In November 1922, archeologist Howard Carter pushed a candle through a hole he had made in a sealed tomb door and peeked inside. “Can you see anything?”, he was asked. “Yes, wonderful things”, according to Unredacted. Carter had just discovered the tomb of an obscure 18th dynasty pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Piled high with a dazzling array of treasures, the contents would stun the world.
Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, had made the greatest discovery in the history of Egyptology — a fully intact 3000-year-old pharaoh’s tomb untouched by grave robbers. The story was mesmerising. Henry Morton, the only journalist allowed on the excavation, filed a series of reports of Carter’s discoveries to the London Times. And they kept coming. The tomb was so stuffed with treasures it took the team nearly 3 months to sort and catalog them all. But by February the next year, Carter and Carnarvon were ready to open the inner burial chamber that they hoped would contain the pharaoh himself.
They were astonished by what they found — 3 solid gold coffins, nested inside of each other. Inside the final one was the mummy of boy king, Tutankhamun. Shortly after the amazing discovery, tragedy struck. Lord Carnarvon fell ill and died after an insect bite went septic. Rumours began to circulate that Carter and Carnarvon had found stone tablets in Tutankhamun’s tomb inscribed with a curse. Had Carnarvon been struck down by a pharaoh’s spell for daring to desecrate his burial place?
Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, thought so. Ironically for a man associated with the logical detective, Doyle was an ardent believer in the supernatural and declared that Carnarvon was struck dead for daring to disturb the young king. The newspapers and the public, already in the grip of pharaoh fever, were hooked on the story. Over the coming years, they would link dozens of strange and early deaths amongst those associated with the tomb’s discovery to the curse.
Was this simply early tabloid sensationalism and wild imaginations or did a sinister curse doom those who dared enter the pharaoh’s last resting place?
1. Something dreadful
Even before Carnarvon’s death, there was talk of impending doom. The day Carter first discovered the entrance to the tomb, a cobra got into his house and killed his pet canary. Pharaohs were represented by the cobra, and Carter’s workers felt it an omen — do not enter. Best selling novelist Marie Corelli, quoting an ancient Arabic manuscript, told the press that — “the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb”.
Carter also received a rash of letters warning him not to proceed. The archeologist dismissed it all as nonsense, but when his benefactor Carnarvon died shortly later it sent the press into a frenzy. It wasn’t entirely clear how he died, although the suggestion was that a mosquito bite had become infected when Carnarvon accidently nicked it whilst shaving. After a delirious fever, he succumbed on April 5th, 1923.
More details emerged that encouraged the speculation. The night of his death, there was a black-out in Cairo and reportedly Carnarovan’s dog back in England let out a howl and dropped dead. The press around the world had become obsessed by the idea Carnarvon was killed by a pharaoh’s curse. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle publically endorsed the idea. A Los Angeles Times leader wrote — “No matter how little superstitious a man may be, the act of breaking the rest so carefully guarded through the centuries must cause an emotion which time can never efface”.
More deaths were to follow. A few weeks after Carnarvon’s death, Carter gave wealthy financier George J Gould a private tour of he tomb. Soon after, Gould came down with a fever and died. Other early tomb visitors died violent or strange deaths within the year. Prince Ali Kemal Fahmy Bey and South African millionaire Woolf Joel were both murdered and British MP Aubrey Herbert went blind and died of blood poisoning.
Hebert’s death was particularly tragic for the Carnarvon family as he was Lord Carnarvon’s half brother. He had reported on entering the burial chamber — “something dreadful is going to happen to our family”. Perhaps the press were right? Within months, a disparate group of characters from around the world were all dead after visiting the tomb. The following year, 1924, would only fuel the speculation. In January, Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, who had x-rayed King Tutankhamun’s body, died from a mysterious illness.
H. E. Evelyn-White was next. The young British archeologist was one of the first to enter the tomb after Carter. After writing — “I have succumbed to a curse” in his own blood, he hung himself. Sir Lee Stack, governor of Sudan, was also amongst the earliest visitors to the pharaoh’s tomb. Later that year he too met a violent end, shot dead on the streets of Cairo by an assassin. The next year one of the most peculiar stories surrounding the curse hit the news-stands. Howard Carter had given his close friend, Sir Bruce Ingham, a paperweight made from a mummified hand wearing a scarab bracelet.
Inscribed upon the bracelet were the words — “cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence”. Soon after, Ingham’s house burnt down. When it was rebuilt, it flooded. In 1926, George Benedite of the Louvre museum died shortly after visiting the tomb. Another Egyptologist, Aaron Ember, also died that year in a curious fire at his home. After Howard Carter himself, the main archeologist to excavate Tutankhamun’s tomb was A. C. Mace. Mace spent years on the dig and co-authored the first book about discovery with Carter.
In 1928, after complaining of increasing weakness, he collapsed. He died shortly later, seemingly of arsenic poisoning, in the same hospital as Lord Carnarvon. 1929 saw two particularly strange deaths. As Howard Carter’s personal secretary, Richard Bethell was present at the opening of the burial chamber in 1923. He was found in November, smothered to death in his bed. A few months later, Bethel’s father Baron Westbury jumped from his seventh floor flat in a delirium. The flat contained artifacts from the dig, obtained by his late son. Westbury’s suicide note read — “I really cannot stand any more horrors and hardly see what good I am going to do here, so I am making my exit”.
Finally in 1929, Lord Carnarvon’s other half brother died from ‘malarial pneumonia’. Within 6 years of the discovery, Carnarvon, both his half brothers, Carter’s chief archeologist, his personal secretary and his father, the excavation’s radiologist and at least half a dozen other prominent individuals who visited the tomb were all dead. A few months later, Bethel’s father Baron Westbury jumped from his seventh floor flat in a delirium. The flat contained artifacts from the dig, obtained by his late son. Westbury’s suicide note read — “I really cannot stand any more horrors and hardly see what good I am going to do here, so I am making my exit”.
Finally in 1929, Lord Carnarvon’s other half brother died from ‘malarial pneumonia’. Within 6 years of the discovery, Carnarvon, both his half brothers, Carter’s chief archeologist, his personal secretary and his father, the excavation’s radiologist and at least half a dozen other prominent individuals who visited the tomb were all dead. Was it down to vivid imaginations and a lot of coincidences, or did this rash of deaths have a more sinister cause?
Perhaps we don’t need to suppose any supernatural source for the ‘curse’. Could there be a more scientific answer?
2. Fungus of death
The ‘curse’ of Tutankhamun was still claiming victims 70 years on. But this time it pointed to a scientific solution to the mystery. Sheryl Munsun died in 1995 of respiratory failure, a few weeks after visiting Tutankhamun’s tomb. Munson didn’t just visit the tomb, she touched the walls and run her fingers across the paint. Back home, she fell ill. Her immune system, already weakened by a battle with cancer, had become overrun by spores or a toxic fungus — Aspergillus Niger.
Doctors were baffled. Could there be any connection to her recent trip to Egypt? The suspicion wasn’t entirely new. After Carnarvon’s death, American politicians had ordered an immediate investigation into mummies to see if they posed the same medical threat apparent in the tomb. Arthur Conan Doyle, when not proposing supernatural sources, suggested the curse may be down to the pharaohs deliberately booby trapping their tomb walls with poisons.
Howard Carter, unaware of any potential danger, first noted patches of fungus on walls of the burial chamber in 1923 and experts say such mould and fungus is not uncommon. “When you think of Egyptian tombs, you have not only dead bodies but foodstuffs — meats, vegetables, and fruits”, said Jennifer Wegner, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. “It certainly may have attracted insects, molds, and bacteria. The raw material would have been there thousands of years ago”.
Other studies of ancient mummies have shown they too can carry mold and bacteria, two of which — Aspergillus Niger and Aspergillus Flavus, are potentially deadly. These molds can cause allergic reactions ranging from congestion to bleeding in the lungs and are particularly harmful to people, like Carnarvon, with weakened immune systems. French physician Dr. Caroline Stenger-Philippe, in her doctoral thesis for the Strasbourg School of Medicine in 1985, linked 6 of the Tutankhamun deaths to a severe allergic reaction to the mould.
Stenger-Philippe claimed the victims were stricken with allergic alveolitis, an inflammation of the tiny air chambers in the lungs, and died of pulmonary insufficiency. Further dangers have been found inside sealed sarcophagi. Ammonia gas, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide have all been detected, which in strong enough concentrations can cause burning of the eyes and nose, pneumonia-like symptoms and even death.
Lord Carnarvon was already ill before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, injured in a bad car crash the previous year. The next victim — George J Gould, was also already weakened by illness at the time Did exposure to toxic mold hasten their deaths?
3. The horrors
Perhaps a supernatural curse did exist of a fashion — in the minds of its victims. Often ascribed to the invention of journalists, the public imagination in the 1920s was very receptive to the idea of curses. This was a far more credulous and superstitious time, and tales of horror and dark goings-on in foreign lands were immensely popular. Could it be some of those that died simply believed the curse to be real, and this hastened their deaths?
With the media hype so strong about the ‘curse of the pharaohs’, there is evidence at least some of the deaths were influenced by the belief they had succumbed to it Evelyn-White’s grisly suicide is the most obvious candidate. A young archeologist who visited the tomb in 1923, he left a note, supposedly written in his own blood, complaining that he was cursed. Although Evelyn-White had a troubled private life, could the fact he visited Tutankhamun’s burial chamber have made him believe his troubles were caused by the much-vaunted curse?
Another suicide ascribed by some to the curse was Baron Westbury, who jumped from a 7th-floor balcony to his death in 1930. His suicide note complained about ‘the horrors’. Westbury’s son, Richard Bethel, was the second man to enter the burial chamber, after Carter himself. Just months earlier he had died in strange and violent circumstances. Did Westbury believe he, too, was doomed and take matters into his own hands?
4. Cast the fear of myself into him
“Death Shall Come on Swift Wings To Him Who Disturbs the peace of the king”. Rumours that Carter had found those words inscribed in the burial chamber were never substantiated, and Carter himself always denied it. However, ancient Egyptians did sometimes leave curses in their tombs. The tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi contains an inscription — “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb… impure… there will be judgment… an end shall be made for him… I shall seize his neck like a bird… I shall cast the fear of myself into him.”
Another Old Kingdom curse reads “Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.” Some mastaba walls in Giza and Saqqara were also inscribed with curses meant to scare off tomb robbers. The modern idea of a mummy’s curse did not begin with the Carter dig. Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat traces the idea back to Victorian London and bizarre ‘strip-shows’ where real mummies were unbandaged live on stage.
This odd spectacle inspired Little Women writer Louisa May Alcott to write one of the first mummy’s curse stories, in her long forgotten 1869 book “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse”.
1. The numbers
American Egyptologist Herbert E. Winlock was one of the most prominent skeptics over the mummy’s curse. If it existed, Winlock argued, it was not very effective. He scrupulously collected newspapers stories of deaths attributed to the curse. By the 1930s, according to Winlock, the vast majority of those directly involved with the excavation were actually still alive. Of the 26 who were present at the first discovery of the burial chamber, only 6 had died by 1934. Only 2 of the 22 present at the opening of the sarcophagus were dead 10 years later.
All 10 of those who were there when the mummy was unwrapped were also still alive. It seems the pharaohs were not that keen on striking down those who desecrated the grave after all. The best example was Howard Carter himself. As the discoverer of the tomb, he should have been the main target for any curse. Yet he went on to live for another 15 years, until his death in 1937 of natural causes.
2. Newspaper wars
Lord Carnarvon himself may have been, somewhat inadvertently, responsible for the curse. In January 1923, growing tired of the endless clamour of journalists for interviews and access, he decided to sell exclusive rights to cover the excavation to just one newspaper — the Times of London. Rival newspapers were furious. This was the story of the decade and one newspaper had a monopoly on it. To compensate, journalists like Arthur Weigall of the Daily Mail, were forced to find different ways to cover Carter’s excavation.
Myths, ancient curses, and mysterious deaths sold newspapers and were a good way to feeds the public’s insatiable appetite for stories of Tutankhamun’s tomb without access to the site itself. Thus were born ripe tales of the dead canary, the power cut in Cairo and suicide notes written in blood. Stories that continue to this day.