Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Five by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

The Curse of the Mummy

On April 5th 1923, five months after opening the tomb, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning caused by an infected mosquito bite that had progressed to pneumonia. According to popular legend, the moment he died all the lights when out in Cairo (though power outages were not uncommon at the time) and Carnarvon’s dog howled mournfully at the exact same moment before dying itself. This account was given by Carnarvon’s son, though it is worth noting that he was far away in India at the time of his father’s and the dog’s deaths.

Lord Carnarvon (from Wikipedia)

Speculation about what might have been the exact cause of his death was fueled by newspapers, some of which had been denied exclusive coverage of the tomb, threw more fuel on the fire by claiming it was the “Mummy’s Curse.” Depending on who you talk to, anywhere from four to eight deaths were attributed to Tut’s curse.

The idea of a “mummy’s curse” or a “curse of the Pharaohs” wasn’t a new one and its origins could be traced back to the mid-19th century and Victorian fiction writers, such as Louisa May Alcott, who drew upon this idea that Egypt was a mysterious and mystical place, which went back all the way to antiquity. In 1903 Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, published a book called The Jewel of the Seven Stars which told the story of an archaeologist suffering from the curse of a disturbed mummy.

When the Titanic sank in 1912, rumors of a mummy of an Egyptian priestess being the cause of the sinking resulted in the British Museum publishing flyers for the general public stating that no such mummy had even been on the Titanic. 

So, by the time Tut was discovered in 1922, the general public were more than primed to expect supernatural experiences with anything associated with Ancient Egypt. 

While Egyptian tombs and sarcophagi were covered in protective spells and prayers to ensure a successful journey to the afterlife, curses such as we think of them did not exist in Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians thought it was bad luck to even write down the possibility of tomb robberies and so these formulaic sayings were more along the lines of, “the robber will suffer from a disease that no doctor can diagnose” than “death floats on silent wings to those who disturb the pharaoh’s rest.”

Sarcophagus (British Museum)

Carter himself thought the whole business of “the mummy’s curse” was “tommy-rot” and of almost 58 people who were at the tomb at the time of its opening, its documentation, and the opening of the sarcophagus, only eight or nine deaths were attributed to the mummy’s curse and none hold up under further inspection.

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