hard to imagine the people of the time feeling guilty for all the greed.

  2. blodeuedd says:

    Interesting, and she totally looked like that

  3. heidenkind says:

    The Titanic thing was a bit suspicious.

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