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The curse of Tutankhamen made frequent headlines

Posted in Archaeology, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News, Superstition on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

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This edited article about Tutankhamen first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 596 published on 16 June 1973.

Tutankhamen,  picture, image, illustration

Tutankhamen by John Millar Watt

Lord Carnarvon was laughing, his lean, lined, aristocratic face creasing with amusement at the joke. The archaeologist, Arthur Wiegall, frowned as he watched him. This was no way to act at such a solemn moment. Jokes and quips were hardly apt on the threshold of any tomb, and even less so at a time when everyone inside the antechamber might be standing on the brink of the greatest treasure ever excavated in Egypt.

Wiegall turned furiously to a journalist, standing nearby. “If he goes down in that spirit,” he muttered darkly, “I give him six weeks to live.”

Just over six weeks later, on 6th April 1923, Lord Carnarvon died. The leader of the famous expedition which discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings had been bitten by a mosquito. The bite turned septic, pneumonia developed and Carnarvon succumbed.

Naturally, the death of so prominent and newsworthy a man was a matter for the headlines. For five months, ever since Carnarvon’s partner, Howard Carter, had found Tutankhamen’s burial chamber, Carnarvon’s name had been constantly in print. In its sombre way, his death was merely the latest development in a fascinating tale of buried treasure. But it was also something more sinister. Wiegall’s remark, prompted by pique, now looked very much like a doom-laden prophecy come true.

It also gave colour and conviction to the warning issued to the dying Carnarvon by Marie Corelli, the popular writer of romantic melodramas. Two weeks before Carnarvon died, newspapers publicised Miss Corelli’s prediction that “the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.”

This sort of thing was newsman’s gold, and there is no doubt that journalists made the most of it.

They expanded, embroidered and exploited the news into a legend which, at one and the same time, thrilled and chilled readers the world over; the legend of “the pharaoh’s curse,” which ruthlessly struck down those who disturbed his ancient resting place.

The mental climate of the 1920s was ripe for such a story. Generally speaking, people were rather more credulous and less science-minded than they are now, and superstition, particularly of the more terrifying kind, had a stronger grip on the imagination.

As a result, the public became virtually addicted to the “curse” theory. Certainly, there seemed to be plenty of evidence to support it.

In September 1923, within five months of Lord Carnarvon’s death, his half-brother Aubrey Herbert died suddenly. Herbert, it was reported, had remarked on entering Tutankhamen’s tomb that “something dreadful is going to happen to our family.”

That same year, two visitors to the tomb met deaths that seemed equally suspicious. Jay Gould, an American railroad magnate, caught a cold during his visit, and died of pneumonia, and Prince Ali Kemel Fahmy Bey was shot by his wife in the bedroom of a London hotel.

The “toll” continued into 1924, with the bizarre demise of H. E. Evelyn-White, a young English Egyptologist, who left a suicide note in which he claimed to know he was cursed.

Other “victims” were Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, who had agreed to X-ray the mummy of Tutankhamen, and Frank Raleigh, who had been commissioned to photograph the sarcophagus.

In 1929, Howard Carter’s assistant, Richard Bethel, and Bethel’s father, 78-year-old Lord Westbury, both died mysteriously, the latter flinging himself demented out of the window of his London flat.

This long roll of death and disaster, which named at least 20 “victims” of the curse by 1939, was accompanied by headlines deliberately designed to shock. Typical of them were “Revenge of the Pharaohs,” “Tutankhamen’s Curse Again?” and “The Curse of the Mummy.”

Matching anecdotes were equally lurid.

Lord Carnarvon was said to have poked his finger inside a vase inscribed “Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of the Great Pharaoh.” The finger, when withdrawn, had a drop of blood on it.

Late in 1924, when Carter and his colleagues looked on the long-dead face of Tutankhamen, they were said to have seen a mark on it in exactly the same place as a mark on Lord Carnarvon’s face.

It was also rumoured that on the 17th February, 1923, the day the tomb was entered, a hawk, one of the emblems of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, was seen circling ominously overhead. In weird coincidence, the event was also marked by another royal emblem, a cobra, swallowing Howard Carter’s canary.

All this was given a tinge of respectability by the support of two well-known writers.

One was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who suggested that powerful “elementals” or spirits placed in the tomb might have caused the mysterious deaths. Another upholder of the theory was the novelist H. de Vere Stacpoole, who declared in 1937 that the opening of pharaohs’ tombs “brought bad luck on the world.”

What was largely ignored was the evidence that did not fit the legend.

Lord Carnarvon, for instance, was a very likely candidate for the pneumonia which killed him. It had, in fact, been his weak chest and frail health that had first brought him to Egypt in 1907, to escape the rigours of the English winter.

H. E. Evelyn-White, the suicide victim of 1924, had been involved in a sordid court case which threatened to ruin both his professional and his personal life.

The most cogent argument against the curse was the number of those who appeared to elude it.

In 1934, when belief in the curse had reached the proportions of mass hysteria, some telling statistics were produced by the American Egyptologist, Herbert Winlock.

Winlock’s figures showed that 20 of the 26 people present when the burial chamber was opened; 20 of the 22 who had seen the sarcophagus opened; and all 10 of those who had witnessed the unwrapping of Tutankhamen’s mummy, were still alive and perfectly healthy.

The most notable “survivor” was Howard Carter, who worked for 15 years on the discovery and excavation of the tomb, and supervised the removal of its treasures to the Cairo Museum.

But despite this fact the superstition has lived on. As recently as February 1972, during preparations for the Tutankhamen Exhibition in London, the deaths of two Cairo Museum officials were headlined “Egyptian Curse” and “Death Renews Fears of Pharaoh Curse.” Superstition is hard to kill, all the more so, when it has made 50 years of riveting newspaper copy.

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