On this day in 1923, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, best known as the English aristocrat who financed the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, died an unexpected death. His sudden, mysterious passing was attributed to his intruding on a sealed tomb, ominously called “The Mummy’s Curse.”
Carnarvon was an avid Egyptologist who, together with English archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter, opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, unveiling historical treasures unsurpassed in the history of archaeology. Months after the discovery of Tut’s tomb, the best preserved and most lavishly bestowed of all ancient Egyptian tombs, Carnarvon died suddenly, prematurely, in the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo. Two weeks before his death, British novelist Marie Corelli wrote a letter published in New York World magazine quoting an obscure book that claimed “dire punishment” would result in the intrusion of a sealed tomb. This ominous prediction, combined with Carnarvon’s sudden, mysterious death, immediately led to a media frenzy centering on “Curse of Tutankhamun” or “The Mummy’s Curse.”
According to the myth, any person who disturbs an ancient Egyptian mummy, especially a pharaoh, is placed under a curse that may result in bad luck, illness, or death. Tales of the mummy’s curse accelerated after the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. A newspaper report reprinted the alleged curse said to appear in ancient hieroglyphs (which has never been found): “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King.” Upon the Earl’s death, Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, suggested that Carnarvon’s death had been caused by “elementals” created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb. Media frenzy followed and many were convinced of the validity of the mummy’s curse.
In fact, Carnarvon’s death was more straightforward. After accidentally shaving a mosquito bite infected with erysipelas, a bacterial infection, he contracted blood poisoning and eventually pneumonia, from which he most likely died.
Carnarvon was buried in an ancient hill fort overlooking his family seat in Beacon Hill in the southern English coastal county of Hampshire. The legend of the curse lived on.
Credit: © DIZ Muenchen GmbH, Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy
Caption:Howard Carter and George Carnarvon (right) peer into the door to the fourth shrine of Tutankhamen’s burial chamber.