The Legend of London's Time-Traveling Tomb

Swinging open the front gate of Brompton Cemetery is a bit like cracking the spine of a book detailing London history. Famous suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst rests here. Beatrix Potter strolled its 39 acres and plucked names from tombstones to use in her work, including decedents Peter Rabbett and Mr. Nutkins. More than 35,000 monuments in all are present, rich and poor, known and obscure.

In the middle of the grounds and shrouded by trees stands a mausoleum. An imposing 20 feet tall with a pyramid peak, it’s made from granite, with a heavy bronze door secured by a keyhole. Decorative accents line the front, furthering the air of mystery. The door’s margin displays a rectangular band of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Erected in the early 1850s, it was intended as the final resting place of a woman named Hannah Courtoy and two of her three daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.

Courtoy’s tomb would be remarkable for its imposing stature and cryptic veneer alone: It's the largest, most elaborate construction in Brompton. But there’s more to the story. For the many visitors who make moonlight visits to the cemetery and for a small band of London raconteurs, the tomb’s missing key and resulting lack of access has led to speculation that something strange is going on inside—that it's secretly a time machine.

It’s a fantastic notion, but one that London musician and Courtoy historian Stephen Coates is quick to dismiss. “It’s not a time machine,” he tells mental_floss. “It’s a teleportation chamber.”

In order to try and digest the bizarre urban legend that’s been constructed around Courtoy’s tomb, it helps to understand the highly controversial life of the woman who ordered its construction.

Born around 1784 (sources differ), Hannah Peters fled an abusive father at a young age and found work as a housekeeper and as a tavern employee. In 1800, a friend introduced her to John Courtoy, a 70-year-old former wigmaker in poor health who had made a fortune in the lending business. Peters was shortly in his employ as a housekeeper. Within the year, she had given birth to the first of three daughters. She claimed they were Courtoy’s, although some eyes were raised in suspicion that the friend who made the introduction, Francis Grosso, might have been the real father.

Courtoy’s illness is also ill-defined in historical accounts, although it was said to follow a violent run-in with a prostitute in 1795 that left Courtoy—who had been slashed at with a knife—reserved and antisocial. He apparently warmed to Peters, who took his name and exerted considerable influence over many of his decisions. Courtoy’s 1810 will, which left the bulk of his fortune to an ex-wife named Mary Ann Woolley and their five children, was revised in 1814 so Hannah received the majority share.

When Courtoy died in 1818, the contents of the will were disputed, both by Woolley and Courtoy’s French relatives; they argued that dementia had overtaken Courtoy’s better senses. The legal arguments dragged on through 1827, at which point Hannah and her daughters had received most of Courtoy’s money.

According to the account presented in author David Godson’s 2014 book Courtoy’s Complaint, largely based on diaries kept by Courtoy housekeeper Maureen Sayers, Hannah's urge to distract herself from the often-unpleasant Courtoy led to developing a friendship that would prove essential to her later mythology. Like many Victorians of the era, Hannah was intrigued by Egyptian iconography, particularly hieroglyphics. She believed Egyptians had a deep understanding of astrology and their place in the universe, and she invited Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi over for regular visits.

Bonomi and Hannah would spend hours discussing Egyptian lore, with Hannah hoping to one day fund Bonomi’s expeditions to Egypt so he could study their work. The two would also arrange for a 175-foot-tall monument dedicated to the Duke of Wellington to be constructed and insisted that the sculpture resemble an Egyptian obelisk.

When Hannah died in 1849, her remains were set to be placed in an expensive, elaborate mausoleum in Brompton that paid tribute to her interests; Bonomi arranged for the tomb to feature Egyptian characters and a pyramidal top. Later, Mary and Elizabeth, who shied from marriage because they didn’t want men chasing after their wealth, joined her. (Susannah, who married, was buried elsewhere.) When Bonomi died in 1878, he arranged for a depiction of Courtoy’s tomb to appear on his own modest headstone. Whether Bonomi intended it or not, an illustration of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, appears to be “looking” in the direction of his friend’s final resting place.

Things appeared to remain status quo at Brompton for the next 100 years or so. Then, around 1980, the key to the tomb was lost following a visit by Hannah's relatives. And that’s when things took a turn for the weird.

Courtesy of Vanessa Woolf

Intending to pique the interest of readers during Halloween, Associated Press reporter Helen Smith wrote a story in October 1998 that may have been the first mainstream article to raise the theory that Courtoy’s tomb might actually be a time machine.

Smith described the monument as a “strange, imposing structure” containing “three spinsters, about whom almost nothing is known” and cited an unheralded author named Howard Webster as perpetuator of the story. Webster claimed his research had excavated a connection between Bonomi and Samuel Alfred Warner, a “maverick Victorian genius” and fraudster said to have attempted to interest the British armed forces in several advanced weapons—too advanced, in fact, to actually exist.

Webster speculated that Warner’s inventive abilities may have led him to consort with Bonomi, who supposedly had knowledge of the Egyptian theories of time travel. Together, the two convinced the wealthy, trusting Hannah to finance their secret project, with Bonomi providing ancient wisdom and Warner adding his breakthrough scientific resources. By placing their device in a cemetery, Warner could guarantee the structure was unlikely to be disturbed over decades or centuries, allowing him to return to London after traveling through time again and again.

The lack of a key was crucial to Webster’s tale. Since it had been lost and no one had been inside for years, it could be argued that perhaps Warner was busying himself in a manner similar to an occupant of the TARDIS, bouncing from era to era, while Hannah and her family were either entombed or buried someplace else entirely. Webster also claimed that plans for the tomb were missing, which was rarely the case with other monuments in Brompton.

The story bubbled to the surface periodically over the years. In 2003, an album cover by musician Drew Mulholland depicted the tomb and its eerie structure, which led to some renewed interest. In 2011, Coates, a musician with a band named the Real Tuesday Weld, came across mention of the theory and was intrigued. He wrote a post on his blog positing that the Courtoy tomb was not a means of time travel, but that Warner had the technology to teleport torpedoes and that he later adopted that framework to develop a series of teleportation chambers in and around "the Magnificent Seven," a group of London’s historic private cemeteries.

“It was a way to move around the city,” Coates says. “Warner and Bonomi worked together on ancient Egyptian occult theory and science. I posted that on my blog, and it started to take on a life of its own.”

Coates’s premise is a proper study in how an urban legend can proliferate. With the key still missing, it was impossible to disprove the teleportation idea with any real precision, and the mythology allowed for a great deal of speculation. Was Warner, who died in 1848, killed because he knew too much about revolutionary technology? Why did the tomb take four years to complete following Hannah’s death, which meant she didn’t actually enter it until 1853? Was Hannah duped by the two to fund what she might have believed would be a pioneering mode of travel?

It became, Coates says, “one of the myths of the city.” In 2015, the Independent ran a feature describing his belief, contrasting it with the activities of Hannah Courtoy descendant Ray Godson, who simply wanted access to the tomb to pay his respects to his great-great-grandmother. The feature came just as Coates was busy organizing visitor groups that could come—with the cemetery’s permission—hear the legend of Courtoy, Bonomi, and Warner while standing near the tomb in the middle of the night.

“I fell in love with the idea,” Vanessa Woolf, a professional storyteller based in London who hosts the gatherings, tells mental_floss. “I must credit Stephen Coates. I contacted him after hearing about the myth and told him I really wanted to tell the story. He said to go for it.” Woolf hosted the first event in 2015 and has done several more since. “The first time, we were absolutely overwhelmed with bookings,” she says.

In the story presentation, Woolf tells of a “barking mad” inventor named Warner who connects with Bonomi and hatches an idea for a teleportation network. Hannah, she relates, had an interest in the occult and unexplained phenomena.

“There’s a huge interest in the story in London,” she says. “I think people are just interested in the fabric of places where they live. This is a story rooted in the secret, in the occult, but no one is quite sure what actually happened.”

It can be difficult to corner Coates for a precise answer on whether he believes his fanciful hypothesis about the resting place of Hannah Courtoy. When initially contacted for an interview, he agreed while mentioning that he “came up with the whole teleportation system idea as the background to a short story.” In conversation, he presents the teleportation springboard as a “way for people to make up their own mind” about what the tomb might contain. A breath or two later, he expresses doubt that Hannah’s daughters might still be entombed there, before wondering whether the mausoleum might be home to a secret subterranean chamber.

It’s all “alternative theory based on historical fact,” he says. Reached by telephone, it's hard not to imagine a slight expression of amusement crossing his face.

Performance art or not, the attention has increased awareness over the cemetery's attempts to secure funds for a site-wide renovation. (Courtoy’s tomb was partially spruced up in 2009 following aging, frost-coated chunks of granite sloughing off the side, with costs partially covered by a family trust.) When asked to comment on whether the midnight vigils and sightseers have been disruptive, Brompton officials refer questions right back to Coates, who appears to have become their unofficial spokesman on all things involving molecular disruption and Egyptian time-hopping.

“It’s not something they promote themselves,” Coates says. “They’re very welcoming of people who come if they’re showing respect. The conservation efforts have been going on for years, and the events help that.” At the last Coates-arranged show, tickets went for $8 to $10, with a quarter of the proceeds donated to the cemetery’s rebuilding efforts.

How many people will visit once a key is made is another question. Both Coates and a Brompton Cemetery historian named Arthur Tait say that efforts are currently underway to fabricate a replacement that would allow Hannah’s relatives access to the tomb. After an initial flush of curiosity, wouldn’t the presumably ordinary interior dampen interest?

“Opening it may not establish it’s not a time machine,” Coates hedges. "It may just deepen the mystery.”

For Woolf, who still has regular engagements hosting visitors near the tomb, seeing a key may be a letdown. “It’s much nicer, in a way, not having it,” she says. “It’s really all in the minds of the audience. It’s a slab of rock. The real magic is in their minds.”

Usually. While Woolf normally gets very positive notices from those attending her performances, one reviewer on Instagram does stick out. “It said something like, ‘Oh, I was really excited, but then got really disappointed. She didn’t even open it.’”

Additional Sources: Courtoy’s Complaint.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise credited.

8 Giant Historical Objects That Have Crossed the World

The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
Peter Miller, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the incredible labor that goes into their relocation, a number of colossal artifacts have made very long trips after being purchased—or, occasionally, stolen. Here are a few journeys of such enormous objects, from a whole 19th-century bridge to the ancient god of a lost city.

1. AN EGYPTIAN SPHINX

In October 1913, a nearly 15-ton, 3000-year-old sphinx arrived with great fanfare in Philadelphia. From Memphis, Egypt, it had traveled up the Suez Canal, then boarded a German freighter, packed alongside goat skins that were destined for a local leather tannery. Once docked in the United States, a crane hoisted the red granite statue onto a train car. Finally, with the help of an iron-wheeled truck, 10 horses, and 50 workers, it was installed outside the Penn Museum. It was moved inside the galleries in 1926, and it's guarded the collections ever since (although it's currently off-view for conservation work).

2. A STATUE OF JUNO

For a nearly 13-foot-tall, 13,000-pound Roman goddess, Juno has gotten around. With a head sculpted in the 1st or 2nd century CE and a body made a century or two later, the statue's first recorded whereabouts are in the gardens of Rome's Villa Ludovisi. She was sold to Americans Charles and Mary Sprague in 1897, then transported in 1904 to their home in Brookline, Massachusetts. There the marble woman, decked out in flowing robes and with a diadem on her giant head, presided over the driveway of their Brandegee Estate. It reportedly took 12 oxen to haul her into place.

After a century in the open air, Juno was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011. Getting the statue inside the museum required lifting it by crane and lowering it 80 feet through a skylight. Unfortunately, all those years of exposure in the outdoors had deteriorated her porous marble, with cracks and vandalism further marring the stone, so extensive conservation was carried out right in the gallery (including a nose and lip replacement). Now she’s standing proudly on a steel-reinforced pedestal as the largest classical marble statue in an American museum.

3. LONDON BRIDGE

Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968
Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968.
Jim Gray/Keystone/Getty Images

Block by block, this 19th-century bridge was relocated to a brand new 20th-century American development. Industrialist Robert P. McCulloch bought the 1830s London Bridge from the Corporation of London on April 18, 1968 for close to $2.5 million. The arch bridge—a project of Scottish civil engineer John Rennie completed by his sons, John Rennie the Younger and George—had spanned the River Thames, but was unable to support modern traffic and needed to be replaced. McCulloch had its carefully numbered granite blocks reconstructed over a reinforced concrete structure in Lake Havasu City, a planned community he established in the Arizona desert. (He thought the historic structure would drive tourism and encourage home buyers to invest.) It opened in 1971, connecting a Colorado River island with Lake Havasu City. His plan seems to have worked: Today the town is thriving, and the bridge still draws plenty of tourists.

4. AN IMPERIAL COFFIN

In 2010, an imperial coffin dating to the Tang Dynasty was repatriated to China from the United States. It had gone missing in 2006, stolen right from the tomb of empress Wu Huifei—a staggering feat, since it weighs 27 tons and stretches 13 feet long by 6.5 feet high. After two years of investigations, the local police discovered that the tomb—carved with animals, flowers, and human figures—had been sold to a businessman for $1 million and had traveled all the way to the United States. Once confronted by police via mediators, the businessman agreed to return the item, which then went on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an. The incident is a reminder of the ongoing looting of Chinese antiquities from archaeological sites, which experts say is growing increasingly bold.

5. GOD OF A LOST CITY

For 1000 years, Hapy, the god of fertility, was submerged off the Egyptian coast. Then, in the early 2000s, a team of divers discovered a fragment of the colossal 4th-century BCE red granite statue. Weighing 6 tons and standing over 17 feet tall, Hapy is now one of more than 200 objects touring in "Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds." From small coins and lamps to an over-12,000-pound sculpture of a king, each is a relic of the drowned city of Thonis-Heracleion. The major Egyptian port was founded around the 7th century BCE, and likely abandoned due to rising sea levels and earthquakes. Hapy is among the most massive of the exhibition’s artifacts, which have toured London, Paris, Zurich, and Saint Louis—with a visit to Minneapolis on the horizon this fall.

6. PIECES OF THE BERLIN WALL

A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, remnants of the monumental barrier scattered throughout the world. Concrete pieces of the structure stand at almost 100 sites, ranging from a men's bathroom in a Las Vegas casino to the Vatican Gardens in Vatican City. A 12-foot-tall section, gifted to Olympian Usain Bolt, is at Up-Park Camp in Kingston, Jamaica, while a dentist in Sosnovka, Poland, acquired 40 segments and arranged them as an art installation. However, the longest stretch is still in Berlin—the East Side Gallery—adorned with nearly a mile of street art, a shadow of the wall’s former 96-mile path.

7. IRAQ TRAUMA BAY FLOOR

A 3000-pound, 7-by-7-foot section of concrete floor is considered the site where the most American lives were both lost and saved during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2008, the floor of Trauma Bay II was delicately relocated from Balad Air Base in Iraq to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Maryland. The scuffed floor, stained with antiseptics, was salvaged when the temporary medical facilities were torn down. Now part of an exhibition on medical personnel in Iraq, the concrete slab recalls the trauma care for the many wounded who were treated on it between 2003 and 2007.

8. CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLES

Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The oldest human-made outdoor object in New York City was carved when Manhattan was still wilderness. The 69-foot, 220-ton obelisk, nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle (though it has no connection to Cleopatra), is located in Central Park just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its companion obelisk is by the River Thames in London; both were commissioned around 1450 BCE by Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III for the Heliopolis sun temple. In 12 BCE, they were moved over 100 miles to Alexandria by order of Augustus Caesar, and erected at the Caesareum.

When one was gifted to England, and the other to the United States, in the 19th century, they were lugged aboard ships for sea voyages. The London obelisk was almost lost in a storm that claimed six lives, but the New York obelisk was less disastrous, if no less arduous: It took 32 horses, several months, and a special rail track to get it into place. Following an October 2, 1880 Masonic ceremony, during which a cornerstone was placed in the obelisk, it was officially dedicated on February 22, 1881.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

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