7 Myths About Mummies

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Thanks to modern technology like CT scanning, we know more about the intimate lives of mummies than ever before. Yet weird myths and centuries-old rumors continue to dog these poor desiccated remains. As we edge closer to Halloween, let's take a look at a few myths about mummies.

1. Mummies can cure diseases.

Until the late 18th century (and occasionally beyond), it wasn’t uncommon for medicines to be sourced from human body parts, as unhygienic as that may have been. Mummies—often labeled mumia, from a Persian word referring to the waxes and resins used in embalming—were sold as powders that could be made into plasters or dissolved in liquids to cure various ailments. Natural philosophers Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon advocated mummy powder as a treatment for bruises and for preventing bleeding. Now, of course, we have NSAIDs and Band-Aids for that.

2. Mummies fueled locomotives.

A number of American newspapers in the 19th century reported that Egypt’s nascent railway system used mummies as fuel for locomotives, allegedly due to the lack of other combustible resources. Mark Twain, who took a train from Cairo to Alexandria, wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad, “the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies 3000 years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a king.’” Twain then qualified his claim: “Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.”

In reality, the whole idea of burning mummies for railway fuel was unnecessary thanks to Egypt’s relations with Great Britain. “Just as the rails and locomotives for the railway were manufactured in Britain, and imported, the obvious source for the fuel was British coal, rather than Egyptian mummies,” scholar Chris Elliott writes in a 2017 paper published in Aegyptiaca: Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt.

3. Mummies make high-quality stationery.

European travelers to Egypt before the 19th century came back with tales of linen mummy wrappings being used to make fine-quality paper. Elliott suggests that these claims were satirical, meant to illustrate certain merchants’ greed or avarice. The myth of “mummy paper” refused to die, however. An 1876 book on the history of paper-making claimed that a Syracuse, New York, newspaper was printed on stock made from imported mummy rags. But the newspaper had actually said:

“Rags from Egypt. Our Daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs, on the banks of the Nile. They were imported by Mr. G. W. Ryan, the veteran paper manufacturer at Marcellus Falls, in this country, and he thinks them quite as good as the general run of English and French rags.”

Later reports also stated that mills in the Northeast U.S. were producing mummy paper, but all of the sources were anecdotal, and no hard evidence of the practice exists.

4. Mummies curse people who disturb them.

A few 19-century novelists, including Louisa May Alcott, wrote tales about mummies taking revenge on those who desecrated their eternal repose. But mummy curses really took off after archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Almost immediately, Carter’s colleagues began experiencing weird omens and mysterious demises. A cobra, which is depicted on Tut’s gold mask, supposedly ate a canary belonging to Carter's expedition. Lord Carnarvon, who funded the expedition, died from an infected mosquito bite he got at the site. Carter’s friend Bruce Ingham, a publisher, received a cursed mummy’s hand as a paperweight and then his house burned down.

At the same time, Carter died at the age of 64 in 1939, and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, who entered the tomb the day it was opened, died in 1980. Any mummy's curse in play was, at least, unevenly applied.

5. A mummy sank the Titanic.

Shortly after the Titanic sank, a rumor went around suggesting that a mummy had caused the catastrophe. A group of British men allegedly took the coffin belonging to an Egyptian priestess and then died mysteriously or suffered horrible injuries. Somehow the coffin had made it to London and continued to wreak havoc until a brash American archaeologist bought it and arranged for it to be shipped to New York on the Titanic. The mummy's curse fell over the ocean liner, but the coffin itself was saved after the wreck and ended up the British Museum under mysterious circumstances.

The myth is easily proven false by the Titanic’s cargo list, which was completely mummy-free. According to Snopes, the cursed mummy story was invented by W.T. Stead, a well-known journalist, as a prank well before the ship sank. People connected the mummy myth to the Titanic only when Stead himself died in the sinking.

6. Mummies make great fertilizer.

Ancient Egyptians sacrificed, mummified, and entombed millions of animals—particularly cats—as offerings to various deities. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer discovered an ancient necropolis holding thousands of mummified cats, and about 180,000 of them were shipped to England. Some were auctioned off—one cat skull even wound up in the British Museum. The remainder were sold to a Liverpool guano merchant who ground up and sold them as fertilizer. While it’s true that some mummies were used as fertilizer, it doesn’t seem to have been a regular occurrence.

7. Eating mummies confers mystical powers.

Charles II of England, who ruled from 1660 to 1685, is said to have dabbed powdered mummy on his royal visage to absorb the powers of the Pharaohs. The king was also known to have mixed powdered human skulls—which may or may not have been from actual mummies—into a tincture called the “king’s drops,” which he drank to increase his health and stamina. Many Europeans believed mummies possessed ancient wisdom, and that consuming or absorbing them would convey their wisdom to the consumer. Scholars say the concept parallels the Catholic ritual of drinking communion wine.

7 Very Victorian Ways to Die

A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."
A circa 1860s lithograph titled "Fire: The horrors of crinoline & the destruction of human life."

In the 19th century, the Grim Reaper was seemingly around every corner. A glass of water, a beautiful dress, or a brightly colored piece of wallpaper could all spell your doom. Poor sanitation, dangerous working practices, and widespread poisons meant that even those in their prime of life were not immune to sudden death. Thankfully, today's scientific advances—and better regulation—have massively improved life expectancy, although some of these dangers still lurk.

1. Flammable Fashion

In the 1850s and '60s, the trend for huge crinoline skirts boomed. These large structured petticoats covered with fabric gave the impression of a voluminous skirt, whereas previously, the look had been achieved by wearing numerous layers of skirts, which was both hot and cumbersome. Crinolines became popular in part because they were light and easy to maneuver.

There was, however, a downside to their design—crinolines, often made of diaphanous materials such as silk and muslin, were highly flammable. Numerous newspapers reported on the scores of women who had the misfortune to get too close to a naked flame. Fanny Longfellow, wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, died in 1861 after her dress went up in flames when a lighted match or small piece of paper fell on her. Longfellow himself attempted to extinguish the flames, but his wife's skirts were so flammable it proved impossible to save her life. Another sad example was Archduchess Mathilde of Austria, who in 1867 is said to have pulled the classic teenage move of hiding a cigarette from her father behind her back and inadvertently set her dress ablaze.

Newspaper reports abounded with editorials on the perils of flouncy fashion, and offered various solutions (sometimes perhaps in jest). The Tablet in 1858 recommended, “We would … suggest that every lady wearing a crinoline, should be accompanied by a footman with a pail of water.” Needless to say, this was not a practical solution, but trends soon moved away from crinolines and the threat of fire lessened.

2. Opium Overdoses

A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)
A satirical engraving of an unscrupulous chemist selling a child arsenic and laudanum (tincture of opium)

Quieting fractious babies has always proved a challenge, but in the 19th century a seemingly wonderful solution was offered: opium. Tinctures of opium, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, were widely used as method to soothe sickly or teething infants. Although it might seem horrifying by modern standards to drug children into listlessness, in the 19th century opium was an extremely popular medicine and, before the days of aspirin, was commonly used as a painkiller and sleeping aid.

Godfrey’s Cordial was especially popular among working-class mothers who often had to return to work soon after the birth of a child. It became not uncommon to dose babies with Godfrey’s to make sure the child remained in a stupor until the mother returned from work. Unfortunately, accidental overdoses were frequent—in 1854 it was estimated that, in Britain, three-quarters of all deaths attributed to opium were of children under 5 years old. Fortunately, better regulation has meant that children’s medicines are now tightly controlled today.

3. Cholera Contamination

Many of us take it for granted that we can turn on the faucet and drink a glass of clean water. However, in the 19th century, as the populations in Europe and America ballooned and increasing numbers of people moved to cities, the infrastructure struggled to cope. Many slums had open sewers in the streets and an unreliable water supply, and communal wells and water pumps were often contaminated with raw sewage. This meant that water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhus became rife.

The cholera outbreaks of the 19th century originated in India, but with the growth of global trade networks it soon spread around the world. A pandemic around 1832 ensued when the disease reached Britain and America for the first time. Several other pandemics swept the world, killing 23,000 people in Britain in 1854 alone. Physician John Snow mapped the cases of cholera in London's Soho that year, and traced the cause to a single water pump that was located near a cesspool. The pump was removed, and cholera cases dropped dramatically. As scientific understanding of the spread of water-borne diseases improved, public water supplies were cleaned up, and the last documented cholera outbreak in the U.S. was in 1911.

4. Arsenic Poisoning

A jar of poisonous Paris Green
Chris goulet, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Colorful green wallpaper was the height of fashion in the Victorian era, largely spearheaded by pre-Raphaelite artists and designers. The green pigment often used, known as Scheele’s Green, had first been developed in 1775 by German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, and the key to its vibrant shade was the use of arsenic. Although arsenic was known to be poisonous if eaten, at the time it was thought to be safe as a color pigment.

In 1862 an investigation was carried out after several children from the same family sickened and died within weeks of each other in Limehouse, London. Dr. Thomas Orton investigated the case and concluded that the children had been poisoned by the arsenic in their bedroom's green wallpaper. Arsenic coloring was also used for dresses, hats, upholstery, and cravats. The poison was sprayed on vegetables as insecticide, and even added to beer. Restrictions on its use in food and drink were only added in 1903. Today, historic houses have had their arsenic wallpaper removed, and arsenic-dyed clothes in museum collections are generally kept safely behind glass.

5. Fatal Factories

By the 19th century, rapid industrialization across Europe and America had led to thousands of factories producing everything from fabric to munitions. Numerous adults—and children—were employed in these factories, providing ample opportunity for death and injury.

The cotton factories of Manchester, England, for example, could kill you in a number of ways. First, the air was thick with cotton fibers, which over time built up in workers’ lungs, causing breathing difficulties and lung disease. Then there were the whirling, grinding machines that might catch your sleeve or hair, dragging you into the loom. Children were employed to clean under the machines and retrieve dropped spindles because their small size allowed them to move about under the moving machines—but a trip or a loss of concentration often proved fatal. The huge number of accidents and deaths in factories eventually led to increased regulation—reducing working hours, restricting child labor, and making the machines themselves safer.

6. Sudden Spontaneous Combustion

Some Victorian scientists believed that alcoholism could cause spontaneous combustion. This idea caught the public imagination, and the theory was used by Charles Dickens in Bleak House (1853) to explain the death of the drunken rag and bone man Mr. Krook. In Victorian accounts, the victims were typically overweight and were heavy drinkers, and their bodies had seemingly burst into flame, leaving only their legs intact. Needless to say, the threat of spontaneous combustion was soon seized upon by the temperance movement, who used the supposed link to alcoholism to scare people away from the demon drink.

For example, The Anatomy of Drunkenness by Robert Macnish (1834) described the various types of drunk and devoted a whole chapter to the risk of spontaneous combustion. Macnish recounted a number of case studies, including that of Mary Clues—an inveterate drinker who was found almost entirely incinerated excepting one leg, while the room around her was more or less undamaged. Despite the widespread discussion of spontaneous combustion in the Victorian era, it's now generally considered highly unlikely if not impossible. Modern forensic science has in part explained the phenomena through the “wick effect,” wherein a body on fire produces melted fat that seeps into the clothes, causing a long, slow, self-contained burn that may look like the result of spontaneous combustion—but almost certainly began with an external source.

7. Pestilent Pox

Smallpox has been around for over 12,000 years. Europeans brought the disease to North and South America in the Age of Exploration, killing up to 90 percent of indigenous populations. Smallpox was still prevalent in the 19th century and killed about 30 percent of its victims. Those that survived were often blinded or badly scarred by the virulent pustules. To give some idea of the scale of fatalities, in just one year, 1871, over 50,000 people died of smallpox in Great Britain and Ireland alone.

In 1796 the English doctor Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had caught cow pox appeared to be immune to smallpox. This led Jenner to create the world’s first vaccine. As with many new developments, it took a number of years for vaccination to catch on, but once it did the incidence of smallpox began to fall. In 1980 the World Health Organization declared the disease exterminated—the first virus ever to be completely eradicated world over—thanks to a sustained program of vaccination.

Australian Pals Claim to Have a 25-Year-Old McDonald's Quarter Pounder in Their Possession

PeJo29/iStock via Getty Images
PeJo29/iStock via Getty Images

What's older than Google, Netflix, and Tom Holland? A Quarter Pounder from McDonald's that's been traveling Australia for a quarter of a century. As 7News.com.au reports, the hamburger was purchased from a McDonald's restaurant in the mid-1990s, and roughly 25 years later it shows no signs of rot—a fact that's somehow more repulsive than the alternative.

Adelaide residents Casey Dean and Eduard Nitz bought the Quarter Pounder with Cheese in 1995 with their friend Johnno who was visiting from out-of-town at the time. Unable to finish the patty, Johnno asked his friends to hold on to it for him until his next visit.

He couldn't have guessed the implications of his request. After the meal, Nitz tossed the boxed-up hamburger into his cabinet at home where it would sit until he moved out. The Quarter Pounder remained in pristine condition, so instead of throwing it away, Nitz handed it off to his sister before going to live overseas. She ended up bringing it with her on various moves across the continent. Then, in 2015, Casey Dean became the official guardian of the indestructible sandwich.

As it nears its 25th birthday, the Quarter Pounder is still far from the nasty, moldy mess you'd expect it to be. That's because McDonald's hamburgers aren't very moist to begin with, so they dry out faster than they can decay. It's the same reason beef jerky can last so long; in other words, there are no mystery chemicals at play.

The same phenomenon can be seen in one of the last McDonald's meals ever purchased in Iceland. The unspoiled burger and fries from 2009 are currently on display at a small hotel in the country.

[h/t 7News.com.au]

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