When I wrote The Last Days of Leda Grey, which is based on the earliest silent films, one of the dramas I imagined my fictional characters making was inspired by The Unlucky Mummy.
Image of the Unlucky Mummy as featured on the cover of Pearson’s Magazine in 1909
Many intriguing and eerie tales have built up around this relic, which dates back to around 950 BC. It is thought to have come from a temple in Thebes. However, since the late 1880’s it has been on display in the British Museum in London.
It’s not a mummy as such, but the image of a woman painted on ‘coffin’ of plaster and wood. In effect it is the image of the person once buried inside it. But who might she have been? Well, some think a high priestess who served in the temple of Amen Ra. But, since being taken away from Egypt, her spirit is said to be restless, causing havoc and bringing bad luck to any who have a close connection.
In my novel, the Mummy’s curse is discussed by Leda Grey’s father…
‘Yes, it’s called The Unlucky Mummy, found back in the 1880s, when three Englishmen travelled to Egypt, where a terrible fate befell them all after one of the party paid thousands of pounds to possess the ancient relic. Later on, that very night, the man walked into the desert night and was never seen alive again … and that event occurring soon after the sarcophagus had been delivered to his rooms. The second man was to lose an arm when a servant asked to clean his gun then accidentally fired it off. The third returned to England to find himself entirely ruined when the bank in which his wealth was held had catastrophically failed, after which he was reduced to selling matches on the streets to live.
And that was not the end of it! Some years afterwards, when the mummy had been acquired by the British Museum in London, the night guards started speaking of some strange and ghostly happenings, with objects flying round the room, with banging sounds and agonising wails that seemed to emanate from underneath the coffin’s lid. Why, a journalist who was brought in to investigate the strange events was then tormented in his mind, when a photograph he’d taken that showed the casket’s painted face ~ a face normally quite serene ~ had changed into a mask of such a cruel and Hellish countenance… he lost his wits and killed himself.’
That short extract from my novel is just one variation on a theme – and certainly not the whole story. Before reaching the British Museum, the residents of one house to which it had been delivered spoke of strange things occurring, such as ornaments being smashed, the sound of footsteps in the night, or flickering lights in the attic in which the mummy had been stored, after most of the family’s servants had threatened to leave the house.
Another story claimed that the curse of The Unlucky Mummy was behind the The Titanic’s dreadful fate, with the Mummy being on board at the time of the tragedy. However, this is nonsense. At the time of the Titanic’s sinking the relic was already being displayed in the British Museum.
But, like many an urban folktale, the myth became embellished, often quoted in papers and magazines as being a genuine story; and all of this during an era when the belief in ghosts and spiritualism was reaching hysterical levels.
Betram Fletcher Robinson
What could be more sinister than an Egyptian Mummy’s curse ~ a tale that was being spoken about even before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb? Many of the men on that dig did meet with tragic ends, as did Betram Robinson Fletcher, a journalist who was determined to debunk all the fanciful stories surrounding The Unlucky Mummy. At the time he had been warned not to try and meddle. Arthur Conan Doyle also advised him to keep away from matters he did not understand. He also wrote of what then followed …
“It was caused by Egyptian ‘elementals’ … 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 … 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.”
It sounds as if Conan Doyle was twisting the facts to suit his own fanciful interpretation. But, if you’ve seen The Unlucky Mummy on a trip to the British Museum did you feel any aura of evil, any chill in the atmosphere?