CURSE OF CARNARVON
TUTANKHAMUN: THE EXODUS CONSPIRACY
by Andrew Collins and Chris Ogilvie-Herald
It is certain that, had he lived, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon would have believed in the curse of Tutankhamun, for it seems that the British aristocrat was deeply influenced by spiritualism and the occult. He was also an active member of the London Spiritual Alliance. On numerous occasions Carnarvon organised séances in the East Anglia Room at Highclere Castle. Present would be his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert, the politician and lawyer Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC; Lady Cunliffe-Owen and, when in the country, Howard Carter.
In his published memoirs the sixth Earl of Carnarvon says that his father became 'keenly interested in the occult' as he and Howard Carter waited restlessly for hostilities to cease during World War One. Moreover, he recalls attending one of these séances organised by his father. It occurred during a month spent with the family following his return from military duty with the 7th Hussars in Mesopotamia in the late spring of 1919, when Carter was also present. He remembers how, in the company of his sister Lady Evelyn, he proceeded to the East Anglia Room, where his father, along with Howard Carter, Louis Steele, 'a brilliant photographer domiciled in Portsmouth', and Helen Cunliffe-Owen were readying themselves for the psychic session. When everyone had settled down, Steele began to utter some form of 'incantation' that sent Lady Cunliffe-Owen into a trance in which she began speaking Coptic. By 'Coptic' he presumably meant the language used by the original inhabitants of Egypt, as opposed to the Greek immigrants, in the wake of Alexander the Great's celebrated entry in 332 BC. It was adopted as the language of the Coptic Christians, who trace their lineage back to St Mark the Evangelist. The sixth earl records that only Howard Carter understood Lady Cunliffe's strange utterances, and afterwards she had no recall whatsoever of what had been said.
The sixth earl goes on to say that Lady Evelyn was then placed in a similar trance, 'but she was so overcome by the experience that she had to go into a nursing home in London for a fortnight's rest'. What supposedly happened next stretches the imagination to the extreme:
To round off that session, my father said, 'If we sit round the table holding hands, I believe we shall achieve a levitation.' 'What does he mean?' I whispered to my sister. 'I think he hopes the flowers on the table will rise several feet into the air,' she replied and they did.'
These are the words of the sixth Earl of Carnarvon, a greatly respected British aristocrat who moved in high society circles before his death in 1987. That he believed these events took place does not seem to be in doubt, as they are recorded in his published memoirs. However, exactly what transpired at Highclere Castle that night in 1919 is probably lost for ever. All that the authors have been able to ascertain is that the sessions did indeed take place in the East Anglia Room, something that is looked on with some embarrassment by the tour guides, reflecting perhaps the feelings of the present-day Carnarvon family. Indeed, when the authors visited Highclere and met the future 8th Earl of Carnarvon in August 2001, special permission had to be gained to enter the East Anglia Room, which is currently out of bounds to the general public. They were finally able to enter the room, used today as a dressing room for wedding parties, in the company of Tony Leadbetter, the godson of Lady Almina Herbert, the fifth earl's wife. He insisted that she loathed the séances and would have nothing to do with them, since they frightened her greatly. As we shall see, the fifth earl's powerful belief in all things supernatural might not have helped dampen rumours that his untimely death was connected in some way with the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The rebirth in Egypt
Lord Carnarvon's interest in the occult was not unique for his era. Many wealthy, well-to-do people in British society shared a belief in the omnipotent powers of ancient Egypt. To them this distant land, beneath the hot desert sun, was an exotic paradise, where the ancient gods still lived on in the invisible world. These very humanlike deities were seen not simply as the product of the superstitious fears of a bygone race, but as the power and motivation behind the great civilisation that built the Great Pyramid and flourished for nearly 3,000 years before its decline at the time of the Roman Empire.
With the spread of spiritualism from the United States to Europe in the mid-1800s, the idea of communicating with perceived celestial intelligences suddenly became more acceptable. And, if an American Indian chief or a Chinese philosopher could act as a spirit guide, then so could long-dead Egyptian spirits and even the gods and goddesses of that wonderful country. More significantly, the revival in the mystic powers of ancient Egypt was embraced by a number of occultists of the era, who felt some kind of sympathetic connection with this unseen world. More importantly, it was the influence of one such mystic that may well have convinced Lord Carnarvon that his destiny was linked inextricably not only with coming events connected with the resurrection of the Amarna age in popular consciousness, but also with the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
We speak of 'Cheiro' (pronounced ki-ro), alias Count Louis le Warner Hamon (1866-1936), the world-renowned fortune-teller and palmist of Irish birth, who during the late Victorian period read palms, cast horoscopes and made psychic predictions for the rich and famous. His first client is said to have been Arthur James Balfour, the future Conservative Prime Minister and the signatory on the so-called Balfour Declaration of 1917 (see Chapter 23). From the 1890s onwards, Hamon attracted an elite clientele both at his Indian-style salon in London's trendy Bond Street, and while on his travels abroad. The list is mind-boggling, and apparently included, among others, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, the British statesman Sir Austin Chamberlain, the writer Oscar Wilde and the Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari, with whom he became a close acquaintance. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the explorer of the Antarctic, went in disguise to his Bond Street address in order to test him, but was told, correctly, that he would not return from a second expedition. When Field Marshal Horatio, Lord Kitchener, the hero of the Sudan, turned up to see Hamon he was informed that his death would come at sea. He was to die when his cruiser, HMS Hampshire, struck a mine and sank in the North Sea, off the Orkney Isles, in June 1916.
As Hamon's reputation as a fortune-teller grew, he was introduced to more and more clients of distinction. Among them was the King of Italy, Humbert I, whom he met in Rome in 1900 and predicted correctly that he would be dead within three months. Another was the Shah of Persia, whom he met in Paris that same year. Hamon informed him that his life was in grave peril, prompting the shah's police guard to foil an assassination attempt by an anarchist.
Most famous of all Hamon's clients was Edward VII, for whom he predicted the exact date of his coronation in August 1902 and subsequent death in 1909. Through the British king he was introduced to other members of the royal family, for whom he cast horoscopes and made predictions. It was also through Edward VII that Hamon came to meet Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, about whom he predicted that around '1917 he will lose all he loves most by sword or strife in one form or another, and he himself will meet a violent death'. So intrigued was the Tsar by this prediction that in late 1904, on a visit to St Petersburg, Hamon was invited to dine with him at the Summer Palace. During his stay Gregori Rasputin came to meet Hamon one afternoon in January 1905. As with the Tsar, he predicted that Rasputin would suffer 'a violent end within a palace. You will be menaced by poison, by knife, and by bullet. Finally I see the icy waters of the Neva closing above you'. It goes without saying that both Rasputin and the Tzar were to lose their lives in the manner prescribed.
Marshall Hall QC
It is certainly not the place here to extol any further the apparent predictions of Count Louis Hamon, alias 'Cheiro', whatever their basis in truth. Yet what is significant to the story behind the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb is that the author Barry Wynne in his 1972 book BEHIND THE MASK OF TUTANKHAMEN claimed that Lord Carnarvon was one of Hamon's clients. Indeed, it is recorded that in 1899 Hamon had cause to ask the Earl of Carnarvon's close friend and lawyer, Sir Edward Marshall Hall QC, to defend him, after he was named as a co-respondent in a case brought against him by the husband of a woman client who had become infatuated by the celebrated palmist. In the end the petitioner withdrew his claim, and paid the damages and costs, but only after Hamon was able to prove his innocence. At the time, the fortune-teller revealed to Marshall Hall psychic imagery that would foreshadow, and even predict, his election win at Southport some sixteen months later in October 1901.
Since Marshall Hall was one of the participants in the séances that took place at Highclere Castle, it seems reasonable to assume that by this time Hamon had become a personal acquaintance of the Earl of Carnarvon. This should be borne in mind as we review the strange psychic warning that Hamon sent to Lord Carnarvon shortly after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Later he would claim that it had been delivered to him in the form of automatic writing by Meketaten, one of Akhenaten's daughters, whose mummified hand he believed he had been given by an elderly Egyptian guide at the Temple of Karnak in the mid-1880s. Yet, regardless of its original source, the unnerving nature of the message must have sent a chill down the British aristocrat's spine, for, according to Hamon,
It was to the effect that on his arrival at the tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen he was not to allow any of the relics found in it to be removed or taken away. The ending of the message was 'that if he disobeyed the warning he would suffer an injury while in the tomb - a sickness from which he would never recover, and that death would claim him in Egypt'.
Rightly or wrongly, Hamon sent the warning message to Lord Carnarvon at Highclere, which was received by him shortly after his return from Egypt in mid-December 1922. He was said to have 'read it over to one of his companions, the Hon. Richard Bethell, and to a close friend of Admiral Smith Dorrien, whose letter relating these facts I have still in my possession'. Apparently, Carnarvon was 'deeply impressed by the warning', yet responded with the words, 'If at this moment of my life all the mummies in Egypt were to warn me I would go on with my project just the same'.
Yet Hamon goes on to reveal that it was 'common knowledge what happened' next, for, according to him, 'Lord Carnarvon took numerous relics out of the tomb and sent them on to England. He would probably have taken still more if the Egyptian Government had not interfered'.
This outrageous claim made in Hamon's autobiographical work REAL LIFE STORIES, published in 1934, must have infuriated not only the fifth earl's friends and family, but also the entire Egyptological community, including Howard Carter, who had completed his clearance of the tomb just two years beforehand. Yet, whatever Hamon's source was for this information, it proved to be staggeringly accurate, for as we shall see in Chapter 13, there is overwhelming evidence to show that Carnarvon and Carter did indeed illegally remove art treasures from the tomb.
That a warning of the sort described by Hamon was received by his lordship around the time of the discovery of the tomb is confirmed by the sixth earl's memoirs, which tell us:
Upon the news of the discovery of the tomb he [Hamon] had written to my father warning him not to become involved. This matter preyed on my father's mind and he decided to consult his own clairvoyant, Velma.
With the fifth earl's deep interest in the occult, there is no doubt that such a warning would indeed have 'preyed' on his mind. The fact that it had come from the world-renowned fortune-teller Count Louis Hamon, to whom both he and Marshall Hall seem to have been admirers, must have increased his anxiety still further.
Nowhere is it recorded what Carnarvon's feelings might have been after the discovery of the tomb - whether he felt he was destined to find it or that some kind of karmic retribution would result from its discovery. Yet according to Arthur C Mace, one of Carter's team on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnarvon 'was one of the most superstitious men he had ever met'.
Carter, on the other hand, openly dismissed the idea of a curse connected with the death of Lord Carnarvon in the second volume of THE TOMB OF TUT.ANKH.AMEN. Towards the end of the Preface he states that he does not intend to 'repeat the ridiculous stories which have been invented about the dangers lurking in ambush … in this tomb, to destroy the intruder'. Moreover, he says, 'So far as the living are concerned curses of this nature have no place in the Egyptian ritual'. Yet these words do not reflect what he truly believed, for, according to an article that appeared in the DAILY EXPRESS the day after Carnarvon's death, Carter had told 'a friend' only days beforehand that 'This tomb has brought us bad luck'. More significantly, an entry in the unpublished memoirs of the then British vice-consul to Cairo, Sir Thomas Cecil Rapp (1893-1984), tells us:
He [Carter] was suffering too from a superstitious feeling that Lord Carnarvon's death was possible nemesis for disturbing the sleep of the dead, a nemesis that might also extend to him. But he was to survive for seventeen years.
This is an important revelation, never before made public, which shows a more vulnerable side of Carter's character. That he also participated in the séances held at Highclere Castle, and even identified the language spoken in trance by Lady Cunliffe-Owen as Coptic, hints strongly that, like his friend and patron, he was motivated by spiritual beliefs linked intrinsically with the legacy of ancient Egypt.
His soul shall be destroyed for ever
It seems certain that the fifth Earl of Carnarvon will have felt a little uneasy after reading Hamon's letter so soon after clandestinely entering the tomb's Burial Chamber and removing a number of choice pieces for his own purposes. Yet would there be a price to pay? Hamon obviously thought so, and Carnarvon would have had every reason to believe so, too, for, contrary to what Carter wrote in his book, magical formulas were sometimes left behind in tombs in order to deter intruders. For example, Arthur Weigall in his book TUTANKHAMEN AND OTHER ESSAYS, rushed out in 1923 during the wave of massive public interest in all things Egyptian, records a curse that was inscribed on a mortuary statue of a person named 'Ursu', a mining engineer who lived less than a hundred years before Tutankhamun:
He who trespasses upon my property or who shall injure my tomb or drag out my mummy, the Sun-god shall punish him. He shall not bequeath his goods to his children; his heart shall not have pleasure in life; he shall not receive water (for his spirit to drink) in the tomb, and his soul shall be destroyed for ever.
Similar curses have been found in other tombs as well. For instance, Weigall cites another example inscribed on the wall of the tomb of Harkhuf at Aswan, which dates from the Sixth Dynasty, c. 2340 BC:
As for any man who shall enter into this tomb … I will pounce upon him as on a bird; he shall be judged for it by the great god.
It is inconceivable to think that Carnarvon would not have been aware of such curses, and would therefore have been concerned that in violating an Egyptian tomb he was playing into the hands of occult forces. Publicly he would have shrugged off such thoughts, but quietly, when he was on his own, such convictions may well have haunted him. Perhaps this is why Lord Carnarvon went in search of answers, or at least some form of solace, from his personal seer and palmist known only as 'Velma'.
Like Hamon, Velma was famed for his predictions, which included the assassination of the Tsar of Russia and his son, Alexis Nicoleavitch, as well as the death of Francisco Pancho-Villa, the bandit turned Mexican President, whose palm he had read when in Mexico City. One of his most celebrated prophecies concerned the then Duchess of York, who went on to become the Queen Mother (she died in March 2002). Velma had met her during an Elizabethan pageant at the seat of the Cecil family at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. During this meeting he predicted that her marriage would be enhanced greatly
by the arrival of a child who will be worshipped from one end of the [British] Empire to the other. You are, at the present time, in a mansion that stood in Elizabethan times and this is an Elizabethan Fête. It may well be that all the great characteristics of the queen of that name will be found in the princess of your house …
He was referring, of course, to the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's reigning monarch for over fifty years.
Yet Velma's advice to Lord Carnarvon was not of such a positive tone. Having explained the contents of the communication from Hamon, the palmist took hold of his hands and pointed out a fairly long lifeline, which was thin at the centre with ominous spots that might indicate death at this point in his life. Similar combinations in other areas of the hand led Velma to advise: 'I do see great peril for you … Most probably - as the indications of occult interest are so strong in your hand - it will arise from such a source'. According to the writer Barry Wynne, in his 1972 book BEHIND THE MASK OF TUTANKHAMUN, Carnarvon's reply to this second warning was somewhat jocular: 'Whatever happens I will see to it that my interest in things occult never gets so strong as to affect either my reason or my health'.
A second meeting with Velma
We cannot be certain exactly what transpired between the fifth Earl of Carnarvon and the seer and palmist named Velma during this meeting, but the work of Barry Wynne leads us to believe that his lordship put on a 'brave face' and left 'in a sombre mood'. Whatever his final thoughts, Carnarvon is known to have returned to Velma for a second meeting before his departure for Egypt in January 1923. We are told that on this occasion, when Velma took his hands, the ominous spots noted before had, if anything, enlarged. As Wynne penned with a sense of drama, 'In particular, the spot on the Life Line seemed perilously close to the earl's present age'.
Apparently, Velma then consulted his crystal ball and on staring into its depths saw an Egyptian temple, thick with people divided into three separate parties. The features of the individuals became clearer and Velma described those that could be seen. Yet from the ethereal mist that prevented better clarity came the words, 'To Aton … only God … Universal Father …' There then appeared the image of a golden mask being placed over the head of a young pharaoh: 'Nothing says so, but I believe that this is the burial of your King Tutankhamen'.
Next, Velma saw what he took to be a tomb, presumably that of Tutankhamun, from which emerged flashes of light, evidence, it seemed, of supernatural influences at work. Lord Carnarvon and his associates were there too, carrying out their work, but then came images of a multitude of spirit forms that 'demanded vengeance against the disturbers of the tomb'. Finally, he saw an image of Lord Carnarvon set amid this spectacle of great turmoil.
Carnarvon apparently recognised the danger implied by the vision, but played down its importance, saying that he was well aware of the possible dangers of entering the tomb and would continue the work until it was done.
According to Wynne, Velma responded with the words, 'If I were you … I should make some public excuse and finish. I can only see disaster to you, without any adequate gain to humanity to justify the sacrifice'. The sixth Earl of Carnarvon, in his memoirs, also provides details of his father's visits to see Velma, and confirms that on the second occasion the seer and palmist warned him against returning to Egypt lest disaster strike.
Lord Carnarvon departed for Egypt in the company of Lady Evelyn in mid January, and was back in the Valley by Wednesday, the 31st. He examined the treasures removed from the Antechamber inside the nearby tomb of Seti II, which was being used as a laboratory, and in the days that followed hung around Tutankhamun's tomb receiving invited guests and visitors, and generally acting as if the royal sepulchre was his own private estate.
Voices of disdain
With the removal of various treasures from the Antechamber during the early months of 1923, the international press were provided with interim news stories that kept Tutankhamun in the forefront of people's minds. Almost daily, newspaper reports would appear written by a 'special correspondent' in Luxor, making sure that no one could get away from the splendours of ancient Egypt. It was perhaps inevitable therefore that certain individuals in the public eye would begin to draw their own conclusions about what they saw as a violation of a royal tomb. One such person was the gothic novelist Mary Mackay, better known by her nom de plume Marie Corelli (1855-1924), whose occult novels were loved by, among others, Queen Victoria. Like Hamon, Corelli was known to the rich and famous, among them the late Edward VII, whose coronation she attended, Mark Twain and the Empress Frederick of Germany.
A few weeks after the official opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Corelli wrote a letter to the NEW YORK TIMES. In it she asserted that an old Egyptian book in her possession contained a reference to the fact that 'the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb'. What led Corelli to make such an eccentric statement in the NEW YORK TIMES is unclear, and the title of the old Egyptian book in her possession was never disclosed.
It has been proposed recently that Marie Corelli was simply propounding the idea of a curse attached to Egyptian tombs and mummies featured in nineteenth-century tales of the supernatural. For instance, Dr Dominic Montserrat of the University of Warwick has traced the origins of the mummy's curse to an obscure children's book written in the 1820s by a 25-year-old English author named Jane Loudon Webb. After watching a public mummy unwrapping in Piccadilly Circus by the Italian adventurer and strongman Giovanni Belzoni, she penned a story entitled 'The Mummy', about a vengeful Egyptian spirit that came back to life and threatened to strangle the hero. Then in a novel entitled THE FRUITS OF ENTERPRISE, written by an anonymous English writer in 1828, an adventure inside an Egyptian pyramid leads its characters to use mummy parts as torches to illuminate the way.
Inspired very probably by these earlier works, in 1869 the American novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-88) composed a short story called 'Lost in a Pyramid'. In it an explorer again uses mummy parts, this time of an Egyptian priestess, to light the passages inside a pyramid. From here he steals a gold box containing three strange seeds. These he takes back to the United States and presents to his fiancée, who plants them in the garden. They develop into grotesque flowers, which she wears on her wedding day. Unfortunately, their peculiar scent sends her into a coma and she herself becomes a living mummy!
The same theme was used again and again by various British and American writers of the late Victorian era, culminating eventually in Bram Stoker's classic, THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS in 1903, which has spawned some classic horror movies over the years. Very similar influences it would seem led Marie Corelli to conclude that a swift punishment would befall anyone who dared violate the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.
A bird is scratching my face …
Whether or not Lord Carnarvon was made aware of Corelli's ramblings in the New York Times is not recorded. However, the earlier warnings delivered to him both by Count Hamon and Velma must have made him at least slightly uneasy about the whole situation as the Burial Chamber was officially opened on Friday, 16 February 1923. Not helping the matter one little bit was the incident regarding the strange death of Carter's canary the previous November, and the strange omens that went with it, especially the prediction that 'before the winter was out someone would die'.
As we know, it was around the time of the official opening of the Burial Chamber that Lord Carnarvon became ill and, exactly as Arthur Weigall had flippantly remarked, he was to be dead just over six weeks later. Yet strange stories are told about his final night on earth. Amid the feverish delirium that accompanied the final stages of his illness, he is reported to have said over and over again, 'A bird is scratching my face. A bird is scratching my face'.
By this time he was more or less in a coma, and so anything he said at this time should perhaps be taken as the ravings of a dying man. Yet the matter has intrigued certain Egyptologists, including Dr Ali Hassan, a former head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. According to the author Philipp Vandenberg, Hassan is on record as saying, 'This sentence is of particular interest because something similar appears in a curse-text from the First Intermediate Period c.2140-2100 BC, which says that the Nekhebet [vulture] bird shall scratch the face of anyone who does anything to a tomb'. We should also perhaps recall the inscription found on the wall of the tomb of Harkhuf at Aswan:
As for any man who shall enter into this tomb … I will pounce upon him as on a bird; he shall be judged for it by the great god.
It would be easy to conclude that Lord Carnarvon was himself judged by the ancient gods for entering the tomb of Tutankhamun. Yet we live in a rational world where curses are dismissed as the feeble beliefs of the weak and simple-minded. They cannot affect us, because we have no place for them in our lives. But anyone who carries around this attitude is a fool who does not understand the delicate nature of the human brain and its gross need for personal security on a psychological level.
To a greater or lesser degree, a large percentage of the human race still relies upon ritual, in the belief that, their individual or group rites having been upheld, nothing bad will affect their day-to-day life - whether it be twice checking that the gas and electrical appliances are off, avoiding walking under a ladder, crossing oneself to gain God's protection or adopting certain routines to avoid potential bad luck. The vast majority of us do this instinctively and are not strong-willed enough to ignore these primeval compulsions. Indeed, the human mind works in completely the opposite way, believing that, if we don't do it, then something bad will happen! Curses and superstitions tap into those very same neurotic insecurities.
If we violate the dead, then we naturally expect that something bad will happen, and, if the owner of a tomb tells us that something bad is going to happen, then in all probability it will. The more superstitious we are, the more likely it is that warnings of ill omen can and will affect our lives, and this would seem to have been a weakness of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. He believed in the supernatural powers of ancient Egypt and paid for it with his life. Moreover, it would seem that this was a failing also of the sixth earl, who during his own lifetime made it clear that he could not be persuaded to return to the tomb of Tutankhamun, even for a million pounds! Why? If curses do not exist then what did he have to fear from the tomb?
The death of the fifth earl on 5 April 1923 should have brought to a close any thoughts relating to the judgment of the gods on those who desecrate tombs of pharaohs, but this was not to be the case. For, even as his lordship's body was still warm, strange occurrences began to take place that would only help compound the idea that the curse of Tutankhamun was not going to go away.