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The Titanic Mummy: A Mystery Solved
(updated from an article originally published in the Titanic Commutator Vol. 19, No. 1, 1995)

The decades since 1912 have seen the evolution of a strange legend which has become inextricably bound to the story of the "unsinkable" Titanic. Lately there has been a resurgence of interest in the claim that a "cursed" Egyptian mummy case was being shipped to America on board the Titanic and it was that "curse of the Pharaohs" which caused the unsinkable White Star liner to founder.

Two recent articles in the Titanic Commutator have done a good job of acquainting readers with the basics of the legend.  (See Ed Kamuda's The Titanic Mummy Legend in Vol 18, No. 2, and Grace Eckley's W.T. Stead, Natural and Supernatural in Vol. 18, No. 3.)

As Grace Eckley correctly points out, the original tale actually began with the discovery of a certain mummy case in Egypt in the late 1860's.  Following its acquisition by several Englishmen (one of whom was Douglas Murray), the "cursed" mummy case is said to have left a long trail of misfortune in its wake as a steady procession of frightened owners relinquished their custody of the ancient relic to others.  The sarcophagus eventually found a permanent home in the Second Egyptology Room of the British Museum.

Like all good folktales, the story of the discovery and subsequent adventures of the "cursed" mummy case has not remained static; although the basic elements of the story endure, most published re-tellings of the tale contain details unique to those particular versions.  (One good reason for this is that the "standard" mummy story is apparently based on the careers of at least two, and probably three, different containers.)  Still, the anecdote is an intriguing one that has undoubtedly raised goosebumps on more than one superstitious reader during the last hundred years.

How did the above tale of the British Museum's "haunted" mummy case ever become associated with the Titanic disaster?

Originally the association was an innocent one.  William T. Stead, the well-known journalist and advocate of spiritualism, is known to have displayed an interest in the British Museum's "cursed" sarcophagus, and he was also one of those people who had booked passage on the Titanic's maiden voyage.  During the evening of April 12, 1912, the third night out at sea, several passengers in the ship's smoking room began to tell ghost stories that inspired Stead to regale his fellow passengers with the talk of the mummy case of doom in the British Museum.  He even told his listeners that the curse included the proviso that anyone who verbally related the afflicted container's adventures would soon meet with a dire end.  (Frederic Seward, the only member of Stead's audience to survive the Titanic's sinking, later decided not to tempt fate -- he declined to repeat the story for an interested New York reporter.

William T. Stead

It would appear that the above incident was the original catalyst behind the general public's association of a "cursed" Egyptian mummy case with the loss of the Titanic and it didn't take long before that train of thought had grown far beyond being a simple mental connection between two subjects.   Within four years of the Titanic's sinking, stories had become widespread that a "mummy of evil" inside the case had actually been responsible for the great liner's loss.

An article by Marion Ryan in the August 27, 1916 issue of the Weekly Dispatch mentions Sir Wallis Budge's emphatic statement that there was no such "mummy of evil" in the British Museum and never had been.   Budge also denied the widespread rumors that the museum had sold such an artifact to an American millionaire who was transporting the item to America on board the Titanic.   He added:

    The nucleus of all these wild and fantastic tales is this.  We have the sarcophagus which once contained the mummy of a high priestess of Egypt who may or may not have committed evil deeds in her lifetime.  In some strange way the traditions which gathered about two mummies brought to England by people not connected with the museum at all became attached to the sarcophagus of the high priestess.
    One of these mummies belonged to Mr, Ingram and was in the British Museum for a time on exhibition before it was sold by the owner to the late Lady Meux.  There were traditions of an evil influence wielded by this mummy which led to disasters being brought down upon various people, but I have never heard them verified.  The other mummy was brought to England by a wealthy Englishwoman.  That mummy was never in the British Museum, but during the time it was in England there were stories of strange and terrible disasters said to have happened to those under its influence.
    These tragedies occurred so often and so mysteriously that they seemed to go beyond the range of coincidence, and the owner of the mummy did not care to possess it any longer, so arrangements were made to take it back to Thebes and rebury it.  These arrangements were carried out in due course, and the mummy of that high priestess or princess is disposed of for all time probably, but the stories of her influence for evil, which gradually leaked out, seem in some mysterious way to have attached themselves or been attached to the cover of the sarcophagus of the high priestess in the Museum.
That information may well account for the evil reputation attributed to the British Museum's mummy case; even so, it is quite possible that previous custodians of that particular sarcophagus did indeed suffer the misfortunes enumerated by Grace Eckley.  (Indeed, the September 30, 1916 issue of Light contains a letter by Miss E. Bates who said she was told substantially the same account of those misfortunes by Douglas Murray himself.  The 1928 autobiography of the notable palmist Cheiro - William John Warner - also contains much the same information as recounted to the author during personal interviews with Murray.)

But our focus here does not concern coincidental misfortunes that superstitious persons attributed to an Egyptian curse.  Instead, we wonder how, in less than four years, the legend became firmly established that a cursed mummy case was actually aboard the Titanic in 1912 and was responsible for her loss.

We have already seen how W. T. Stead's interest in the British Museum's sarcophagus (coupled with his telling the story about it while on board the Titanic) may have created a "mental association" between the two subjects in the mind of the general public.  Interestingly, there is excellent evidence that, sometime between 1912 and 1916, a certain person elaborated on the simple "mental association" and consciously created the legend that a cursed mummy case was actually on board the Titanic.

The autobiography of Peter Underwood, a well-known British researcher of the paranormal, relates how he was once introduced to "that grand little lady" Margaret Murray, a woman who seems to have led a remarkably interesting life. The "grand little lady" lived to see the publication of her own autobiography, My First Hundred Years, and her life, as described by Underwood, "reached from space travel back to the days before bicycles." She took her doctorate in an age when women who achieved such things were decidedly uncommon, and she was known for her scholarly researches into the origins of witchcraft. Dr. Murray was also interested in Egyptology and spent much of her time in Egypt; Peter Underwood once saw a 1908 photograph that showed her cutting into a mummy "as if she was getting stuck into the Sunday joint." The reason this woman is of interest to us here is that Margaret Murray always maintained it was she who created the story of the cursed mummy case on board the Titanic!

The 1908 photo of Dr. Margaret Murray and a mummy.
Dr. Murray third from left.

Dr. Murray told Peter Underwood that a distinguished woman scientist had once confessed to her that she was a great believer in the occult, and the woman had begged Murry to tell her the "real story" of the haunted mummy case in the British Museum.  Margaret Murray decided that if the woman wanted a good story she had certainly come to the right place; giving free reign to her mischievous streak, Dr. Murray -- on the spur of the moment -- began to fabricate an exciting story for the benefit of the "distinguished woman scientist."

Dr. Murray began by telling the woman that she would pass over all the instances where people were injured while the "cursed" mummy case was being transported to the British Museum.  She would also skip the many instances of injury and death that occurred to the Museum's visitors and staff while the sarcophagus was on display.  Suffice it to say that the Museum's staff grew so alarmed by these mishaps that they withdrew the original case from public view and substituted a replica in its place.  Nobody noticed anything amiss until an American archaeologist viewed the display, detected the substitution and threatened to expose the fraud.  The Museum explained the reason for the substitution and the American, amused by the quaint superstition, offered to buy the original mummy case.  The Museum accepted the American's offer, and the new owner sent the sarcophagus aboard the Titanic for shipment to the United States.  After the Titanic foundered, the container floated to the surface and was later picked up by the "salvage company," which transported the relic to the States and then wired the American (who was still in England) for instructions.  By now thoroughly afraid of the artifact with the "evil influence," the American instructed the salvagers to return it to the British Museum.  The salvagers placed the relic aboard the Empress of Ireland which sank in Canadian waters with a terrible loss of life.  Once again the mummy case floated to the surface and was retrieved, after which a German bought it at an auction and presented it to the Kaiser.  Not long after this the Great War began!

Margaret Murray told Peter Underwood that she felt she'd created a pretty good story (seeing as she'd done it on the spur of the moment), and she was constantly amused by other people who repeated her story as if it were true.  Murray added that when she used to take students to the British Museum to study the hieroglyphs she would always warn them that any believers in the occult should remain outside the room containing the "cursed" mummy case; inevitably a few people took Murray at her word and declined the opportunity to inspect the ancient sarcophagus.

The legend of the cursed Titanic mummy is still going strong after more than a century and shows no sign of infirmity due to age.  Even though Dr. Margaret Murray herself is no more, her delightful sense of humor has succeeded in outliving her.  It is amusing to realize that a respected scholar was able to give a pleasurable chill to uncritical people who thrive on the most fantastic tales of the occult.

Margaret Murray has good reason to be smiling still......

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