For more than a hundred years, the face of the ancient Egyptian mummy has been synonymous with horror, dread, and the ever reliable go-to Halloween costume. (Seriously, all you need is some toilet paper and tape, and you’re done!) This can probably be traced to almost exactly a century ago when Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, and the latter’s daughter, Lady Evelyn, crossed the hitherto unbroken seal of King Tutankhamun’s tomb on Nov. 26, 1922.
Until that moment, the boy pharaoh had largely been forgotten by history. Yet as fate would have it, he left behind the only pharaonic tomb ever discovered mostly intact in the modern age. It was the greatest archaeological find of all time and should have been cause for lifelong celebration… but less than six months later Lord Carnarvon was dead. Technically, he died of blood poisoning, but as far as the British press (and soon the whole world) was concerned, the Curse of the Pharaohs got him! As other parties related to the King Tut excavation died in the following years, the legend of the mummy’s curse grew, to the point where in under a decade, Boris Karloff brought it to life at Universal Pictures via The Mummy (1932), a movie that set the visage of any mummy on the same level as Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster.
Despite this relatively recent history, Western fiction writers had been writing tales of mummies, madness, and curses for decades. Some of the most popular writers of the Victorian era, in fact, including Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. Rider Haggard, tried their hands at spooky mummy fiction. However, there is one far more surprising author who beat them all to the punch by nearly half a century and in the process invented some of the tropes that have carried on, from Tut to Brendan Fraser.
… And the most intriguing thing is that Louisa May Alcott did it all while simultaneously writing the American coming-of-age classic, Little Women.
Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse (1869)
To be clear, American writer Louisa May Alcott did not invent Western fantasies about ancient Egypt or the first wave of Egyptomania that gripped Europe and North America in the 19th century. That initial fascination came from Napoleon’s invasion and conquest of Egypt in 1798 and, more importantly, Jean-François Champollion finally translating hieroglyphics for the modern world by decoding the Rosetta Stone in 1822.
Yet most of the early Western fiction about ancient Egypt romanticized the lost civilization instead of fearing it. Indeed, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Some Words with a Mummy” (1845) is a social satire in which Poe and some learned friends use galvanism (electricity) to reawaken a mummy and discover through conversation that the ancients were more technologically advanced and democratically evolved than the United States is in the 1840s. The tale drolly ends with Poe agreeing to be mummified so he can reawaken in 2045 to a presumably more enlightened era.
By comparison, Louisa May Alcott might arguably be the first to see the sensationalistic and lurid appeal in a curse unleashed by an undead being from a few thousand years ago. More fascinating still, her short story “Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse” was published in 1869, meaning it was written concurrently with Alcott’s work on the two volumes which compose her seminal masterpiece, Little Women. (Little Women was originally published in two parts between 1868 and 1869, the latter of which was originally titled Good Wives in the UK.) If you’ve seen the more recent film adaptations, this would line up with onscreen depictions of Jo March writing sensationalist potboilers and pulps while paying her bills as a young woman living alone in New York City.
In fact, the main characters of “Lost in a Pyramid” quite clearly mirror the dynamic Alcott created between Jo March and the wealthy boy next-door with Italian blood, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. In “Lost in a Pyramid,” the main character is Paul Forsyth, a young man of “swarthy” complexion and means, who is introduced teasing his companion, Evelyn (or Eve), about his fantastic adventures in Egypt. With the vicarious thrill Eve derives from Paul’s stories, and her implicit wish to go on such adventures herself, the two resemble Jo and Laurie, except this pair actually intends to marry.
By beginning with Paul’s recollections, the first half of the story focuses on a foreboding adventure where he and a professor named Niles get lost while exploring the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu). Alcott’s inaccurate vision of the pyramid is a creepy one too, filled with labyrinthine passageways half buried in sand, and with mummy sarcophagi resting on shelves along nearly every wall. After Paul and Niles attempt to follow the bare footprints of an unknown party (a mummy, perhaps?) Niles breaks his leg, and in a desperate attempt to signal to their guide where they are, Paul and the professor create a fire in the gloom… and they achieve this by burning the first sarcophagus and mummy they can find.
That mummy turns out to be the body of a woman, whom the pair rather eagerly unwrap in order to discover trinkets. One of those prizes is a gold case with mysterious seeds hidden within. There is also a scroll, which reveals the mummy was once a great sorceress and she “bequeathed her curse to whoever should disturb her rest.”
Eventually, the pair are rescued, and back in the present, Paul gifts Eve the gold box ahead of their wedding. Out of an intense curiosity, she then asks if they can attempt to use those ancient seeds to grow modern flowers. Sensing better than to tempt fate, Paul refuses and sends the seeds to Professor Niles, who can safely experiment with them in his lab. Yet on the pair’s wedding day, the bride-to-be begins looking sickly and pale until the ceremony, where she briefly returns to vivacious life. It doesn’t last.
After the wedding, the bride retires to the bedchamber and Paul receives a letter which reads, “DEAR SIR—Poor Niles died suddenly two days ago, while at the Scientific Club, and his last words were: ‘Tell Paul Forsyth to beware of the Mummy’s Curse, for the fatal flower has killed me.’” Apparently Niles grew the flower until it bloomed first green and then scarlet red, looking as though it was “sprinkled with blood.” The unknown plant features a strange and maybe supernatural poison. Once it touches the skin, it causes either madness or death. Niles, in fact, spent his last hours “raving of mummies, pyramids, serpents, and some fatal curse which had befallen him.”
Upon reading this, Paul realizes his wife stole a seed and grew it secretly. She even wore exactly such a flower during their wedding! He runs to their bedroom where he discovers his wife sprawled on the couch, her veil over her face.
“There was no need for her to answer, for there, gleaming spectrally on her bosom, was the evil blossom, its white petals spotted now with flecks of scarlet, vivid as drops of newly spilt blood. But the unhappy bridegroom scarcely saw it, for the face above it appalled him by its utter vacancy. Drawn and pallid, as if with some wasting malady, the young face, so lovely an hour ago, lay before him aged and blighted by the baleful influence of the plant which had drunk up her life. No recognition in the eyes, no word upon the lips, no motion of the hand–only the faint breath, the fluttering pulse, and wide-opened eyes, betrayed that she was alive.”
She had been cursed with a type of madness, a living death where for the rest of her days Paul would have to care for her entranced body, showing it the reverence he failed to show the mummy sorceress’ own desecrated remains.
In some ways, the ending echoes the death of the beloved sister Beth March in Little Women, who was based on Alcott’s own real-life sister Lizzie Alcott. Like Beth, Lizzie tragically died during Alcott’s youth after years of illness and maladies following a battle with scarlet fever. However, there seems to be an arguably feminist subtext to this story, too. Paul and Niles abused the body of an ancient young woman whom they underestimated—and they paid for it with either their lives or with a lifelong atonement where they’d show courtesy to a woman caught in a living death. It might also be worth noting that Alcott refused readers’ demands that she marry Jo to Laurie in her second Little Women volume, and this could be one more example of what she thinks about such “kindred spirit” unions.
Why Louisa May Alcott Got There First
If our modern fixation with alleged mummy curses stems from the mythology built around King Tut’s tomb, then what caused Alcott to see the mummy as a bringer of ancient curses, ruin, and revenge 50 years early? While we cannot be certain, Roger Luckhurst, an author and professor at Birkbeck College and Columbia University, ventures an intriguing if morbid theory in his book The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy.
In Luckhurst’s nonfiction study of how Western culture essentially created the fear of Egyptian curses—there are relatively few instances of such things being inscribed on ancient tomb walls—the author pointed out that Alcott was well-read on the events of her day, including with how Egyptologists of the 19th century were debating whether “mummy wheat” (wheat that was stored in tombs for the owner’s trip to the afterlife) could be germinated two or three thousand years later. Luckhurst thus speculates Alcott was also grimly aware of morbid American rumors and superstitions about Egypt which arose only a few years earlier during the Civil War.
Egypt played a prominent role in the American psyche during that conflict, because the northern states had obviously ceased importing cotton from their southern counterparts, who were then in open rebellion against the Union. As a consequence, the North started importing large quantities of cotton and rags from Egypt. But when an 1863 cholera outbreak occurred in a factory in Maine—which was using some of that material—rumors began to swirl, including in newspapers, that the deadly plague was caused by the rags Egyptians had sold the Union; rags that were supposedly derived from the wrappings of desecrated mummies!
It is impossible to say if this was the direct inspiration for Alcott’s short story, but it would be in keeping with how real-life bigotries and suspicions likely influenced later Victorian authors as they defined mummy fiction during the turn of the 20th century.
The genre’s explosion in popularity during that era was partially due to a rise in spiritualism and occult research among the British elite (including rationalist Sherlock Holmes’ far more gullible creator). However, it is worth noting that the British essentially began subsuming the French’s colonial hold on Egypt in 1882, and while this wound up feeding the collections of the British Museum in a spectacular fashion, it also coincided with a plethora of wars and uprisings among Britain’s African colonies, including when Sudanese rebels famously beheaded British war hero Charles George Gordon in 1885. Winston Churchill, meanwhile, made his career by escaping capture from behind enemy lines during the Second Boer War in 1899.
In other words, the British were getting mighty ticked about what they saw as ungrateful colonies extracting their pounds of flesh. And it is from this context where the first “real” mummy curse story spread about 40 years before King Tut’s tomb was opened. Indeed, the quite real Lt. Walter Herbert Ingram rose to the rank of lieutenant in the British military prior to his death, and participated both in the Zulu Wars and in the Gordon Expedition Relief Effort, a doomed and desperate attempt by the British army to relieve Gordon in Khartoum before he lost his head.
While his expedition failed to save Gordon, Ingram did purchase the coffin of a mummy named Nesmin as a souvenir while in Egypt in 1885. He returned to Egypt three years later where he died at only the age of 33 in a frightful hunting accident: He was crushed to death by an elephant. Afterward, rumors spread that his death was foretold by a curse Nesmin left behind. Rudyard Kipling even dryly mused about it to H. Rider Haggard, when he wrote, “As the dead [mummy] was unrolled, in the last layers of the cloth, that malignant Egyptian had tucked away a communication service of the most horrible kind to the address of any man who disturbed him. He should die horribly in the open as a beast dies at the hand of a beast and there should be not enough of him to put into a matchbox, much less a mummy case.”
For the record, there was no curse left behind by Nesmin, just as there is no curse written on the walls of King Tut’s tomb. However, the popular imagination has a way of proving as unstoppable as an ancient sorceress. Ingram’s death likely inspired rumors about another “cursed” mummy artifact in the British Museum some years later after all who owned it allegedly came to great misfortune or death. This, in turn, gave way to the rise in Victorian and Edwardian mummy horror fiction. All of which surely influenced the British press creating Tutankhamun’s “curse” out of whole cloth in 1923.
So the tradition went, on and on, until we got a mummy movie starring Tom Cruise. But the tradition started when the creator of the March sisters decided it was time to get spooky.