Family photo of Zeyla Hay Seton (left) posing outside the tomb at Gizeh just minutes after she had taken the bone

Family photo of Zeyla Hay Seton (left) posing outside the tomb at Gizeh just minutes after she had taken the bone

Curse of the mummy


"The following sequence of events is exactly what happened in their correct order. I believe that I am the only person alive who can tell the story of the 'Egyptian Bone' as it happened."

SO BEGINS an extract from the memoirs of Sir Alexander Hay Seton. Sounding like the opening of a Sherlock Holmes mystery, Sir Alexander recalls a time when he and his family believed they were being haunted by a mummy's curse.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, Egypt became the smart place to spend time on holiday. Keen to keep up with the crowd, the Hay Seton family finally made their journey to Cairo from Edinburgh in 1936.

Sir Alexander takes us back to the day he and his wife Zeyla were afforded the rare opportunity of visiting a newly opened tomb. He writes presciently of "a feeling in my bones that something was going to happen over this and it was only with the greatest of difficulty that Zeyla cajoled me into going with her. I wish earnestly to God that we had not gone!"

Abdul, their guide, led them to the grave, hidden in the shadow of the Pyramids. As they descended into the dark tomb they came across the skeletal remains of a mummified young woman. Sir Alexander whispered a short prayer over the bones, but Zeyla impulsively picked up a piece of the skeleton and put it in her pocket. She showed it to her husband that evening, who compared it to "a digestive biscuit, apart from it being slightly convex and the shape of a heart." He then promptly forgot about it and enjoyed the rest of his holiday.

Upon returning to Edinburgh, Zeyla produced the "somewhat grotesque relic" and Sir Alexander placed it under a small glass case in the drawing room. What happened next began a series of events which was to try the family's credulity and end up tearing them apart.

Almost as soon as they put the bone on display there was a crash as a piece of the roof caved in, narrowly missing them. During the next few weeks the family’s nights were interrupted with the sounds of bumps, bangs and thuds. A young cousin met a ghostly woman dressed in strange clothes floating about. Chairs were thrown, and the glass case housing the bone was mysteriously broken. With the house in crisis, Sir Alexander decided to take action by locking the drawing room door and setting up watch.

"For hours I watched from the balcony outside our bedroom, feeling rather foolish doing so. Nothing happened so I went to bed, only to be rudely awakened by a yell from Zeyla, that someone was downstairs. Grabbing my revolver, I dashed downstairs to be met by a very scared Nanny. Of course the door was locked and the key still in my pocket. I yelled to Zeyla to get the key and when we finally got in it looked as if a battle royal had taken place there. Chairs were upset, books flung about, and there in the middle of the chaos was that damn Bone, looking as harmless and more like a biscuit than ever."

Convinced that there was poltergeist activity connected with the bone, Sir Alexander was determined to destroy the piece, an idea met by a "storm of abuse" by Zeyla. After an almighty row, Sandy drowned his sorrows at his club, regaling the regulars with his home-made horror story. By the next day two journalists were on his doorstep, writing up the story and asking to borrow the bone.

Papers as far away as America picked up the story of the "Curse of the Pharaoh". Spiritualist meetings were held to try to reach out to the owner of the bone. Eerily, one of the journalists who had touched the bone was involved in a car crash; the other became ill. They returned the artefact, hoping to rid the misfortune that was obviously attached. Sir Alexander received hundreds of letters including one from Howard Carter, who wrote to the family assuring them that "things quite inexplicable like this could happen, indeed had happened and will go on happening."

The bone, meanwhile, was continuing its mischievous antics, culminating in a dinner party no one would forget. As usual, the topic of the curse came up, and Zeyla brought out the ancient piece of sacrum.

"Whilst we were talking a fresh round of drinks were being served. The entire table, Bone and all, went hurtling onto the wall opposite, with a terrific thump… Chaos followed, the maid fainted as did Zeyla’s rather hysterical cousin Gert! The party became a fiasco from then on."

For Sir Alexander it was the last straw. Not particularly religious, he nevertheless decided to put the matter into the hands of God. His daughter Egidia was only six at the time, but to this day she remembers the rumpus when her Great Uncle Charles – who she called the "Drunken Monk" – arrived from the Benedictine Abbey at Fort Augustus.

"He was in charge of wines and spirits up in the Abbey and I rather think he was their best customer," Egidia recalls of the event nearly 70 years ago. "He came down and waved his hands over the bone a bit and incanted something. After the Drunken Monk had exorcised it, it was put in an incinerator and burnt."

From the archive

Mystery Bone –
Curse of the Pharoahs

The Scotsman, 10 April 1937