The Legend of The Unlucky Mummy
During my research on Egyptian mummies and curses for my novella, Eye of the Beholder, I came across an interesting legend residing in the British Museum- that of the Unlucky Mummy.
In 1889, a new exhibit was acquired by the British Museum – at the very time Professor Fosse was setting up his new Egyptian exhibit in Eye of the Beholder. The Unlucky ‘Mummy’ is actually a wooden ‘mummy board’ or inner coffin lid – museum serial # EA22542 – of an unidentified female of high rank (often identified as a priestess of Amen-Ra). The mummy board is 162 cm long, made of plaster and wood. It has been displayed in the First Egyptian Room from 1890, only removed four times: to storage during World War I and World War II, and for a short term exhibition in Australia in 1990 and exhibited in Taiwan in 2007.
There are many, sometimes contradictory, stories surrounding the Unlucky Mummy. Most commonly it is said to have been excavated in Thebes (now Luxor) in the 1880s. The mummy case was shown to a group of four men – some stories quote three (3), including Thomas Douglas Murray and Arthur Wheeler, in 1889 (or thereabouts). The men reportedly drew straws to decide who to purchase it. Murray won (or lost, depending on how you view curses) and had it packed and send ahead to London.
I’ve found at least two different versions on what happened next both ending in fatalities and horrible misfortunes:
- A few days later, while duck hunting (though quail hunting was also reported), a shotgun exploded injuring Murray’s arm (some sources say it was Wheeler who shot off his arm (5)). The journey to Cairo was slowed by ill winds, resulting in amputation of the arm due to gangrene.
- Another of the men died on the trip to Cairo.
- Arthur Wheeler lost his fortune, due to bank collapse by the time they arrived in Cairo. (4)
- two of the servants who handled the mummy case died within twelve months.
- three other servants ‘suffered a swifter fate’. (3)
Once back in London, Murray reported an ominous, chilling feeling around the mummy case. The mummy case’s beautiful face now ‘seemed malevolent’.
From here the mummy case leaves Murray’s possession – either:
- it was borrowed by a journalist who suffered a string of misfortunes – her mother died, her dog went mad, her marriage called off and she fell ill. Murray felt such relief on its passing that he gave the mummy board to Arthur Wheeler who supposedly died, heartbroken, leaving the mummy case to his sister who then befell bad luck. (3)
- it was purchased by Wheeler in Egypt and later passed onto his sister who then befell bad luck.
Either way, the trail picks up with famous spiritualist Madame Helena Blavatsky visiting the mummy case and reported ‘an evil influence of incredible intensity’. (1) While in the Wheeler’s custody, the mummy case reportedly continued to bring bad luck to the family, including illness, accidents and early death. Photographs taken of the mummy board supposedly showed a living malevolent-looking Egyptian woman’s face. The photographer apparently died a few weeks later. Another photographer supposedly shot himself. Even the photo was purported to be imbued with misfortune (3).
In June, 1889 the mummy board was donated to the British Museum, by Mrs Warwick Hunt, on behalf of the Wheeler family. (2) But that isn’t the end of the tragedies attributed to the Unlucky Mummy. An Egyptologist who planned to study it, had it sent to his house, and died soon after, having been unable to sleep the entire time it was under his roof.
Murray asked the museum if he could hold a séance in the Egyptian Room with colleague, the journalist WT Stead. The offer was declined. (1). It must be noted that Murray and his journalist friend Stead, were spiritualists and told many stories about the unlucky mummy. Stead would feature again, years later, in the Unlucky Mummy legend.
Even when residing in the British Museum, the Unlucky Mummy caused havoc with reported ghostly sightings and hammering and crying from inside the mummy case (1) until it was moved into an individual display case.
Despite the mummy case rarely leaving the British Museum, stories of its curse continued to circulate and were found in the tabloid press. In 1904, it was linked to the death of writer, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who researched the mummy case while working for the Daily Express. He died three years later, at the age of thirty-six (10).
There are stories the mummy case was sold to an American collector in 1912 and transported via the Titanic where Murray’s friend, ends his part in the story. According to a survivor, Stead told the Unlucky Mummy’s story only hours before sinking with the Titanic (4).
This alternate account doesn’t end with the mummy at the bottom of the ocean. Another story claims a crewman was bribed to put the mummy case on a lifeboat. One of the final pieces of this long tale blames the mummy case for the sinking of an ocean liner, RMS Empress, on the Lawrence River in 1914, where the unlucky mummy finally went down with the ship…(1 and 3).
(Note: Records show the artefact did not leave the British Museum at the time. It was in storage during World War I.)
In 1934 Wallis Budge (Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum until 1924) officially stated:
“… no mummy which ever did things of this kind was ever in the British Museum. …. The cover never went on the Titanic. It never went to America.” (1,3) and blamed ‘Douglas Murray and WT Stead, both in their time notable figures in the physic circles’ (1, 11) for the ongoing stories surrounding Exhibit #EA22542.
Interestingly, both Murray and Stead died in 1912. Murray bequeathed a scholarship to The UCL Institute. The scholarship is awarded to an undergraduate or postgraduate travel to Egypt to carry out research. (6)
Like most mummy legends, that of the Unlucky Mummy was played out in the media of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, accumulating stories of woe and misery (some contradictory) suitable to be told around a flickering campfire or by the faltering light of a dying mobile phone.
- British Museum and the Unlucky Mummy:
- The British Museum Collection Online: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=117233&partId=1
- The British Museum’s Unlucky Mummy. https://darkestlondon.com/2012/02/20/the-british-museums-cursed-mummy/
- Exhumed tombs and legendary tales of doom
- The Mummy’s Curse: The Truth Behind an Edwardian Rumour (blog) https://blogs.ucl.ac.k/events/2012/05/29/the-mummys-curse-the-truth-behind-an-edwardian-rumour/
- UCL Douglas Murray Scholarship in Egyptology
- Unlucky Mummy Project Guttenberg:
- Unlucky Mummy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unlucky_Mummy
- Unwrapping the Mummy’s Curse: https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/2867/unwrapping-the-mummys-curse
- The Atlanta Constitution, June 19th, 1904. Priestess Dead Centuries Ago, Still Potent to Slay and Afflict.
Google books online: The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy
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