The Real Hackstory of the Curse of King Tut

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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On November 4, 1922, a young boy made a surprising discovery in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

The boy was working as a water fetcher for an archaeologist named Howard Carter who had been trying for years to discover the tomb of a little-known Ancient Egyptian king. Carter was on a time crunch: his financial backer, a British aristocrat with a penchant for Egyptian history named Lord Carnarvon, had told Carter there were only a few months of funding left. If Carter didn’t find anything soon, the project would be shut down.

Carter opens King Tut’s tomb // history.com

Desperate for a breakthrough, Carter had returned to a previously abandoned dig site. After weeks of searching turned up nothing, that young water fetcher found a single stair, leading down, carved into rock.

A flurry of excavation over the next 24 hours unearthed an entire staircase that ended at a small doorway. Carter placed an urgent wire to Lord Carnarvon, telling him to get to the dig site as soon as possible.

Together, Carter and Carnarvon pushed open a crack in that doorway and gazed upon an astounding scene: statues, strange animals, and gold, as far as the eye could see in the dim light.

They had found the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

Over the next several months, Carter and Carnarvon would jubilantly discover that King Tut’s burial site was an unprecedented trove of history and riches. Their elation wouldn’t last long, however.

Within months, Carnarvon, and a number of people connected to the dig, would be dead.

What killed them?

Some say it was the curse of King Tut.

Hold Up. Isn’t This the Plot of The Mummy?

It’s true that the curse of King Tutankhamun sounds more like the plot of the newest summer blockbuster starring Brendan Fraser (or Tom Cruise) than an actual phenomenon, but the fact remains that many of the people surrounding the disruption of King Tut’s eternal rest met rather suspicious ends. Let’s take a look at what happened to some of the unfortunate souls who came into contact with the boy-king’s mummy.

#1: George Herbert, aka Lord Carnarvon

If you’re looking for evidence that the curse of King Tut is real, look no further than what happened to our dear friend Lord Carnarvon, the financial backer of the excavation.

Carnarvon, along with Howard Carter, was one of the first people to enter King Tut’s tomb. A few months after the site’s discovery, Carnarvon made a terrible mistake: while shaving, he nicked open a pesky mosquito bite on his neck. The bite got horribly infected, and Carnarvon died shortly after.

If Carnarvon’s death by freak-mosquito-bite-accident isn’t enough to convince you, legend has it that, at the moment of Carnarvon’s death, all the lights in his house went out.

#2: Hugh Evelyn-White

Hugh Evelyn-White was an archaeologist who definitely visited King Tut’s tomb and may have even participated in its excavation. Like the rest of the crew, he was thrilled with the discovery… until he watched members of the excavation team meet untimely deaths after the dig. In 1924, Evelyn-White hung himself and left this chilling message written in his own blood: “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear.”

#3: Richard Bethell

Richard Bethell was Lord Carnarvon’s secretary and accompanied his boss on the trip to King Tut’s tomb. Legend has it that Bethell was actually the second person to enter the site, right after Howard Carter. Bethell lasted a bit longer than his boss – he died under suspicious circumstances in 1929, found smothered in a gentleman’s club.

And, if that weren’t enough, Bethell’s father (also named Richard Bethell) killed himself less than a year after his son’s untimely end.

All in all, there were at least eleven deaths attributed to the curse, including those of:

  • Lord Carvarvon
  • George Jay Gould I
  • Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey
  • Colonel The Hon. Aubrery HErbert, MP
  • Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid
  • Sir Lee Stack
  • A. C. Mace
  • The Hon. Mervyn Herbert
  • Captain The Hon. Richard Bethell
  • Richard Luttrell Pilkington Bethell
  • Hugh Evelyn-White

What happened to these men? Were their deaths, most of which occurred under suspicious or strange circumstances, related to some curse that had been put over King Tut’s tomb? Or were they all just a particularly macabre coincidence?

The Truth Behind the Curse of King Tut

So where did the idea of the curse come from?

In the weeks following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, newspapers ran a number of stories that suggested that Carter and his compatriots were victims of the “mummy’s curse” or the “curse of the Pharaohs,” which would harm anyone who disturbed the eternal rest of the Egyptian kings and queens who had been buried in the Valley of the Kings. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was quick to add his support to the theory, suggesting that Carter, Carnarvon and the others had unwittingly pissed off the ancient spirit priests who guarded the pharaohs’ tombs.

The reality?

There was no curse on the tomb (that we know of!) and Sir Arthur just really loved a good ghost story.

There’s no historical record to suggest that Carter, Carnarvon, or any of the people involved with the excavation of King Tut’s tomb ever encountered a “curse.” Instead, there have been a few alternate theories, such as that the mummified bodies, which had obviously been chilling underground for a very long time, had some nasty diseases and weird spores floating around. The first people to come in contact with the bodies could have contracted a disease that made them a little crazy or sick.

We happen to think that the reality of the curse is actually a lot simpler. We think that Howard Carter put out the rumor of the “curse” himself.

Why? Well, Carter had just stumbled upon an insane fortune. King Tut’s tomb was not only an amazing historical discovery, it was also literally full of gold. There was a lot of interest in the tomb and not just from Egyptology nerds: grave robbers also wanted to get their hands on the treasures the tomb held.

Ultimately, Carter may have put out the idea of a “curse” to ward off unwanted visitors and protect his discovery from plundering. Outwardly, Carter always remained skeptical of the “curse,” though it’s easy for him to say: his cause of death (lymphoma) was perfectly natural.

As for us… we’ll probably be a bit more careful the next time with visiting the Egyptian collection at the Met.

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