Wednesday, May 11, 2022

King Tut: Fact or Fiction?

       Historical fiction thrives in the space between fact and rumor. I'll give you an example from the next Sherlock Holmes novel I'n working on, The Strange Case of the Pharaoh's Heart. There were a number of deaths attributed in the years after Tutankhamun's tomb was opened which were attributed by believers (of whom Conan Doyle was a prominent and vocal member) to "the curse of King Tut."

Hugh Evelyn White
     One of the more violent deaths, in 1924, was that of Hugh Evelyn White, a scholar
and translator of ancient Greek, and a popular lecturer at the University of Leeds. He was also an Egyptologist, and among the first to visit the newly opened tomb in 1923. 

     His story is quite a gruesome one, and it can be found all over the internet: he wrote a suicide note in his own blood on the wall of his office, blaming the curse for his action, then hung himself above his desk. A terrible realization of the curse.

     Except it didn't happen that way. If you take the trouble to read the newspaper obituaries from the time, you find that he stepped out of his house, hailed a taxi, and asked to be taken to the house of a physician, Dr. Maxwell Telling. He would never arrive there.

     The driver heard the gun blast (how could he not?) and turned to see White falling forward. He sped to the nearest hospital, but White was pronounced dead an hour later.

     He had left a suicide note. Though not in blood, and not mentioning King Tut, it was certainly problematic. Here's how it read:

“I knew there was a curse on me, though I have leave to take those manuscripts to Cairo. The monks told me the curse would work all the same, Now it has done so.”

No one knew what papers he referred to, or who the monks were.

     But here's the rest of the story: White was about to appear at the inquest for another suicide, one Mary Helen Ninds, a music teacher, who was desperately in love with Mr. White, and had threatened in a letter to take her own life if he did not return her affections. He had written her back, threatening to go to the police if she threatened suicide again.

     Did he feel guilt over the girl's death? Had there been a love affair, or even any relationship at all between the two? Could she have been carrying his child? We can only speculate, and speculation becomes fertile field for a historical novelist. We can let our imaginations run away, stitching together fact with whole cloth.

     And where did the story of the bloody suicide note and the hanging surface from? Again we can speculate. First, one must realize that Lord Carnarvon, who paid for the expedition, had sold exclusive rights to coverage of the excavation to the London Times--which meant that every other paper in the world was boxed out of the biggest story in the world, and when journalists don't have a story they will sometimes... make up a story. The whole "curse of King Tut" story was catnip to them, and anything and anyone involved tended to get twisted, exaggerated, aggrandized.

     Now how prevalent this wild story might have been at the time is also impossible to say. When I say that you can find the story all over the internet, we all know that the internet loves nothing better than a good story and will spread it like Nutella on a spoon. Ubiquity on the net has nothing to do with authenticity.

     But it does have everything to do with fiction. Seeing the kind of wild rumors that were floating around at the time points the way for one's own wild rumors to plant in the story--as long as they are labeled as rumors, not as fact. We have to play fair with the reader.

     And the truth is, there are always wild rumors and wild surmises associated with any historical event. Misinformation is not a modern invention. And while we should do our best to separate fact from rumor, our characters are under no such edict. Let them mix it up.

     (Don't forget the monks and the papers.)


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