One of the silliest myths to attach itself to the Titanic disaster is the tale told by some people–in all seriousness–that the ship was doomed because deep in one of her cargo holds on her maiden voyage was a crate containing an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, which contained a mummy protected by a horrible curse–a curse that brought the ship and the iceberg together in their deadly encounter.
As the tale goes, in approximately 1,500 B.C., a beautiful young Egyptian princess named Amen-Ra died under mysterious circumstances. (Students of ancient Egypt will already be able to see this story falling apart, as “Amen-Ra” was the name of the supreme deity in the ancient Egyptian pantheon–not a name to be used by a junior member of an Egyptian royal house!) With great pomp and ceremony, the young woman was mummified, then buried in an elaborate gold coffin, upon which a curse was placed that promised death to anyone who disturbed the final resting place of the princess. In the late 1890s (the exact date is never specified), four young English adventurers found the princess’ tomb in the ruined city of Luxor, and, after wrangling with the locals, bought the sarcophagus, with the intention of bringing it back to England and putting it on public display.
Within hours, as the story goes, the curse began to work its evil. One of the four young men walked out into the desert, never to return. Another was shot by accident, and wounded so gravely that it was necessary to amputate the injured arm. Upon returning to Great Britain, the third member of this hapless quartet was greeted with the news that a bank failure had caused him to lose his entire fortune. The fourth man eventually succumbed to a mental illness and reduced to penury.
None of this prevented the coffin from eventually reaching England, of course, and once in London it was bought by a businessman who in short order learned that his house had mysteriously burnt to the ground, and three members of his family had been seriously injured in a railway accident. Unnerved, the man turned the sarcophagus over to the British Museum, where the “curse” continued its malevolent work. Workers at the Museum who came into contact with the mummy and its coffin were inexplicably struck down by accident or illness, sometimes fatally so. The tale is told how night watchmen at the Museum would sometimes hear frantic the noise of something hammering against the lid of the coffin, often accompanied by the sound of someone sobbing. Eventually the sarcophagus and its mummy were banished to the Museum’s basement; within a week, so we’re told, one of the staff working there fell seriously ill, while the supervisor was found dead on his desk.
The story got better as it progressed: at this point is it revealed that young Princess Amen-Ra, who had made the mistake of falling in love with a young man who was beneath her station and then planned to elope with him, had not died or been mummified, but rather had been buried alive in the coffin as punishment for her presumptuous indiscretion. (Apparently those ancient Egyptians were a pretty prickly bunch where honor was concerned!) It is then told how a photographer who took a picture of the mummy case found, when he developed the negative, that the painting on the coffin was of an agonized human face. The image was said to be so horrifying that the photographer locked himself in his bedroom and blew his brains out with a pistol.
Now the story veers from the absurd into the ridiculous. According to the most popular version of the tale, Madame Helena Blavatsky, described as “a well known authority on the occult,” examined the sarcophagus; while in its presences she supposedly was seized by chills and said she detected “an evil influence of incredible intensity.” When asked if she could “exorcise” this malevolence, she is supposed to have replied, “There is no such thing as exorcism. Evil remains evil forever . Nothing can be done about it. I implore you to get rid of this evil as soon as possible.” What makes this whole episode ridiculous is that Madame Blavatsky, who was a real person, and a well-known occultist, died in 1891, several years before the mummy’s alleged arrival in London.
Nevertheless, those who promote this tale aren’t about to let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story, and so, they say, enough was enough: after languishing for a few years in the attic of the collector who had bought the mummy from the British Museum, it was sold to an American archeologist who scoffed at stories of the curse. (Cue the “Indiana Jones” theme music here.) In April of 1912, under the watchful eye of its new owner, the sarcophagus was loaded aboard the RMS Titanic to be transported to its new home in America….
The real origin of the “cursed mummy” tale apparently lies in the after-dinner table-talk of William Stead, a well-known British journalist and avid spiritualist who was a passenger aboard the Titanic. On the night of April 12, in an act of defiance of superstition, Stead began regale his dinner companions by telling a tale about a cursed Egyptian mummy, deliberately drawing the story out until he was able to conclude it after midnight, then gleefully drawing his audience’s attention that it was now the thirteenth of April when he finished.
As for the existence of the mummy itself, there is in the possession of the British Museum a “mummy board”–part of an inner coffin lid–on which there is an elaborate and beautiful painting of the face of a young woman. The board dates back to roughly 900 B.C., long after the demise of poor “Princess Amen-Ra,” and inscriptions on the board indicate that the woman depicted had been a priestess of Amen-Ra. Except in wartime, when it was stored elsewhere for safekeeping, this “mummy-board” has never left the Egyptian Room of the British Museum….