The Titanic Curse

On 12 April 1912, a group of eight people gathered in the First Class Smoking Room one of whom was William T. Stead, the English journalist and Spiritualist whose biography has been outlined. As the evening progressed Stead began to tell a ghost story which would open the flood gates to legends and myths surrounding the Titanic and her sinking for decades to follow. His listeners warned him that telling a ghost story before midnight would bring bad luck. He boasted that he was not superstitious and to prove the point he started his story before midnight and it ended shortly after midnight on 13 April 1912.

The story concerned the finding of an Egyptian mummy and the translation of the inscription on the mummy's case. The inscription warned that whoever should verbally recite the inscription would meet a very violent death. The seven men listened with sinister curiosity. Could Stead have been serious? Was there such a curse? Where was the mummy - surely not on board the ship they were travelling on? Seven men out of the eight went down with the ship, including Stead himself who had already had a premonition about his own death. The only survivor from the group was Frederic Kimber Seward, Sr., who later when asked about the mummy story, told them that he would never dare retell it.

Over the years there have been many different accounts of the mummy's curse but after careful research the answer seems quite clear. Before any conclusions can be made, it is important to retell the mummy's curse as frequently told from various sources.

The Mummy's Curse

The Princess of Amen-Ra lived some 1,500 BC. When she died, she was laid in an ornate wooden coffin and buried deep in a vault at Luxor, on the banks of the River Nile.

In the late 1890s, four rich young Englishmen visiting the excavations at Luxor were invited to buy an exquisitely fashioned mummy case containing the remains of Princess of Amen-Ra. They drew lots. The man who won paid several thousand pounds and had the coffin taken to his hotel. A few hours later, he was seen walking out towards the desert. He never returned.

The next day, one of the remaining three men was accidentally shot by an Egyptian servant. His arm was so severely wounded it had to be amputated. The third man in the foursome found on his return home that the bank holding his entire savings had failed. The fourth suffered a severe illness, lost his job and was reduced to selling matches in the street.

Nevertheless, the coffin eventually reached England (causing other misfortunes along the way), and a London businessman bought it. After three of his family members had been injured in a road accident and his house damaged by fire, the businessman donated it to the British Museum. As the coffin was being unloaded from a truck in the museum courtyard, the truck suddenly went into reverse and trapped a passer-by. As two workmen were lifting the casket up the stairs, one fell and broke his leg.

The other, apparently in perfect health, died unaccountably two days later. Once the Princess was installed in the Egyptian Room, trouble started. The Museum's night watchmen frequently heard frantic hammering and sobbing from the coffin. Other exhibits in the room were often hurled about at night. One watchman died on duty. Other watchmen wanted to quit. Cleaners refused to go near the Princess too. When a visitor derisively flicked a dust cloth at the face painted on the coffin, his child died of measles soon afterwards. Officials at the British Museum had the mummy carried down to the basement. It was thought that the mummy could not do any harm down there. Within a week, one of the helpers was seriously ill, and the supervisor of the move was found dead slumped over his desk.

The newspapers obtained the story. A journalist photographer took a picture of the mummy case and when he developed it, the painting on the coffin was of a horrifying, human face. The photographer was said to have gone home and locked himself in his bedroom and shot himself. Soon afterwards, the museum sold the mummy to a private collector and after continual misfortune (and deaths), the owner banished it to the attic. A well-known authority on the occult, Madame Helena Blavatsky, visited the premises. Upon entry, she was sized with a shivering fit and searched the house for the source of an evil influence of incredible intensity; she finally came to the attic and found the mummy case.

“Can you exorcise this evil spirit?” asked the owner.

“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,” replied Blavatsky.

But no British museum would take the mummy; the fact that almost 20 people had met with misfortune, disaster or death from handling the casket, in barely 10 years, was now well known.

Eventually, a hard-headed American archaeologist (who dismissed the happenings as quirks of circumstance), paid a handsome price for the mummy and arranged for its removal to New York. In April 1912, the new owner escorted the treasure on board a sparkling, new White Star liner about to embark on its maiden voyage to New York.

On the night of 14 April, amid scenes of unprecedented horror, the Princess of Amen-Ra accompanied 1,500 passengers to their deaths at the bottom of the Atlantic. The name of the ship was of course, the Titanic.

Some accounts of the story say that the American collector bribed the crew of the Titanic to put the mummy in a lifeboat and was smuggled on board the Carpathia when she picked up the Titanic survivors and landed safely in New York. In America, the mummy continued to bring tragedy to those that handled the coffin and so it was shipped back to Europe on the Empress of Ireland, which then sank with the loss of 840 passengers on the 29 May 1912. Somehow, the mummy was saved again. The collector decided to ship the coffin back to Egypt on a third ship, the Lusitania. A German submarine torpedoed the ship. What happened after that is unknown.

Fact or Fiction

Was the mummy of the Princess of Amen-Ra on board the Titanic and did she sink her? In short NO to both questions.

The whole story was an elaborate ghost story created by two over-imaginative minds of William Stead and Douglas Murray. They actually mixed up two distinct stories. The first concerned an acquaintance of theirs who acquired an Egyptian mummy and displayed it in his drawing room. But the morning after setting it up all breakable items in the room were smashed. Each time the mummy was moved all breakables were broken.

The second story followed a visit to the British Museum. They saw the coffin lid of the Priestess of Amen-Ra and imagined a coffin whose picture on the front was one of sheer terror and anguish in the face depicted on it. The coffin's original occupant was a tormented soul and her evil spirit was loose in the world to bring misery to those who got in her way.

Stead and Murray sold their story to the press who were not bothered about publishing the story.

The Unlucky Mummy

It must be examined as to what prompted Stead and Murray to concoct the stories. Was there any truth in what they said? Following many investigations, the mummy in question has been nicknamed the “Unlucky Mummy” because it has acquired a reputation for bringing misfortune, injury, death and large scale disasters (including the Titanic).

Many writers give the impression that the British Museum cannot or will not explain the curiosity behind the “Unlucky Mummy.”

This is simply not true. Since the British Museum exhibits the coffin lid of Priestess of Amen-Ra in Room 62. Mr. John Taylor, curator of the Egyptian Artefacts consolidated the facts known about the mummy. The mummy is not a mummy at all. It is a painted wooden mummy-board or inner coffin lid (about 162 cm tall). The British Museum display the case under EA 22542.

The lid was found at Thebes. Its shape and the style of decoration dates to the late 21st or early 22nd Dynasty (c.950-900 BC). It is thought that the coffin would have contained a woman because the picture on the lid depicts a beardless face and the position of the hands with fingers extended illustrates a lady not a man.

The identity of the person is not known because the hieroglyphic inscriptions contain only short religious phrases and do not give any indication who she was. However, the rich quality of the lid suggests that she would have held quite a high rank (Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge, Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities from 1894 to 1924 thought she was of Royal blood but this has never been known or proved).

Her stature in life was not dissimilar to those ladies who participated in the musical accompaniments to the rituals in the temple of Amen-Ra. Because of this connection the “Unlucky Mummy” earned the name “Priestess of Amen-Ra” and indeed was described as such in early British Museum publications.

Mrs. Warwick Hunt, on behalf of her brother Arthur F. Wheeler presented the coffin lid to the British Museum in July 1889. It was displayed in the First Egyptian Room of the museum as early as 1890. It must be pointed out that the lid has not been moved since (except for war times when it safety was at risk and for special exhibitions abroad).

What has this to do with the Titanic?

Absolutely nothing. It is clear that the story of the Priestess of Amen-Ra has been mixed and confused with the concocted supernatural tale of Stead and Murray.

More credit was given when Mr Seward recalled how Stead had told his story on 12/13 April. However, in 1985, Charles Haas, President of the Titanic Historical Society, gained access to the original Titanic's cargo manifest only to find no mention of a mummy. In Haas' words “the cargo manifest throws those myths right out of the window.”

There was no mummy on board the Titanic. The only mummy in question was the Priestess of Amen-Ra. Her coffin lid did not leave its display in the British Museum and so was never on board the Titanic. However, the British Museum was never presented with the actual mummy. Mr Taylor and the Egyptian Artefacts team think that it is most probable that the Priestess' remains were left in Egypt. It is perhaps this fact that William Stead used to concoct his macabre tale.

Other Myths & Forewarnings

Since the loss of the Titanic, many strange stories have evolved. The writer has selected a few curious forewarnings of a tragedy, which could possibly have been avoided.

The most well-known forewarning concerned a ship called the "Titan". The forewarning was told in the novel “Futility” written by Morgan Robertson in 1898. The writer described his ship as “the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men.”

The "Titan" was considered practically unsinkable. Her maiden voyage would depart in April but would meet with doom at the hands of an iceberg. All 3000 lives would be lost except for thirteen: an uncanny resemblance to the luxurious liner Titanic.

Why did Robertson choose "Titan" as the name of his ship? He needed a name associated with a giant: "Titan" was apt. Also, the new lifeboat regulations had come into force by 1894 and possibly his fertile imagination could foresee the shortfall of the number of lifeboats required in ships the size of the "Titan" and the Titanic.

Robertson could calculate the size of his ship (70,000 tons and 800 feet long) and add extra lifeboats accordingly. However, they were ineffectual because in his story, after the "Titan" collided with an iceberg, her lifeboats were destroyed when she listed on her starboard side.

There has long been a superstition of maiden voyages. Society has understandably suspicions about ships that had not been tried and tested by others. What if something went wrong? Was it better to go on a second voyage and arrive safely or be the first to travel on the liner? Several people secured places on the trip but had cancelled before departure. What a sense of relief they would have had!

Constance Willard was a little girl on the Titanic. It appears that before the Titanic sailed, Constance had her fortune told and was advised that she would die before reaching the age of 21. When the iceberg hit the ship she knew instantly that this was forewarned. She began to prepare for the evacuation and, indeed survived. She always believed that had it not been for the warning, she would not have prepared herself so much and not have survived.

William T. Stead, Editor and Spiritualist went down with the Titanic. In January 1892, he had his palm read and it was predicted that he would die when he was 63. In 1912, he was in his 63rd year and the prophecy was fulfilled when he sailed on the Titanic. In 1892, Stead had written an article in the London Reviews of Reviews which described in great detail the fate of a liner which struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and went down with enormous loss of life. Hence, twenty years later he was on such a liner.

Mrs C. Hughes was 14 years old in 1912. She lived in Stoke-on-Trent, England. On 12th April 1912 she dreamed that she was walking towards Trentham Park in Stoke: “Suddenly, I saw a very large ship a short distance away as if in Trentham Park. I saw figures walking about on it. Then suddenly it lowered at one end and I heard a terrific scream.”

She told her Grandmother the dream and went back to sleep. The dream re-occurred. Her uncle, Fourth Engineer Leonard Hodgkinson went down with the Titanic.

Mr. & Mrs. Hart and their daughter Eva were on board the Titanic because Mr. Hart had decided to immigrate to Canada. Mrs. Hart was not enthusiastic about the voyage and had a distinct sense of foreboding. They had originally planned to sail on the Philadelphia but the trip was cancelled because of a coal strike. Mr Hart tried to convince his wife that the Titanic would be safe because it was said to be unsinkable. Mrs. Hart disagreed, thinking that this talk was tempting providence.

Eva, years later recalled her mother's behaviour. “I was little bothered about the fact that my mother slept all day. It seemed a very unnatural thing to me, and I think also I was a bit apprehensive because I sensed her fear.” On the fateful night, Mrs. Hart was not asleep and deliberately remained in a state of readiness.

She described the collision with the iceberg as a “train pulling out a station.” She urged her husband to go up to the Boat Deck and see what had happened. When her husband returned, his face told a thousand stories. “You'd better put this on,” he said as he handed her a coat. Mr Hart lost his life but he made sure his wife and daughter were on the boats.