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.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
14 Facts About Margaret Sanger
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Born in 1879, activist Margaret Sanger sparked both revolution and controversy when she began pushing for legalized access to birth control and founded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger remains a controversial figure even today, more than 50 years after her death.

1. SHE BLAMED HER FATHER FOR HER MOTHER'S DEATH.

Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins, the sixth of 11 children. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, also had seven miscarriages, for a grand total of 18 pregnancies within 22 years. She suffered from poor health for much of that time, and when Anne died of tuberculosis at age 50, Margaret was just 19 years old. According to TIME Magazine, Margaret confronted her father at her mother's coffin and said, "You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children."

2. SHE WANTED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Margaret Sanger sitting at a table.
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Sadly, medical school was too expensive, so instead she entered a probationary nursing program in 1900. In early 1902, she met architect William Sanger. The two got married later that year and moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, a suburb about 20 miles away from New York City. They had three children.

3. HER HOUSE CAUGHT FIRE, LEADING HER TO MOVE TO THE CITY.

After the Sangers' house in Hastings-on-Hudson caught fire, Sanger stopped enjoying life in the suburbs. By 1911 the couple had decided to start a new life in Greenwich Village, where Sanger joined the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party. There, she met fellow radicals and reformers—like novelist Upton Sinclair, anarchist Emma Goldman, art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, and intellectual Max Eastman—who supported her ambitions to help working women.

In New York City, Sanger decided to jump back into her career by working as a visiting nurse in the Lower East Side tenements. She often treated women who attempted to give themselves abortions because they didn't have the money to care for another child. Dismayed by the poor health and poverty she saw among immigrants there, she developed opinions that would later lead to her advocacy for birth control.

4. SHE BELIEVED BIRTH CONTROL WAS A FREE SPEECH ISSUE.

Soon after arriving in Greenwich Village, Sanger began writing sex education columns for the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. Her frank discussion of women's sexuality and reproduction offended some readers. In 1913, politician and post office official Anthony Comstock censored her column because he considered her usage of words like syphilis and gonorrhea too vulgar.

A year after her column in the New York Call was banned, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter advocating contraceptive use. Operating under the slogan "No gods, no masters," Sanger used the newsletter to openly defy Comstock's eponymous 1873 laws. (The Comstock laws made it illegal to use the United States Postal Service to send anything containing information about contraceptives or anything else deemed obscene.) She was indicted in August 1914, but she fled to Europe to avoid arrest. She would eventually return to the United States to face trial, but in February 1916 the prosecution dropped the charges.

5. SHE WAS AGAINST ABORTION.

Despite her advocacy for family limitation, Sanger disliked the idea of abortion. She believed proper education and legalized contraceptives would reduce the need for the procedure. In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger described her experience treating Sadie Sachs, one of the women in the East Side tenements. In 1912, Sachs's husband called for Sanger's help after he found Sachs unconscious from a self-induced abortion. After three weeks of treatment from both Sanger and a local doctor, the only advice the doctor could offer Sachs was to avoid "any more such capers" and have her husband sleep on the roof.

Three months later, Sachs became comatose from another self-induced abortion, and Sachs's husband again reached out to Sanger for help. The woman died within 10 minutes of Sanger's arrival. Frustrated by the lack of resources and information available to lower-class women, Sanger resolved to make changes. From that time forward, she wrote, she wanted to "do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the skies."

6. SHE POPULARIZED THE TERM BIRTH CONTROL.

Sanger is often credited for coining the term, but that honor actually goes to Robert Parker, a friend of hers who helped create The Woman Rebel. In her 1979 biography on Sanger, author Madeline Gray described Parker as a polio victim who studied yoga with the hopes of gaining more control over his partly paralyzed hand. Gray wrote:

"It occurred to him that control might apply to birth as well. 'Birth control,' he mused. 'Birth control … I think I like it.' They all liked it. As they put on their hats and left, they agreed that birth control was the best name for the movement."

Otto Bobsien, another of Sanger's colleagues, was the first to use the term to proclaim the start of the Birth Control League of America, a new organization he later said "never had more than a nominal existence." In 1915, when Sanger was away in Europe, Bobsien joined the National Birth Control League and offered the fledgling organization use of the movement's new name. When Sanger returned from Europe later that year, she helped popularize the term, considering it more straightforward than phrases like "family limitation."

7. SHE OPENED THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN THE U.S.

Historical image of Margaret Sanger standing on a street in New York City
Sanger outside of her trial on January 30, 1917.
Bain News Service, Library of Congress

In October 1916, Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn with the help of her sister, Ethel Byrne, and interpreter Fania Mindell. It was the first of its kind in the U.S., and she modeled it after a Dutch clinic she had visited while evading American police. In the Netherlands, Sanger had learned about pessaries and diaphragms and became convinced they were more effective than the suppositories and douches she promoted in the United States. Sanger brought that new knowledge to her Brooklyn clinic, which served more than 100 women on its first day. For a cover charge of 10 cents, Sanger gave every woman a pamphlet of her New York Call column on "What Every Girl Should Know," a lecture on the female reproductive system, and instructions on several types of contraceptive use. The clinic closed just nine days later when Sanger was once again arrested for violating the Comstock laws. Sanger immediately attempted to reopen the clinic after being released on bail, but, as she wrote, she was promptly re-arrested and charged as a public nuisance.

8. SHE ONCE TOLD A JUDGE SHE COULDN'T RESPECT EXISTING LAWS.

Sanger and Byrne's court trials began in January 1917. Sanger's sister was tried first and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse, but she immediately went on a hunger strike; Byrne fasted for a week before being force-fed by prison staff. When Sanger went to trial on January 29, she was supported in court by several Greenwich Village socialites and about 50 of the women she'd treated in the Brooklyn clinic. Presiding Justice John J. Freschi offered her a lenient sentence if she promised to obey the law, but Sanger responded by saying, "I cannot respect the law as it exists today." Sanger was found guilty and Freschi also sentenced her to 30 days in a prison workhouse.

In 1918, Sanger appealed the court decision and won a victory for the birth control movement. Although the court upheld Sanger's conviction and she still had to serve her 30 day sentence, Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals also ruled that doctors could prescribe contraceptives and disseminate information about birth control under certain conditions. Sanger ran with the new loophole in 1923, when she established a new clinic staffed largely by female doctors. The new clinic operated alongside the American Birth Control League. Almost two decades later, in 1939, the league and the clinic merged, forming the Birth Control Federation of America, and in 1942 this new organization officially became known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

9. THE ROCKEFELLERS ANONYMOUSLY SUPPORTED HER CAUSE.

In the mid-1920s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. anonymously donated $10,000 to the American Birth Control League to fund research into contraceptives. Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller III, continued his father's early support of Sanger's work, albeit more publicly. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund donated money to Planned Parenthood until 1981, when it decided to start funding agricultural research—which was decidedly less controversial—instead.

10. LIKE MANY WELL-KNOWN INTELLECTUALS OF HER DAY, SANGER SUPPORTED EUGENICS.

Many historians believe Sanger's support of eugenics was part strategic and part ideological. Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin's, initiated the Western eugenics movement by suggesting that traits like "talent and character" could be passed down to children through intentional breeding. Several British and American academics latched onto the idea, including figures like Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Alexander Graham Bell. Sanger's support for sterilizing the diseased and "feebleminded" legitimized the birth control movement by aligning her ideas with those of contemporary intellectuals.

Sanger's belief in eugenics was a little different from other intellectuals', though. Eugenicists, she said, believed a woman's first duty should be to the state, and that all "fit" women should bear children. Sanger, on the other hand, thought a woman's first duty should be to herself. She contended the primary reason for birth control was to prevent pregnancies among women who couldn't support a child financially. Sanger believed her ideal of economic eugenics was morally superior to the views posed by traditional eugenicists.

The modern-day Planned Parenthood doesn’t hide Sanger's controversial support of the eugenics movement, but it doesn't endorse it, either. In a document published in 2016 [PDF], the organization said, "We believe that [those ideas] are wrong. Furthermore, we hope that this acknowledgement fosters an open conversation on racism and ableism—both inside and out of our organization."

11. HER BOOKS WERE AMONG THE FIRST BURNED BY NAZIS.

In May 1933, Nazis sanctioned the burning of more than 25,000 books deemed "un-German." Sanger had published at least nine books by that point, and they were all among that number, as were titles by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and dozens of others. Sanger's books, which advocated for women's choice in everything from childbirth to politics, directly contradicted everything the Third Reich believed. Adolf Hitler supported traditional gender roles and wanted to maintain high birth rates, ideas Sanger decried in her books.

12. HER NIECE WAS PART OF THE INSPIRATION FOR WONDER WOMAN.

A panel of a Wonder Woman comic from 1978.
Tom Simpson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Olive Byrne, Sanger's niece, was involved in a polyamorous relationship with Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston. Marston credited both Olive and Elizabeth as his muses, according to historian Jill Lepore. In her 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore wrote that Marston based part of Wonder Woman's costume on the silver bracelets Olive often wore. Lepore also suggested Sanger herself may have been an influence on the popular comic book character. Feminist movements in the early 1900s often symbolized female oppression with chains, and Sanger was quick to adopt such symbolism with books like Motherhood in Bondage. Wonder Woman's use of chains and ropes as weapons echoed Sanger's vision for female liberation.

13. SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE 31 TIMES.

Margaret Sanger received 31 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize between 1953 and 1963. In 1960 alone, she received 20 nominations from 16 university professors and four members of India's parliament (Sanger took several trips to India, where she worked with people like Gandhi to discuss birth control).

14. SHE LIVED JUST LONG ENOUGH TO SEE HER LIFE'S WORK COME TO FRUITION.

Planned Parenthood's publicity director looks over a poster in 1967.
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Two important legal milestones happened after Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. In December 1936, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively overturned all federal restrictions on birth control, making it legal for doctors throughout the United States to provide access to contraception. On the state level, contraception was legal in some form or another everywhere except Connecticut, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the state laws preventing married women from accessing birth control. Griswold v. Connecticut later served as precedent for cases like Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which gave unmarried couples unrestricted access to contraception; Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized abortion; and Carey v. Population Services International (1977), which made it legal for doctors and pharmacists to distribute contraceptives to minors.

Sanger died on September 6, 1966, about a year after the Supreme Court decided on Griswold v. Connecticut. The next day, Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening spoke about Sanger in Congress. In an address to the president, Gruening said Sanger was "a great woman, a courageous and indomitable person who lived to see one of the most remarkable revolutions of modern times—a revolution which her torch kindled."

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