The Mummy on the Titanic

With the increased interest in the story of the sinking of the Titanic, an old tale of a mummy's curse has resurfaced. According to one version,

A sarcophagus of an ancient Egyptian king was being smuggled to America by an unscrupulous art dealer. The art dealer was going to sell it to a noted museum in New York for $500,000.00. He would then split the booty with the thieves that ransacked the cave of this Egyptian king.

It seems that the god, Anubis, was not pleased with this whatsoever. It seems that Egyptian Gods don't like having their earthly remains sold to the highest bidder. In retaliation for this ghastly of dirty deeds Anubis sunk the Titanic, and the mummy went to the bottom of the sea to finally have it's resting place.

In some of the stories, the mummy is not that of a king, but of a priestess, or princess, of Amen-Ra. In other stories, the mummy was rescued in a lifeboat and once it arrived in New York, anyone who came near it fell under its curse. In one version, the mummy made an attempted return to Egypt on the ship The Empress of Ireland -- which sank -- and then made a second attempt . . . aboard the Lusitania!

Philipp Vandenberg wrote of the curse in his dubious tome The Curse Of The Pharaohs (1973; p. 186):

On board the Titanic were 2,200 passengers, 40 tons of potatoes, 12,000 bottles of mineral water, 7,000 sacks of coffee, 35,000 eggs -- and an Egyptian mummy that Lord Canterville wanted to take from England to New York.

The mummy was the carefully prepared body of a prophetess who had enjoyed a great vogue during the reign of Amenhotep IV, the heretic pharaoh who took the name Ikhnaton. Her grave had been found in Tel el-Amarna. A small temple had been built for this prophetess, the "Temple of the Eyes."

The female mummy had been equipped with the usual amulets and artifacts. An amulet with the inscription Awake from the swoon in which you sleep and a glance of your eyes will triumph over everything that is done against you had been placed beneath her head. Was this the hint that the remains of the prophetess enjoyed special protection?

The mummy was encased in a wooden crate and, because of its value, had not been placed in the hold of the Titanic but behind the command bridge. Many scientists who handled mummies showed clear signs of mental derangement. Did Captain Smith, too, look into those fatal radiant eyes? Could he, too, have been the curse's victim?

Charles Pellegrino added more details to the event in Unearthing Atlantis (1991; pp. 298-299), his book that he desperately wanted to be taken seriously:

In 1910, the British Egyptologist Douglass Murray is said to have been among the next to feel the curse [of Queen Hatshepsut]. An American treasure hunter approached him in Cairo, offering for sale one of several portions of Hatshepsut's multilayered mummy case. The American died before he could cash Murray's check. Three days later, Murray's gun exploded, blowing off most of his right hand. What remained turned gangrenous, requiring amputation of the entire arm at the elbow. En route to England with the sarcophagus, he received word via wireless telegraph that two of his closest friends and two of his servants had died suddenly. Upon arrival in England, he began to feel superstitious, and left Hatshepsut's case in the house of a girlfriend who had taken a fancy to it. The girlfriend soon came down with a mysterious wasting disease. Then her mother died suddenly. Her lawyer delivered the sarcophagus back to Murray, who promptly unloaded it on the British Museum. The British Museum already had more sarcophagi than it needed. Not so, the American Museum of Natural History in New York; so a trade was arranged for Montana dinosaur bones. Before the deal was complete, the British Museum's director of Egyptology and his photographer were dead. Queen Hatshepsut was beginning to lose her charm. The curators loaded the sarcophagus into a crate and saw it lowered into the hold of a ship. And on April 10, 1912, the ship sailed -- Southampton to New York. Hatshepsut departed for America on the Titanic.

W.T. Stead

Some sources say that this legend originated in the press just days following the disaster -- indeed, it appeared in the newspapers of the time. But it may have been concocted on the decks of the ship itself. One of the ship's passengers, William Thomas Stead (pictured right), was not only a journalist but also a believer in mysticism and spiritualism, and a frequenter of mediums. Before the trip, Stead had been warned by a spiritualist friend, one Mr. Penny, not to make the ocean journey as the ship was destined for disaster. He relayed this information to several people over dinner on the third night of the Titanic's voyage, and he embellished the story with an earlier tale of a mummy's curse associated with a "mummy's case" on exhibit at the British Museum (and currently held by that museum, #22542, pictured below [Photo © copyright The British Museum]).


After the ship sank (Stead perished with the ship), some of the surviving listeners who had been present at Stead's table repeated the tale, which by then had likely been exaggerated and distorted to better fit the situation. Whether by faulty memory, emotional melodramatization, or outright deception, a mummy, rather than a coffin-lid, had soon been placed aboard the Titanic, rather than in the halls of a faraway museum, and a legend was born, a legend that was to be built upon as time progressed. A cursory check of the details of the story will yield no verifying facts -- there was no mummy aboard the Titanic.

The so-called cursed "mummy case," actually a wooden "mummy-board" or inner lid of a coffin (EA 22542), can currently be found in Room 62 of the British Museum. The lid is from Thebes and, judging by its shape and the style of its decoration, dates to the end of the 21st or the beginning of the 22nd Dynasty. Some of the earlier British Museum publications described the lid as belonging to a "priestess of Amen-Ra" based on the presumption that a woman of rank would have necessarily been employed by the temple dedicated to this god. Donated by Mrs. Warwick Hunt of Holland Park, London (on behalf of Mr. Arthur F. Wheeler) in July 1889, it went on display at the museum the following year. The mummy-board was packed away for safety's sake during World Wars I and II, but, with the exception of a brief journey to Australia in 1990, has never left the museum. Tales of a curse associated with the mummy-board still persist, despite the fact that any evidence is wholly lacking.

Catchpenny Mysteries © copyright 2000 by Larry Orcutt.