Initially, it was remarkable for the wealth of treasure it contained but, in time, a separate mythology sprung up around Tutankhamun’s Luxor tomb – specifically, that it was cursed. Sure enough, members of Carter’s party met with untimely ends and, eventually, the curse stretched its tendrils all the way to London, where, in 1930, three men associated with the expedition died, within months of each other, all in London’s West End.
A new book, though, London’s Curse: Murder, Black Magic And Tutankhamun in the 1920s, by Mark Beynon, advocates an explosive new theory about the deaths. Beynon contends that a well-known occultist named Aleister Crowley, a man obsessed with Egyptian mysticism and Jack The Ripper, carried out the murders as part of a bizarre ritual he believed would make him invisible.
“I read a book about the curse of Tutankhamun and about those deaths in the West End, those deaths that all occurred in close proximity to each other,” Beynon explains. “And I started to do some of my own investigating and found that Crowley’s name continued to pop up. With further research, I found that the coincidences became ever more apparent.”
It is impossible to exaggerate the public interest in the Tutankhamun excavation during the 1920s. There was a boom in Egypt-themed fashion and style – it was the most exotic, exciting story of the era. And then, when people started dying, the newspapers gleefully fanned the sense of panic. It was, in many ways, the genesis of ‘yellow journalism’ – the publication of dubious, but titillating stories.
“It was a tabloid sensation – they gobbled up everything to do with Tutankhamun’s curse,” Beynon says. “And there was widespread fear – people were giving away Egyptian artefacts, handing them over to the British Museum.”
The first manifestation of the pharaoh’s curse appeared in London in 1923, when a young Egyptian prince was shot dead by his wife at the Savoy hotel. But it was not until late in 1929 that the deaths escalated.
Captain Richard Bethell, one of Carter’s closest advisers, died in mysterious circumstances in Mayfair; Bethell’s father, Lord Westbury, a keen Egyptologist, apparently committed suicide by jumping from his St James’s Court apartment; and Edgar Steele, a signwriter in charge of the British Museum’s Egyptian artefacts, died in hospital with symptoms consistent with blood poisoning.
“Those two deaths, Bethell and Lord Westbury, were later re-investigated,” Beynon says. “And it was found that they could very well have been murder.”
Crowley, the man Beynon charges for these killings, among others connected to Tutankhamun, was an extreme character. Francis King, a writer of the day, described him as, “an insatiable sexual athlete, a pimp who lived on the immoral earnings of his girlfriend and a junkie who daily took enough heroin to kill a roomful of people”.
Broadly, Crowley’s prescribed religion was a brand of pagan sex-magick – he would sacrifice a goat during sex and expressed a desire to father a ‘monster baby’, to which end he created medicinal tablets made from his own semen. Word of his depravity spread and he was described by the pamphlet press as ‘the wickedest man in the world’. In occult circles, he was known simply as the Beast. Unsurprisingly, Crowley had some unusual beliefs – for starters, he thought that he was a descendant of Tutankhamun and was being spoken to directly by a god-like entity called Aiwass.
“He was certainly an eccentric, certainly out there. At the time, he was absolutely vilified – his beliefs were totally abhorrent to a lot of people,” Beynon says. “A lot of his theology was entrenched in ancient Egyptian mysticism. His religion drew so heavily on Egyptian myths, that he could well have seen the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb as desecration, as sacrilegious.”
Beynon argues that, aside from avenging the insult to the pharaohs, Crowley killed Bethell, Lord Westbury and Steele, within months of each other, in the belief that he would become invisible.
“He was a pretty shady character and there’s already plenty of evidence that he had a hand in some deaths – he had a propensity to murder and that’s the key,” Beynon says. “And he was obsessed with making himself invisible – he believed the third murder achieved that. If you look at the way they were plotted out on a map, they begin to form an almost perfect pentagram.”
Crowley was also fascinated by Jack The Ripper, the serial killer who terrorised Whitechapel in 1888. Although Crowley was a teenager when those murders took place, Beynon argues the killings stirred his interest in the occult. Privately, Crowley wrote in forensic detail about the Ripper murders, cataloguing their occult overtones. He was convinced the Ripper was enacting an invisibility ritual, an obsession which, Beynon argues, Crowley would subsequently pursue himself.
“He was in London at a time when everyone was interested in Jack The Ripper and it may have triggered that interest in him,” Beynon says. “It’s not case closed, but certainly some of the evidence is pretty compelling.”