I'm aware that I haven't been posting very much recently. I've been kept busy trying to be a publisher having to sell books rather than write them. However, I offer here a much-expanded version of part of the talk I gave at the recent Haunted City conference on one of London's stranger pieces of ghost lore.
The numerous abandoned and disused stations on the London underground network are often known as 'ghost stations' and it is hardly surprising to learn that some of the them are claimed to be haunted, as is also the case with many of the stations still functioning. Perhaps the most well-known of the latter is Covent Garden (on the Piccadilly line), where a number of witnesses have testified to seeing, in various parts of he station, the ghost of the popular actor William Terriss, murdered by a jealous fellow thespian at the stage door of the nearby Adelphi Theatre. The last recorded sighting appears to have been in 1972.
One of the most famous 'ghost stations' was named British Museum, with an entrance building at No.133 High Holborn. It opened on 30 July 1900 on the Central London Railway (today's Central line). In 1907 a new station opened nearby, at the junction of High Holborn and Kingsway, on the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (today's Piccadilly line) called Holborn. As the two stations were so closely situated it was proposed to tunnel a subway between them to facilitate an easy underground interchange, but this was rejected, leaving passengers to walk a couple of hundred yards through the busy streets to change lines. Finally, in 1930 work began on enlarging Holborn to create a combined Central and Piccadilly line station, which opened on 25 September 1933.
Now deemed superfluous, British Musem station closed the same day. The platforms were later dismantled, and the station was abandoned, until finding use as one of the many tube air-raid shelters during the Second World War. By 1989, the street-level former entrance building had been replaced with a post-modern block and the lit and staircase shaft filled with concrete; the only access to the station is now along the tube tunnels. See here.
Of what interest is this to folklorists? Before closure in 1933 there were said to be reports that the station was haunted - these reports have persisted - internet sites claim that it is still haunted - but by what?
According to an article from The Daily Mail online from Halloween 2015: 'Legend has it that the disused station is haunted by the ghost of Amun-ra, an Ancient Egyptian God, dressed in traditional Egyptian loincloth and headdress - and a couple of years after the station's closure, two women vanished from nearby Holborn station, with witnesses claiming they heard ghostly moaning around the time of their disappearance.'
When attempting to unravel this mystery it becomes clear very quickly that the 'haunting' rumour attached to the abandoned station has become inextricably entangled with the more widely disseminated story of the so-called 'Unlucky Mummy' in the collections of the British Museum.
In 1889, Ms Warwick Hunt, on behalf of her brother Arthur F Wheeler, gave the museum a mummy- board, a wooden cover placed over the mummified body, carved and painted to represent the deceased as if they were still alive. Classified as exhibit No.22542 it was believed to date from the 21st dynasty (c.950) and was probably from Thebes. The female depicted on the mummy-board was identified, by Keeper of the Egyptian Rooms Ernest Wallis Budge, as priestess of the cult of Amen-Ra or Amun-Ra, a patron deity of Thebes, fused with the sun god Ra; with Osiris, he is the most widely recorded of the Egyptian gods.
In addition to the standard catalogue information about it on the museum's website, the entry for exhibit 22542 also includes the following:
This object perhaps best known for the strange folkloric history attached to it ... has acquired the popular nickname of the 'Unlucky Mummy', with a reputation for bringing misfortune. None of these stories has any basis in fact, but from time to time the strength of the rumours has led to a flood of enquiries.
The mummy-board is said to have been bought by one of four young English travellers in Egypt during the 1860s or 1870s. Two died or were seriously injured in shooting incidents, and the other two died in poverty within a short time. The mummy-board was passed to the sister of one of the travellers, but as soon as it had entered her house the occupants suffered a series of misfortunes. The celebrated clairvoyant Madame Helena Blavatsky is alleged to have detected an evil influence, ultimately traced to the mummy-board. She urged the owner to dispose of it and in consequence it was presented to the British Museum. The most remarkable story is that the mummy-board was on board the SS Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912, and that its presence caused the ship to collide with an iceberg and sink!'
The Titanic-related element of the story derives from the fact that the campaigning investigative journalist W T Stead was onboard and did not survive the disaster: he had earlier written about the 'Unlucky Mummy' and often mentioned it at dinner engagements. This loose connection somehow led to the belief that the mummy-board itself was being carried on the fateful vessel - the British Museum, in a bid to rid itself of the curse, had decided to sell it to a museum or wealthy collector in the USA. In fact the exhibit only left the museum for the first time to be shown abroad in 1990, and can still be seen in London.
Roger Luckhurst's scholarly investigation The Mummy's Curse: the True History of a Dark Fantasy reveals that the British Museum's 'Unlucky Mummy', which caused death and misfortune to those who came into contact with it, predated the much-publicised curse of King Tutankhamun, said to have been unleashed on the opening of the chamber by Howard Carter in 1922 (although no curse was found inscribed in the tomb). The tales attached to the 'Unlucky Mummy' were first publicised in the summer of 1904 via an article in the Daily Express by a rising young reporter Bertrand Fletcher Robinson - the fact that he died of enteric fever three years later at the age of 37 was said to be attributable to the malign influence of exhibit 22542. Luckhurst offers a detailed history of the mummy's alleged owners and the wide variety of personal disasters that befell them, as well as demonstrating the way in which the tale subsequently grew in the telling and retelling. Books on London ghosts always include a few pages on this chilling story.
Event after the mummy-board entered the collections of the British Museum, tragedy was said to have followed in its wake and the 'curse' also seems to have applied to anyone who photographed or sketched the object. A photographer contracted from the firm of Mansell to photograph the mummy-board met with misfortune that same day. According to Peter Underwood in Haunted London: 'Upon the way home in the train he injured by some unaccountable accident his thumb, and hurt it so badly that he was unable to use the right hand for a long time. When he reached home he found that one of his children had fallen through a glass frame and was suffering from severe shock.' It was claimed (and later refuted by the Museum authorities) that employees who moved or handled the object suffered accidents or died unexpectedly.
Part 2 to follow shortly.