THE TRUE CURSE OF THE MUMMY - Bram Stoker, Whitby and the Death of Lord Carnarvon

A Commentary on the Recent TV Documentary by Andrew Collins


Friday, 3 January 2003 saw the first broadcast on British terrestrial television of a documentary entitled ‘The True Curse of the Mummy’. Screened on the UK’s Channel Five, it was made originally for The Leaning Channel (TLC), and focused on a sarcophagus and mummy, imported into the seaside port of Whitby in North Yorkshire during the late nineteenth century, which eventually came into the possession of horror writer Bram Stoker. Indeed, the programme claimed that it had been present at his home there during the writing of his epic tale DRACULA, published in 1897, and was also the inspiration behind the writing of his classic THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS, released amid a blaze of controversy in 1902. Seemingly, Stoker made the purchase on the understanding that it contained the remains of a long dead Egyptian queen. This last story featured the transference of a stone sarcophagus and its contents from Egypt to Cornwall in England, and the eventual resurrection of its owner - a queen named ‘Tara’, who seems based on a female ruler of Egypt who reigned in the Eleventh Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom period.
The purpose of the documentary was to attempt to identify the mummy through X-ray analysis and an examination of the inscriptions contained on the sarcophagus. Although the name of the interred remains could not be ascertained, since that section of the inscription was missing, the mummy turned out to be that of a male. Indeed, he would seem to have been the son of an artisan, with his mother being a sistrum player of the god Min at Akhmin in central Egypt. Thus if Stoker had really believed that the mummy was that of an Egyptian queen, then he was greatly mistaken.
On the subject of whether the mummy and sarcophagus was present when Bram Stoker was writing DRACULA, I have a few reservations. Only today I spoke to noted bronze sculptor Graham Fenn Edwards who during the late 1970s, early 1980s occupied the lodgings in Whitby where in 1890 Stoker was inspired to write his novel, after making notes from a book borrowed from the local library entitled AN ACCOUNT OF THE PRINCIPALITIES OF WALLACHIA AND MOLDAVIA (1820) by William Wilkinson. This included a short section on a Wallachian lord named ‘Dracula’ who had fought valiantly against the invading Turks. Stoker noted also that in a footnote it said that ‘Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil’, a fact which inspired him to change the name of his own fictional villain from ‘Count Wampyr’ to ‘Count Dracula’.
Records refer to three addresses in Whitby that the writer seems to have stayed during his many holidays to the fishing port. Two of them, mentioned only once each, were in Royal Crescent, while the third, mentioned three times, was 55 Cliff Street, off Royal Terrace, where Graham himself lived. It is possible that Stoker lodged at more than one address. However, it is Graham’s belief that 55 Cliff Street is the most likely place that the novel was conceived. Whatever the real answer, it is a little presumptuous to assume that the sarcophagus was present in his lodgings when he wrote ‘Dracula’.
What also caught my attention in the documentary was the proposal that the death of Lord Carnarvon might well have been the result, not of a supernatural curse, but of a fungal infection caused by a fungi named Aspergillus. It can remain alive in sealed tombs for thousands of years and cause serious respiratory problems for those who are exposed to its spores for long periods of time. This might well include archaeologists and Egyptologists, and, of course, elderly patrons of archaeological excavations such as the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who died of pneumonia after contracting septicaemia shortly after the official opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in February 1923.
The events surrounding the mysterious death of Lord Carnarvon on 5 April 1923 are covered in great detail in TUTANKHAMUN: THE EXODUS CONSPIRACY, by Chris Ogilvie Herald and myself, published by Virgin Books in 2002. By way of a response to the claims of the documentary, I will quote certain key passages from the book, beginning with a section from Chapter Ten:

In the second volume of [Howard Carter’s] The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen he dismissed ‘the ridiculous stories which have been invented about the dangers lurking in ambush’ in the tomb [of Tutankhamun]. Carter went on to rubbish the whole matter with the following words:

It has been stated in various quarters that there are actual physical dangers hidden in Tut.ankh.Amen’s tomb - mysterious forces, called into being by some malefic power, to take vengeance on whomsoever should dare to pass its portals. There was perhaps no place in the world freer from risks than the tomb. When it was opened, scientific research proved it to be sterile. Whatever foreign germs there may be within it to-day have been introduced from without, yet mischievous people have attributed many deaths, illnesses, and disasters to alleged mysterious and noxious influences.

Whether this did the trick as he continued to work towards clearing the tomb of its treasures is unclear, although it is worth lingering for a while on his assertion that when it was first opened ‘scientific research proved it to be sterile’. He was responding here to rumours suggesting that the untimely death of Lord Carnarvon could have been the result, not of a strange curse, but of an infection brought about by bacteria or viral agents introduced to the tomb, either by accident or design, before its final closure.
In Carter’s opinion this likelihood was impossible, for on the morning after the official opening of the Burial Chamber the British chemist Alfred Lucas began scientific work to ascertain whether any kind of life, even of the lowest form, existed in the tomb. Sterile swabs were placed in the extreme corners of the room, beyond the limits of the great gilded shrine. Here they ‘were wiped on the walls, on the bottom of the outer shrine and under some reeds on the floor’. Afterwards, they were dispatched to the Bacteriological Laboratory of the Royal Naval Cordite Factory, near Wareham in Dorset, where they were examined by a Mr H. J. Bunker. In an appendix to the second volume of Howard Carter’s The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen, the results are given as follows:

…out of five swabs from which cultures were taken, four were sterile and the fifth contained a few organisms that were undoubtedly air-infections unavoidably introduced during the opening of the doorway and the subsequent inspection of the chamber, and not belonging to the tomb, and it may be accepted that no bacterial life whatsoever was present. The danger, therefore, to those working in the tomb from disease germs, against which they have been so frequently warned, is non-existent.

However, what he did find present in the tomb were fungus growths, for as Lucas records:

Fungus growths occur on the walls of the Burial Chamber, where they are so plentiful as to cause great disfigurement, and they occur also, though only to a slight extent, on the walls of the Antechamber and on the outside of the sarcophagus, but in every instance the fungus is dry and apparently dead.

Could fungal growth have been in any way responsible for the creation of the curse which, aside from Lord Carnarvon, was linked with a whole number of strange deaths during this period, many of them individuals who had never even visited the tomb?

Victims of Morbific Agents
On 3 November 1962, a physician and biologist attached to the University of Cairo named Dr Ezzeddin Taha, held a press conference claiming that he had finally solved the mystery of the curse of the pharaohs. He explained how over a prolonged period of time he and his colleagues had conducted medical examinations on archaeologists and museum staff who worked regularly either inside tombs or in environments where they came into contact with mummies, or objects removed from tombs. The tests showed that many of them suffered from an unknown fungal infection which caused feverish inflammations of the respiratory system. He concluded also that this infection was one and the same as a malady experienced particularly by those who worked with ancient Egyptian papyri known as the ‘Coptic itch’, the symptoms of which are skin rashes and respiratory problems.
Studies revealed that these infections were caused by fungal agents, usually Aspergillus niger, and in Dr Taha’s opinion they were resilient enough to survive in undisturbed tombs for up to several thousand years, although modern-day antibiotics were strong enough to neutralise their effects. According to him:

This discovery has once and for all destroyed the superstition that explorers who worked in ancient tombs died as a result of some kind of curse. They were victims of morbific agents encountered at work. Some people may still believe that the curse of the pharaohs can be attributed to some supernatural powers, but that belongs to the realm of fairy tales.’

The idea was taken up again during the 1990s by German biochemist Christian Hradecky. Using magnified computer imagery he noted the presence of high concentrations of the fungus Aspergillus flavas on the surface of various mummies examined. In addition to this, he identified deposits of the fungal agent in rotted food from earthen pots found at various Egyptian grave sites. Professor Kent Weeks of the American University in Cairo added support to this theory by pointing out that the rotted food in the containers caused the fungus to grow and accepted that there is every reason to believe that these agents can remain dormant for thousands of years before reactivating themselves.
That these scientists might have identified a possible source of fungal infection among the tombs and graves of the dead cannot be denied. It is a bold discovery and further exploration in this area of biological research should be encouraged. Furthermore, it cannot be ruled out that the fungal agents present in both the Antechamber and Burial Chamber of the tomb of Tutankhamun were not dormant forms of either Aspergillus niger or Aspergillus flavas. Yet whether it has any connection with the death of Lord Carnarvon, or any of the other untimely deaths linked with the curse, is quite another matter.

The documentary suggested that Lord Carnarvon had indeed been struck down by Aspergillus spores inhaled inside the tomb, which led to a deterioration of his health and, eventually, pneumonia, which it claimed without any convincing evidence, can result from such fungal infections. Even if we ignore Alfred Lucas’s scientific findings regarding the sterility of the tomb, and the apparent dryness of the fungus on its walls, then we must ask ourselves why the fungal spores did not affect any of the other members of the excavation team, especially in the following knowledge, once more extracted from TUTANKHAMUN: THE EXODUS CONSPIRACY:

Between the date of the discovery of the tomb in late November 1922 and the onset of Carnarvon’s illness some 15 weeks later, there were approximately 50 days when his lordship could have entered the tomb. On the other hand, Carter’s team, who continued working to clear the tomb when Carnarvon journeyed back to England for the Christmas and New Year period, could have spent up to 80 days inside the cramped sepulchre during the same period. Thus those who worked on the clearance of the Antechamber, when Lord Carnarvon contracted his illness, would have had a 24 percent more chance of coming into contact with the same toxic [or indeed fungal] substance, and yet none of them, with one possible exception, experienced similar symptoms of illness.
We must also consider the likelihood of any toxin being present only in the Burial Chamber and/or Treasury, which, as we know, was entered by Carnarvon, Carter and Lady Evelyn three months before its official opening in February 1923. However, if a toxin had indeed been present in the Burial Chamber or Treasury, then surely we should find evidence of chronic illness among those members of Carter’s team who worked on clearing these rooms. But is this the case? In short, the answer is no, although there is one case that does require special attention - that of Arthur Cruttenden Mace.

The case of Arthur Mace is a unique one which we go into in some detail within the book. Suffice to say that he suffered chronic symptoms of ‘arsenic poisoning’ when working on the tomb, leading to him giving up any further Egyptological work in 1924. He retired to England, where he died five years almost to the day after Lord Carnarvon.

That Aspergillus might have been involved in the deterioration of Carnarvon’s health can never be disproved as fungus of an unspecified variety was indeed present in the tomb when it was opened. However, there is no evidence that it was a form of Aspergillus, while Alfred Lucas, an accomplished chemist, deemed it dry, i.e. dead. Furthermore, he detected no evidence of fungal spores from the cultures made from the swab samples taken from the tomb. Surely this, and the fact that no other member of the team suffered similar health problems (Arthur Mace excepted), weighs against the possibility that the British aristocrat suffered from a fungal infection that exacerbated his death. Moreover, it can be shown that even before the official opening of the tomb in February 1923, His Lordship appeared to have been suffering from an unknown malady which included his teeth either chipping or falling out on a regular basis. As we sum up at the end of Chapter Ten in the book:

Was it quite simply the result of brittle teeth, caused through poor dental care, or was it a symptom of something else altogether? Teeth crumbling and falling out is most commonly associated with the introduction into the body of harmful toxins over a prolonged period of time. Is it remotely possible that Lord Carnarvon’s death might have been exacerbated still further by the introduction into his body of poison?

It is, of course, this line of study that Chris and I have pursued further in the book. Yet only by exhuming Lord Carnarvon’s remains and searching for any remaining hair samples for toxicological analysis can the mystery be cleared up once and for all.

Andrew Collins, 5 January 2003.