The tragedy of the Titanic has become the most famous maritime disaster in history. Though not the deadliest, it is still one of the most prominent.
The Titanic tragically sank after hitting an iceberg that tore through the ships hull, but other more mysterious stories came to light after the ships sinking. One such story of intrigue and speculation is of an ancient Egyptian curse, which was apparently set upon the ship by an ancient prophetess, who’s relic was being carried onboard from Egypt to Europe.
While some of the more mysterious stories surrounding the ship’s sinking may be nothing more than fantasy, journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson apparently verified the story of the curse in the early 20th century.
Robinson supposedly spent months investigating the unfortunate stories surrounding what later became known as the “Unlucky Mummy”. While he spent much of his time attempting to verify the truth behind any tragedies related to the Unlucky Mummy, he was never able to complete his research, as he died shortly before he had the chance.
The Passing of Robinson
Some people have attributed his death to the Unlucky Mummy, but whatever the cause, his work on the artifact was interesting to say the least.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other close acquaintances were under the impression that the ancient prophetess was responsible for the death of Robinson.
Bertram Fletcher Robinson’s research was published in Pearson’s Magazine and the Daily Express, both then operating under the same owner.
Robinson was initially to detail his research in a column for the Daily Express, dismissing the authenticity of the legends, but after further analysis of the stories surrounding the Unlucky Mummy, he reportedly found that the stories were true. The artifact was indeed responsible for various unfortunate events, so it seemed.
Doyle said of Robinson’s death: “It was caused by Egyptian ‘elementals’ guarding a female mummy, because Mr. Robinson had begun an investigation of the stories of the mummy’s malevolence. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty if this is true … but I warned Mr. Robinson against concerning himself with the mummy at the British Museum. He persisted, and his death occurred … I told him he was tempting fate by pursuing his enquiries …The immediate cause of death was typhoid fever, but that is the way in which the elementals guarding the mummy might act.”
What is the Unlucky Mummy?
Despite the artifact being referred to as a Mummy, it’s actually only the Mummy’s case lid. No one knows where the body of the priestess is today.
Sometime in the 1860s, five recent Oxford graduates took a trip to Egypt. Together they sailed down the Nile. As a memento of their trip together, they bought a souvenir in the mummy pits of Deir el-Bahri—the coffin lid of a priestess of Amen-Ra.
On their way back from Egypt, two of the men died. A third went to Cairo and accidentally shot himself in the arm, when his shotgun exploded while out duck hunting on the Nile. It took him 10 days battling against strong headwind to reach medical care, but by then, gangrene had already set in, and he needed to have his arm amputated.
Another member of the group, Arthur Wheeler, managed to make it back to England, only to lose his entire fortune gambling. He moved to America and lost his new fortune to both a flood and a fire. The coffin lid was then placed under the care of Wheeler’s sister, who attempted to have it photographed in 1887. The photographer died, as did the porter. The man asked to translate the hieroglyphs on the lid committed suicide. The coffin lid seemed almost certainly cursed. But this was only the beginning.
The photographer who photographed the case, claimed that a living woman’s face could be seen in his photo. The artifact’s owner gave it to the British Museum where it was located when Bertram Fletcher Robinson studied it, and where it remains to this day. The 5-foot-tall “mummy board” is officially known as “artifact 22542.”
The mummy’s case was described in the August 1909 edition of Pearson’s Magazine: “It was seen to picture a woman’s face, of strange beauty, but of a cold malignity of expression.”
The Curse of The Unlucky Mummy
“One of the most interesting cases of haunting in London is or was associated with the mummy cases of a high priestess of the Temple of Amen-Ra,” begins the entry in Peter Underwood’s Haunted London (1974.)
It does seem indisputable that from the time the mummy case passed into the possession of an Englishman in Egypt about 1860 a strange series of fatalities followed its journey and even when it resided in the Mummy Room at the British Museum, sudden death haunted those who handled the 3,500-year-old relic from Luxor.
The Unlucky Mummy was reported to have been aboard the Titanic when it sank, which some people claim was responsible for the vessel’s tragic end. While some believe the ancient prophetess had cast a curse on the ship, others have cast their doubts.
Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes.com researched the history of this legend and concluded that the mummy case had never left the British Museum, and that two men had simply started the rumour – journalist William Stead and Douglas Murray.
Stead and Murray had told the story of a mummy brought to a friend’s house. The spirit of the mummy had allegedly destroyed everything it could within the house, and brought sickness and misfortune to those who came into contact with it. They later saw the mummy case at the British Museum, which was the same artifact investigated by Robinson. They said the face depicted on the case looked tormented, and that the priestess’ spirit was a malignant force loose in the world.
Stead was a passenger on the Titanic and went down with the ship. A survivor recalled, in an interview with New York World, the story of the cursed mummy was recounted by Stead to other passengers while onboard the Titanic.
Mikkelson claims the story of the cursed Mummy became entangled with the sinking of the Titanic. Other passengers that heard the story, may have been under the impression that Stead had brought the malignant spirit with him.
In the 1899 novel, Pharos the Egyptian, by Guy Boothby, Pharos asks the son of a famous Egyptologist, “And pray by what right did your father rifle the dead man’s tomb?” Perhaps, he continues, “you will show me his justification for carrying away the body from the country in which it had been laid to rest, and conveying it to England to be stared at in the light of a curiosity.” It’s possible that Boothby was talking about the priestess of Amen-Ra.
“Here you’ve got a mummy board that’s depicting a human female, and that mummy board was meant to be kept in an intact tomb,” Cooney says. “And it’s not. It’s floating around the world, bought and sold, and now it’s on display. It’s separated from its mummy, it’s been wrested from everything it’s been a part of. That upsets people. It worries people.”
The Unlucky Mummy story isn’t the only tale of curses to come out of ancient Egyptian tombs.
In 1922, the long sought-after tomb of King Tutankhamen was discovered during an excavation funded by Lord Carnarvon. Journalists were eager to get their hands on the latest details, but Lord Carnarvon had signed an exclusive agreement with the Times of London, which didn’t resonate well with the competition. After the death of Carnarvon, other tabloids began circulating rumours that he had died of a curse which had been unleashed upon discovering King Tut’s tomb.
The British Museum
Today the British Museum has little to say about the Unlucky Mummy. The artifact page for the mummy board has a small note in the curator’s comments. It touches on a few of the most notable myths, including that the mummy was on board the Titanic, and adds:
“This object is perhaps best known for the strange folkloric history attributed to it: it has acquired the popular nickname of the ‘Unlucky Mummy’, with a reputation for bringing misfortune. None of these stories has any basis in fact, but from time to time the strength of the rumours has led to a flood of enquiries.
The mummy-board is said to have been bought by one of four young English travellers in Egypt during the 1860s or 1870s. Two died or were seriously injured in shooting incidents, and the other two died in poverty within a short time. The mummy-board was passed to the sister of one of the travellers, but as soon as it had entered her house the occupants suffered a series of misfortunes. The celebrated clairvoyant Madame Helena Blavatsky is alleged to have detected an evil influence, ultimately traced to the mummy-board. She urged the owner to dispose of it and in consequence it was presented to the British Museum. The most remarkable story is that the mummy-board was on board the SS Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912, and that its presence caused the ship to collide with an iceberg and sink!
Needless to say, there is no truth in any of this; the object had never left the Museum until it went to a temporary exhibition in 1990. This mummy-board is both a remarkable ancient object and an example of how Egyptian objects can develop their own modern existence”.