British Museum and the Unlucky Mummy
Established in 1753 and opened to the public on 15 January 1759, the British Museum has over seven million artifacts mapping human history and culture from all around the globe, spanning from the earliest civilizations to present day. One of those artefacts though has become entwined with the story of a curse, which although being fictional does persist and continues to draw attention.
The Curse of Amen-Ra
This is the usual story told about the cursed mummy, blamed of sinking the RMS Titanic. Amen-Ra was an Egyptian Princess dating from 1050BC or 1500BC depending upon the source. Her Luxor tomb was excavated in the 1880’s. Four young rich Englishmen visiting the dig site were fascinated by the discovery of Amen-Ra and one of them purchased her mummy and ornate wooden sarcophagus for several thousand ponds, having it delivered to his hotel. These four men were to become the first victims of the curse. The man who bought Amen-Ra walked into the desert a few hours later and was never seen again. The day after the visit to the Luxor excavation another of the young men was shot accidentally by an Egyptian servant and his arm had to be amputated. The two remaining men returned home unharmed, however, one of them found that he was financially ruined as his bank had failed and the fourth man fell ill, was made unemployed and forced onto the street selling matches.
One way or another Amen-Ra reached Britain. The mummy was bought by a London business man who donated it to the British Museum after his house nearly burned down and three of his family were injured in a road accident. One of the workers that helped unload the mummy at the museum broke his leg, a second one died mysteriously and the truck carrying Amen-Ra reversed hitting and trapping a pedestrian.
When Amen-Ra was put on exhibit night watchmen started reporting haunting type phenomena, including poltergeist like activity and the sounds of crying and hammering from within the sarcophagus. The mysterious deaths also continued with one of the Night Watchmen dying and the child of a visitor who flicked a cloth at the coffin.
A journalist photographer decided to follow the story of the curse, but when his photograph of the sarcophagus showed a human face he locked himself in a room and shot himself.
Amen-Ra was sold into a private collection and locked in a basement. The man who supervised the move was found dead soon afterwards and one of his assistants fell severely ill. After it had been moved to an attic, the Russian occultist Madame Helena Blavatsky (born 12 August 1831 – died in London 8 May 1891), visited the building, immediately sensing “an evil influence of incredible intensity”. The owner asked Blavatsky if she could exorcise the mummy but she replied “There is no such thing as exorcism. Evil remains evil forever. Nothing can be done about it. I implore you to get rid of this evil as soon as possible.”
Amen-Ra was finally sold to an American archaeologist who arranged for it to be shipped over to New York in April 1912. That ship was the RMS Titanic and she sank on 15th April 1912 with the loss of 1517 lives.
Usually the story ends here with the mummy lost at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. However, sometimes it is expanded upon to blame the mummy for more maritime disasters.
However, the collector had bribed a crewman to place the mummy in a lifeboat and she made it safely to America. The curse continued to play havoc in America and she was shipped off on another ocean liner, the RMS Empress of Ireland. The Empress was struck by the Norwegian coal Freighter SS Storstad on the St Lawrence River on 29 May 1914 and sank with the loss of 1024 lives. Amen-Ra survived yet again.
In a final bid to evade the curse she was yet again placed on another ocean liner and began her journey back to Egypt. This liner was the RMS Lusitania and she sank off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland on 7 May 1915 after being hit by a torpedo fired from a German World War I submarine. Nearly 1200 people lost their lives. It is believed that Amen-Ra went down with the ship.
The story is obviously fictional but has become linked with an actual museum artefact, BM.22542.
Sometimes referred to as the Unlucky Mummy, BM.22542 is actually a mummy board or the lid of an inner coffin. It is 162cm in length and dates from 900-950BC. It is decorated with the painted face of a woman but it is thought she was a priestess of Amen-Ra. It was donated to the museum on behalf of Mr Arthur Wheeler by Mrs Warwick Hunt of Holland Park, London in July 1889. It has been on display at the British museum since 1890. The mummy from the coffin which the lid is from did not leave Egypt by all accounts.
In ‘The Mummy:A Handbook of Egyptioan Funerary Archaeology’, E A Wallis Budge describes it as being “decorated with an elaborate pectotal, figures of the gods, sacred symbols of Osiris and Isis, and at the foot, between crowned uraei, is a cartouche containing the prenomen and nomen of Amenhetep I, Tcheserkara Amenhetep, one of the earliest kings of the XVIIIth dynasty and a great benefactor of the priesthood of Amen at Thebes. This board was presented to the British Museum in 1889 by Mr A F Wheeler and has been the subject of many paragraphs in the newspapers.”
Even here he refers to the speculation in the newspapers about the “curse” and in 1934 Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge (July 27, 1857 – November 23, 1934) an Egyptologist, Philologist, Orientalist and Keeper of Antiquities at the British Museum (until 1924) wrote”… 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.”
What is the Connection?
The following concise explanation appeared in an article entitled ‘Weird Misfortunes Blamed On Mummy’, which appeared in the New York Times Saturday 7 April 1923. ‘So goes the legendary lore, but now comes Sir Ernest Budge with a little common sense. Talking a few weeks ago to the Sunday Times he said the whole myth was founded on a series of misunderstandings. W. T. Stead [William Thomas Stead (5 July 1849 – 15 April 1912) an English (born Embleton, Northumberland) journalist with a very keen interest in Spiritualism, automatic writing and mediumship] and Douglas Murray [Thomas Douglas Murray (died 1911) an amateur archaeologist possibly involved in acquiring the lid for the museum] told the story about another mummy which a lady put as an ornament in her drawing room. Next morning she found all her bric-a-brac smashed to pieces, and when her husband locked the mummy up in a cupboard in an upper room the servants declared they saw troops of beings ascending the stairs all night with lights in order to break all the crockery they could find, and resigned en masse the next day.
Just about the same time a man named Wheeler gave the priestess’ coffin lid to the museum and Mr. Stead and Mr. Murray examined it and declared that to them it seemed the face of a portrait. It looked like a picture of a soul in torment, they said, and they wanted to hold a seance in the museum to see if they could do something to relieve the lady. But naturally the authorities did not agree.
The story got out and the public proceeded to identify the priestess of Amen-Ra with the crockery smashing mummy of the suburban drawing room. People have written from so far afield as New Zealand and Algiers enclosing money to place lilies at the foot of the coffin lid. The money has been acknowledged, but it has been put to the much more prosaic use of the general upkeep of the museum.
As for the Titanic story, Sir Ernest can only say that the museum has never parted with the lid, although during air raids it was removed for safety to the basement and it has, since it became a part of the national collection, never left the care of the museum.
Still its brilliant colors attract most careless visitors and anyone can hear all about its malignant power by approaching tactfully the nearest of the museum’s attendants.’
The RMS Titanic connection possibly came about as William Thomas Stead was amongst the 1517 that lost their lives when she sank on 15th April 1912. It has also been suggested that a surviving passenger, Frederic Kimber Seward (Born Wilmington, Delaware 23 March 1878 – Died in Queens, New York on 7 December 1943) had been told about the curse of the mummy whilst on the ship by William Stead the night before it sank.
The extension of the story to include the RMS Empress of Ireland may be the fault of the Egyptologist Margaret Murray who admitted apparently to inventing the story. Murray wrote several books on witchcraft and may have been an inspiration for Gerald Gardener.
Stead published a fictional story on 22 March 1886 entitled ‘How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid-Atlantic, by a Survivor’. In this two ships collide with the loss of many lives because of a lack of lifeboats. In another fictional story entitled ‘From the Old World to the New’ he has a psychic on a White Star Line ship called Majestic, that realises another ship has hit an iceberg. The Majestic then goes to rescue the passengers of the stricken vessel. This was written in 1892. They may seem like premonitions of his fateful trip on the RMS Titanic or perhaps an understanding of dangers faced by transatlantic shipping and the lack of safety equipment on those ships.
Budge himself was interested in the paranormal and had friends in the Ghost Club.