9 Victims of King Tut's Curse (And One Who Should Have Been)

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When King Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered on November 26, 1922—after more than 3000 years of uninterrupted repose—some believed the pharaoh unleashed a powerful curse of death and destruction upon all who dared disturb his eternal slumber.

Like any urban legend or media sensation, the alleged curse grew to epic proportions over the years. Here are nine people who might make you believe in such things, and one who should have been a direct recipient of Tut's wrath but got off with nary a scratch.

1. GEORGE HERBERT, 5TH EARL OF CARNARVON

The man who financed the excavation of King Tut's tomb was the first to succumb to the supposed curse. Lord Carnarvon accidentally tore open a mosquito bite while shaving and ended up dying of blood poisoning shortly thereafter. This occurred a few months after the tomb was opened and a mere six weeks after the press started reporting on the "mummy's curse," which was thought to afflict anyone associated with disturbing the mummy. Legend has it that when Lord Carnarvon died, all of the lights in his house mysteriously went out.

2. SIR BRUCE INGHAM

Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb, gave a paperweight to his friend Ingham as a gift. The paperweight appropriately (or perhaps quite inappropriately) consisted of a mummified hand wearing a bracelet that was supposedly inscribed with the phrase, "cursed be he who moves my body." Ingham's house burned to the ground not long after receiving the gift, and when he tried to rebuild, it was hit with a flood.

3. GEORGE JAY GOULD

Gould was a wealthy American financier and railroad executive who visited the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923 and fell sick almost immediately afterward. He never really recovered and died of a pneumonia a few months later.

4. AUBREY HERBERT

It's said that Lord Carnarvon's half-brother suffered from King Tut's curse merely by being related to him. Aubrey Herbert was born with a degenerative eye condition and became totally blind late in life. A doctor suggested that his rotten, infected teeth were somehow interfering with his vision, and Herbert had every single tooth pulled from his head in an effort to regain his sight. It didn't work. He did, however, die of sepsis as a result of the surgery, just five months after the death of his supposedly cursed brother.

5. HUGH EVELYN-WHITE

Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist, visited Tut's tomb and may have helped excavate the site. After seeing death sweep over about two dozen of his fellow excavators by 1924, Evelyn-White hung himself—but not before writing, allegedly in his own blood, "I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear."

6. AARON EMBER

American Egyptologist Aaron Ember was friends with many of the people who were present when the tomb was opened, including Lord Carnarvon. Ember died in 1926, when his house in Baltimore burned down less than an hour after he and his wife hosted a dinner party. He could have exited safely, but his wife encouraged him to save a manuscript he had been working on while she fetched their son. Sadly, they and the family's maid died in the catastrophe. The name of Ember's manuscript? The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

7. RICHARD BETHELL

Bethell was Lord Carnarvon's secretary and the first person behind Carter to enter the tomb. He died in 1929 under suspicious circumstances: He was found smothered in his room at an elite London gentlemen's club. Soon after, the Nottingham Post mused, "The suggestion that the Hon. Richard Bethell had come under the ‘curse’ was raised last year, when there was a series of mysterious fires at it home, where some of the priceless finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb were stored." No evidence of a connection between artifacts and Bethell's death was established, though.

8. SIR ARCHIBALD DOUGLAS REID

Proving that you didn't have to be one of the excavators or expedition backers to fall victim to the curse, Reid, a radiologist, merely x-rayed Tut before the mummy was given to museum authorities. He got sick the next day and was dead three days later.

9. JAMES HENRY BREASTED

Breasted, another famous Egyptologist of the day, was working with Carter when the tomb was opened. Shortly thereafter, he allegedly returned home to find that his pet canary had been eaten by a cobra—and the cobra was still occupying the cage. Since the cobra is a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, and a motif that kings wore on their headdresses to represent protection, this was a rather ominous sign. Breasted himself didn't die until 1935, although his death did occur immediately after a trip to Egypt.

10. HOWARD CARTER

Carter never had a mysterious, inexplicable illness and his house never fell victim to any fiery disasters. He died of lymphoma at the age of 64. His tombstone even says, "May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness." Perhaps the pharaohs saw fit to spare him from their curse.

See What It Was Like to Live in a Secret NYC Library Apartment

YouTube
YouTube

Ever wanted to live in a library? For the dozens of custodians who once helped take care of New York Public Library branches, that dream was a reality. Recently, Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura stepped into one of these now-vacant apartments in upper Manhattan and explored it in all of its creepy, dilapidated glory (think falling plaster and unsafe floors—there's a reason the space isn't usually open to the public). Since the branches no longer require live-in custodians to shovel the coal that once kept the furnaces humming, the apartments have all been closed down, and are slowly being converted into new public uses. In 2016, one custodian's apartment in Washington Heights was converted into a teen center and programming space. The secret apartment at the Fort Washington library will also eventually be converted—which means that Laskow's trip helped document a space that may soon be only a memory. You can see more inside the space, and learn more about the history of these apartments, in the video below.

The British Codebreaker Who Convinced the U.S. to Join WWI

National Archives
National Archives

On January 16, 1917, Nigel de Grey, a cryptologist working for the British military, intercepted a coded German telegram sent via standard diplomatic channels. This alone was nothing special. The British cryptanalytic office where de Grey worked, called Room 40, had cracked a handful of Germany's ciphers and intercepted their messages daily. Today, however, was different: The jumble of numbers revealed a political bombshell.

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The coded message, sent by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, was destined for the German Minister in Mexico City. (Along the way, it had passed through Germany's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff.) At the time, America was not involved in the Great War. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson had just secured a second term by riding the slogans "He Kept Us Out of War" and "American First." The decrypted message plainly indicated that Germany was hoping Wilson would stick to his campaign trail talking points.

But the message also showed that Germany was afraid. An escalation of submarine warfare could provoke the United States, compelling it to abandon its isolationist policies and enter the war. If that happened, Germany hoped to distract the U.S. by forcing American troops to focus on an enemy closer to home: Mexico.

Upon realizing the message's significance, de Grey immediately sprinted to the office of his superior, William Reginald "Blinker" Hall.

"Do you want America in the war, Sir?" he shouted.

Hall gave de Grey, who was gleaming with sweat, an incredulous look. "Yes, why?"

"I've got a telegram that will bring them in if you give it to them."

According to an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, "[The British] realized that they held a cryptanalytic 'trump card' that virtually guaranteed America's entry into WWI on the Allied side." Historian David Kahn put it thusly: The "codebreakers held history in the palm of their hands."

When a select few in the U.S. federal government were finally notified of the secret message, many doubted its authenticity, believing it was just a deceitful ploy by the British to win American support. The British assuaged those doubts by acquiring a fresh copy of the coded telegram and handing it over to the Americans. On February 23, a U.S. diplomat saw the message be decrypted with his own eyes—again with the help of codebreaker Nigel de Grey—and independently verified Germany's intentions. The diplomat immediately contacted President Wilson.

When Wilson saw it, he was shocked and insulted. "Good Lord! Good Lord!" he shouted. About one week later, he leaked the message to the press. Americans were similarly outraged.

(As for Mexico, the country knew it was getting a raw deal and never took Germany's bait. Reclaiming the American southwest—what was formerly Mexican territory before the Mexican-American War in the 1840s—was a recipe for disaster. Besides, Germany would have never been able to help anyway: They were blocked by the British Navy.)

By early April, the secret code had compelled the U.S. to join Britain and its allies. Today, the work of de Grey and the other Room 40 codebreakers is widely considered one of the most consequential events in cryptologic history.

 

Hungry for more details about the Zimmermann telegram? Mental Floss’s coverage of the World War I Centennial has you covered here and here.

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