IT IS IN BRITISH MUSEUM
Officials Call Stories Myths, but Superstitious Even Blame Her for Sinking of Titanic
Copyright, 1923, by The New York Times Company
Special Cable to THE NEW YORK TIMES
LONDON, April 6---The death of the Earl of Carnarvon has revived interest in stories told concerning a mummy-case which once contained the mummy of a priestess of Amen-Ra, who died in Egypt 3,500 years ago and which is now in the British Museum. Is it really ill-omened? Can it bring misfortune to all who touch it? Sir Ernest Budge, keeper of Egyptian antiquities at the museum, laughs at those who suggest it, but the guides who show visitors round are not so sure.
In one of the principal rooms of the Egyptian section is a glass case containing a long row of mummy-cases. They are thousands of years old, but one stands out. Its bright coloring catches the eye of every passer-by. It looks almost as fresh as the day it left the painter's hand, and the figure which is its principal feature is extraordinarily life-like. There can be no doubt it is the portrait of the woman who once occupied the sarcophagus. She was a priestess of the great god Amen-Ra, and apart from that she must have been an extremely attractive and clever woman. Even today, after all these years, her portrait seems to retain that enigmatical smile which men associate with the Mona Lisa, and she appears to gaze mockingly at the idle sightseers as if he knew her secret power. And if legend be true, even to this day she has no objection to using it.
It was in 1864 that an Arab found the mummy-case and sold it to a wealthy traveler. Within a few weeks, so the story goes, he lost his money and died of a broken heart. Two of his servants who had handled the case died within a year. A third, who did not touch it, but made contemptuous remarks concerning it, lost his arm through a gunshot accident.
Continues Malignancy in England
The mummy-case was brought to London and wherever it went carried misfortune with it, of which perhaps the most remarkable was the fate that befell a photographer. He took a picture of the case and when he came to develop the negative received a horrifying shock. It was not a picture of a mere painting he had secured, but, so the story goes, a portrait of a living woman whose beautiful features had taken on a look of awful malignity.
The curse connected with the mummy-case became known, and as no buyer was forthcoming it was sent to the British Museum. The man who contracted to take it there died a week later and one of his helpers broke his leg the next day.
Again it was photographed by a well-known London firm and a strange chain of disasters befell the photographer. He first smashed his thumb, and when he got home found one of his children had fallen through a glass frame and had received dangerous injuries. The day he took the picture he cut his nose to the bone and dropped a valuable screen, rendering it quite useless.
Still the picture was taken and there was something uncanny about it. Its eyes seemed to glow with fire and those who saw it could not believe it could be anything but the portrait of a woman filled with a wild malignity.
So the old legend went and grew from year to year. W. T. Stead took great interest in it and publication of myths concerning it have invariably resulted in numberless letters to newspapers detailing how some bank holiday visitors to the museum had been attracted by the freshness of pigments on the mummy-case only to be victims sooner or later of such accidents as stumbling on entering a street car or breaking a mirror at home.
Most disasters, both public and private, seem to have been laid to the account of the beautiful priestess of Amen-Ra, and it was even said that the loss of the Titanic was due to her malign influence. An American, it was declared, had managed to purchase her coffin case from the Museum officials and was bringing her over to the United States on the Titanic. Naturally, the liner struck an iceberg with awful results. But even then its owner was unconvinced of his impiety in moving the mummy-case to the New World and with an enormous bribe induced some of the Titanic crew to save it. He lived to regret it, however, and at last aghast at the misfortunes it brought in its train to himself and his family he palmed it off on an innocent Canadian.
For some reason that gentleman wished to return it to Europe and shipped it on the Empress of Ireland. No one can deny that that ship sank in the St. Lawrence River somewhere, which is complete proof of what the priestess of Amen-Ra can do when she is thoroughly aroused.
Budge Explains it All
So goes the legendary lore, but now comes Sir Ernest Budge with a little common sense. Talking a few weeks ago to the Sunday Times he said the whole myth was founded on a series of mistunderstandings. [sic] W. T. Stead and Douglas Murray told the story about another mummy which a lady put as an ornament in her drawing room. Next morning she found all her bric-a-brac smashed to pieces, and when her husband locked the mummy up in a cupboard in an upper room the servants declared they saw troops of beings ascending the stairs all night with lights in order to break all the crockery they could find, and resigned en masse the next day.
Just about the same time a man named Wheeler gave the priestess coffin lid to the museum and Mr. Stead and Mr. Murray examined it and declared that to them it seemed the face of a portrait. It looked like a picture of a soul in torment, they said, and they wanted to hold a seance in the museum to see if they could do something to relieve the lady. But naturally the authorities did not agree.
The story got out and the public proceeded to identify the priestess of Amen-Ra with the crockery smashing mummy of the suburban drawing room. People have written from so far afield as New Zealand and Algiers enclosing money to place lilies at the foot of the coffin lid. The money has been acknowledged, but it has been put to the much more prosaic use of the general upkeep of the museum.
As for the Titanic story, Sir Ernest can only say that the museum has never parted with the lid, although during air raids it was removed for safety to the basement and it has, since it became a part of the national collection, never left the care of the museum.
Still its brilliant colors attract most careless visitors and anyone can hear all about its malignant power by approaching tactfully the nearest of the museum's attendants.