In 1924, the hecatomb continues. It is the turn of Mace, Carter’s assistant, then that of Doctor Archibald Douglas Reed who came to X-ray the mummy.
In the years that follow, it is impossible for an egyptologist to die without immediately provoking the resurgence of the curse. To the point that certain scholars’ nerves are seriously affected. Doctor Evelyn White has a nervous breakdown while working with Carter on the inventory and classification of the Tutankhamun treasure. His case gradually degenerates into folly, until the day he writes a farewell letter to his family:
“I succumb to a curse which obliges me to disappear.”
Then he hangs himself. He was a very pious person.
The Daily Mail titles:
“A shiver runs through England”
when it announces Archibald Douglas Reed’s death.
In 1925, Hall, the necropolis’ sketch artist, dies. Benedite, Conservator of the Louvre museum, disappears in 1926 from a congestion. Soon, another name is added to the list: La Fleur, a vague relation of Carter’s, who dies shortly after having visited the Valley of the Kings. He was a professor in an American university.
1929 sees the disappearance of numerous people having worked in the Valley of the Kings: Naville, Carter’s boss, Woolf, an English industrialist, Gould, an American multi-millionaire, Ember and Greenfell, eminent egyptologists, and Lady Almina, Lord Carnavon’s wife.
It is said that an Egyptian Minister, wanting to investigate this series of mysterious deaths, goes to the site, accompanied by a snake charmer named Mussa… Upon their arrival, a cobra and a viper come out of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The charm doesn’t work apparently, for the snakes flee. The Minister, whose name we shall never know – it’s a State secret [!] – dies for no apparent reason, shortly after returning to Cairo. No-one knows what happened to Mussa.
On the eve of the Second World War, the curse fervents register their seventeenth victim. The German, Otto Neubert, obligingly enumerates them in his book The Valley of the Kings. Obligingly and abusively. He cites, for example, the name of A. Lucas, Director of the Egyptian Government’s chemical laboratory at the Antiques Service. Lucas is the principal “carer” of the objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, which means that he treats them to ensure their conservation. Lucas does not die until 1945, at the age of seventy-eight, which is not bad for a man who is supposed to have been pursued for more than twenty years by an implacable curse.
Neubert also prematurely kills off Professor Douglas Derry and the scholar Garries Davis. Let us examine these two cases a bit more closely.
Douglas Derry is the first to really hold Tutankhamun’s mummy in his hands. The mummy is taken from the third sarcophage in a state of advanced decomposition. Derry is given the task of trying to reconstitute it. For weeks, he works at its restoration, which allows him to affirm that the young king must have measured 1.67 metres at his death. Derry, far from being incommoded by this long familiarity with the mummy, publishes a book in 1956, thirty years after having finished with Tutankhamun.
As for Garries Davis, a renowned egyptologist who visits the tomb several times – and who is frequently mistaken, by Neubert and others, for Theodore Davis, the man who is the first to find a few articles marked with Tutankhamun’s seal – dies in 1951, at the age of seventy-six.
Others abusively named as victims of the pharaohs’ curse: Sir Allan Gardiner and Bernard Bruyere, who are both present at the opening of the funeral chamber, and who both live to be more than eighty.
There is a very long list of egyptologists who escape the curse… Gustave Lefevre, Member of the Institute, successor to Maspero at the Cairo museum, the one who organises the Tutankhamun exhibition in the Egyptian capital, dies in 1957, aged seventy-eight… Burton, the photographer to whom we owe the photos taken hour by hour during the discovery and exploration of the tomb, dies after the end of the Second World War, as does Jean Capart, the man who recommends Lord Carnavon to Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth… Callender, the companion of Carter’s last trips, dies very naturally at an advanced age, having been seen lunching gaily for years in the tomb, in Carter’s company. When Mohamed Zacharia Groncim, Director of Egyptian Antiques, commits suicide in 1959, after having discovered the Sakkarah pyramid, near Cairo, the newspapers again evoke the “curse of the pharaohs”.
Howard Carter obviously constitutes the best example of the resistance that a scholar with a robust constitution can offer to the curse. He has the habit of saying to his friends and any journalists who ask him about it:
“Look at me. I’m as solid as the pyramids.”
He dies in England in 1939, seventeen years after his discovery, aged sixty-six.
Among all of these recorded deaths, the majority of them is perfectly explicable medically. Bethell dies of tuberculosis, an illness from which few escape at this epoch. Arthur Mace has to leave the Valley of the Kings shortly after the opening of the sarcophages, when the work is far from being finished. He, too, is suffering from tuberculosis, and leaves for the Riviera – which does not stop him from continuing to collaborate with Carter in writing down the discovery and exploration of the necropolis… Mace slowly fades away from “consumption” as his contemporaries call it…
The two cases of suicide (Lord Westbury and Doctor Evelyn White) can’t confirm the curse theory.
There remain of course, out of the fifty or so searchers, egyptologists, scholars and doctors, and their families, who participate in the discovery and study of Tutankhamun’s necropolis, around half-a-dozen deaths in circumstances which can appear strange and which have never been clearly explained. Other cases are more troubling, like that of the radiologist Reed who dies while not appearing to suffer from any illness. Apparently a heart attack. But aren’t there people today, apparently in good health, who collapse with sudden, unforseeable cardiac arrest?
To be continued.