Every few years or so an email comes through that claims Titanic sank because a cursed Egyptian mummy was aboard. Of course it has been debunked over the years and Barbara Mikkelson’s examination at Snopes.com throughly reviews all the details of the claim. Still it makes its rounds out there, bouncing around like the proverbial bad penny. So how did this story take hold? Although not often noted, fascination in Egypt and in mummies was strong towards the end of the 19th and the early 20th. Books, scientific and otherwise, were very popular on the subject. Even Bram Stoker, known for Dracula, penned his own horror mummy story called The Jewel of the Seven Stars. That story became the basis of many Hollywood and British mummy movies (such as Hammer’s Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb). So it is not hard to see why many might believe in cursed Egyptian relics or mummies.
The tale tells us that it is the mummy of Princess Amen-Ra who lived 1,500 years before Christ. And four young men in the 1890’s had misfortune when they acquired the mummy in the 1890’s while in Egypt. The one who bought it disappeared when he walked into the desert. A second was (accidently) shot by an Egyptian servant and lost an arm. The third found the bank that had his life savings had failed. And the fourth man ended up losing everything and selling matchsticks on the street. The mummy was sold to the British Museum, which had bad things happen as well (a death, reported poltergeist activity, people afraid to enter the area it was kept in etc). So ultimately it was sold to an American archaeologist and brought aboard Titanic and of course that ship sank in spectacular fashion in 1912. That is a watered down version of the whole story.
Egyptian history is full of various prince and princesses but so far no one has proved that an Amen-Ra (or variations of that name) existed. What is commonly thought to be the mummy is the inner coffin lid described as a gessoed and painted wooden mummy board of an unidentified woman. The lid was found in Thebes and has been dated (by style and shape)as from the late 21st or 22nd dynasty (about 950-900 bc). Unfortunately her identity is not known and the only inscriptions are religious phrases. She likely participated in ceremonies in the temple of Amen-Ra. It is speculated though not proven she was a priestess of that temple. It was donated to the British Museum in 1889 and has been on display ever since (except during the two world wars) and even gone on traveling exhibitions.
Of course thanks the Titanic legend it has been dubbed the “Unlucky Mummy.” It began with British writer and journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who believed the artifact was malevolent. His death was attributed by some (like Arthur Conan Doyle who created Sherlock Holmes) to its malevolence. Then two writers, William Stead and Douglas Murray began writing a horror story about an Egyptian mummy causing all kinds of problems. Then they saw the coffin lid at the British museum and Mikkelson writes:
Sometime after Stead and Murray invented their mummy tale, they were visiting the First Egyptian Room of the British Museum and noticed the coffin lid of the Priestess of Amun. They concocted yet another story that the look of terror and anguish in the face depicted on the coffin lid indicated that the coffin’s original occupant was a tormented soul, and her evil spirit was now loose in the world. Stead and Murray told their fanciful tale to eager newspaper reporters who — then as now — weren’t about to let the truth get in the way of a sensationally good story. The two stories were conflated into one and spread widely, and the Priestess of Amun came to be identified as the mummy whose mortal remains wreaked havoc wherever they were stored.
Today the legend still tries to soldier on despite the fact it has been decisively debunked. It is somewhat ironic that the sensational story he and Murray concocted about the mummy lid would one day be used to explain why he and others died on Titanic in 1912.