Curse of Tutankhamun
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”.
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.
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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 catalogue 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?
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 accidentally 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.
Carter and his workers remove the treasures — did they provoke the pharaoh’s wrath?
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.
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.
The dig site has notable visitors from all around the world.
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.
The press blamed Westbury’s suicide on the curse
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.