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Ancient Egyptian mummy's sarcophagus

6 infamous curses from history

Image: Narciso Arellano

Even the most rational and sceptical among us might allow themselves to admit that a person has bad luck. But can someone, or some unseen force, cause another person or family to have bad luck? Can someone be cursed?

The Bible features some of the most famous curses, such as the Curse of Cain and the Curse of Ham, and curses are mentioned in the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. From ancient times to the 20th century, curses have reared their ugly heads and allegedly claimed lives.

Here we look at six of the most famous curses from history.

1. The Mummy’s Curse

On 26th November 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter and his financial backer Lord Carnarvon entered the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. They were the first living souls to enter the burial chamber of Tutankhamun in more than 3,000 years since his mummified corpse was laid to rest.

When news of the great find spread around the globe, the media were quick to stir up stories of a grim mummy’s curse. Famous writer Marie Corelli told one newspaper at the time that she had warned Lord Carnavon that ‘the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb’, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle opined that Lord Carnavon’s death (just a few months later in April 1923) was the result of an ‘evil elemental’ put in place in by ancient Egyptian priests to protect the teenage king’s tomb.

Several people who had entered the tomb, or were linked to Carter’s team, died in mysterious or violent ways not long after it was opened. These included Sir Archibald Douglas Reid, who in 1924 became ill almost immediately after x-raying the mummy, and Arthur Mace, an Egyptologist who excavated the tomb with Carter.

Most of Carter’s team and those who visited the tomb in the early years went on to live to ages consistent with the life expectancy of the time. But when Carter himself died in 1939, the press got more mileage out of the mummy’s curse story once again.

2. Busby’s Stoop

Hanging up on a wall inside the Thirsk Museum, North Yorkshire is an old wooden chair – a chair with an ominous history. This sinister seat is known as ‘Busby’s Stoop’, or the ‘Dead Man’s Chair’. The cursed chair is said to have a deadly effect on those that dare to sit on it.

In 1702, Thomas Busby was convicted of murder. According to one version of the story, Busby was arrested in a local pub while sitting on his favourite chair. He then cursed the chair as he was led away.

Over the years, Busby’s old pub perch came to be associated with untimely deaths. Several Canadian airmen during WWII sat in the chair and then were killed not long after in bombing raids. This is hardly proof of a curse, as many aircrews died during the war, but in the 1970s, some fatal car crashes and other tragic deaths were directly linked to the chair. At this point, the landlord of the pub gave it to the museum.

3. The Gold of Tolosa

One of the most famous cursed objects of history comes from the ancient world. The old French city of Toulouse, known to the Romans as Tolosa, was 2,000 years ago home to a group of Gaul tribes known as the Volcae.

When the Gauls of Tolosa returned home from fighting and plundering in the eastern Mediterranean, they found the Romans waiting for them and eyeing up the masses of gold they had come back with.

The booty was said to have been cursed, and the Romans who seized the gold were never seen or heard from again. The treasure haul is said to still be out there somewhere, with many claiming it lies at the bottom of a lake in the south of France, but treasure hunters are wary of the fate that would await any salvagers.

4. The Chained Oak

One of the most famous curses in English history is the legend of the Chained Oak. According to the story, one dark autumn night in the 19th century, the Earl of Shrewsbury was in his horse-drawn coach meandering along the bumpy old forest road toward his ancestral seat at Alton Towers, Staffordshire.

The coach suddenly happened upon an elderly woman standing in the middle of the road. The lady then asked the Earl for some money, at which point he savagely turned on her, refusing to give her money and telling her to move from the carriageway. The woman then placed a curse on the Earl and his family, telling him that every branch that fell from the estate’s famous old oak tree would cause a member of his family to die.

The curse struck just hours later when one of the earl’s family inexplicably died – just after a storm that night had hit the oak tree and severed a branch.

This was enough to convince the noble of the reality and power of the curse. He ordered his servants to chain up the branches of the tree to stop them from falling off. To this day the venerable old tree remains in its old rusty chains.

5. The Curse of Carlisle

In the middle of an underpass in the city of Carlisle, is a 14-tonne granite boulder. The Cursing Stone, as it is called, was installed for the millennium celebrations in 2001. Hundreds of words are inscribed onto the stone – part of a 1069-word curse issued by Archbishop Dunbar of Glasgow in 1525 to deter ‘reivers’ who pillaged in the border areas of England and Scotland.

Floods, foot-and-mouth disease, a large fire in the city, and a terrible run of form for the local football team were all flagged up in the press as having occurred just a few years after the stone was put in place.

Opponents of the stone, including a local councillor, wanted it removed, citing the curse. A local ‘white witch’ stated that removing the stone would only acknowledge the reality of the curse and therefore give it more power.

6. The Curse of the Braganzas

The Royal House of Braganza ruled Portugal and its overseas empire from 1640 to 1910. The family curse is probably one of the most famous in European history, described in several historical records.

According to the history of the curse, it began in the time of King John IV of Portugal who reigned from 1640-1656. King John was said to have assaulted a Franciscan monk who approached him begging for money. The young king kicked the old fellow and told him to be on his way.

The furious friar then placed a curse on the king, telling him that every first-born male of his royal line would die before being crowned. This curse did play out. All first-born males of the Braganzas, aside from three, did not live long enough to sit on the throne.