The Curse of the Unlucky Mummy
Sometime in the 1860s, five recent Oxford graduates took a trip to Egypt. Together they sailed down the Nile, a tourist attraction even then. To remember their trip, they bought a souvenir in the mummy pits of Deir el-Bahri—the coffin lid of a priestess of Amen-Ra. The high priests of Amen-Ra, named after an Egyptian deity, were military rulers who commanded southern Egypt in the 21st Dynasty (1085 to 945 B.C.), a time of turmoil and strife. Powerful and prone to keep secrets, the priesthood worked to appease the gods that Egypt had clearly angered. With her wide, baleful eyes, open palms, and outstretched fingers, the priestess on the coffin lid seemed to cast a malevolent allure.
On their way back from Egypt, two of the men died. A third went to Cairo and accidentally shot himself in the arm while quail hunting and had to have it amputated. Another member of the group, Arthur Wheeler, managed to make it back to England, only to lose his entire fortune gambling. He moved to America and lost his new fortune to both a flood and a fire. The coffin lid was then placed under the care of Wheeler’s sister, who attempted to have it photographed in 1887. The photographer died, as did the porter. The man asked to translate the hieroglyphs on the lid committed suicide. The coffin lid seemed almost certainly cursed. But this was only the beginning.
Today, the 5-foot-tall “mummy board” lives in the British Museum, where it’s officially known as “artifact 22542.” The mummified priestess that may have lain beneath it has been lost to eternity. But it has another, more commonly used name: “Unlucky Mummy.” Since its arrival at the museum in 1889, the Unlucky Mummy has been blamed for everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the escalation of World War I. How this piece of wood become so intimately and persistently connected with death and destruction is a story of the endlessly swirling tales that people tell when they are afraid—of change, of politics, of science. It is the kind of story that never dies, only feeds upon itself, updating and morphing and tightening its grip no matter how much light is thrown on it.