"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Curse of the Setons; Or, The Dangers of Confusing An Ancient Tomb With a Souvenir Shop

Dundee Courier, March 29, 1937

A familiar and beloved theme of horror films is "tourists bring home ancient relic they nicked, soon learn to regret it." However, there is at least one notable instance where this well-worn Fortean cliche allegedly played out in real life. Sir Alexander Hay Seton, 10th Baronet of Abercorn, (1904-1963) came to believe that his wife's macabre act of Egyptian souvenir-hunting essentially destroyed his entire family.

Seton's account of the disaster--which needs only a creepy film score and a cameo by Christopher Lee to make the cinematic resemblance complete--was included in his (unpublished) autobiography, "The Transgressions of a Baronet." As you will see, he considered his major "transgression" to be getting on the wrong side of the Gods.

Alexander Seton, 1939

In the spring of 1936, Seton and his wife Zeyla were touring Egypt. Initially, at least, the visit was idyllic. Although the baronet was "disappointed" by the Valley of Kings ("there was really little to see,") they were thrilled by the Temple at Luxor. After two days of sight-seeing, (including a ride on "a rather unpleasant camel,") the couple returned to their hotel in Cairo, literally under the shadow of the Great Pyramid.

Their mood was of "complete satisfaction," augmented by Seton receiving a check from an editor in Glasgow who had bought an article Sir Alexander had written about their trip. Their guide informed them that some tombs had recently been discovered behind the Pyramid. Although they were not of any great historical value, he said that the Setons might find it interesting to view the finishing stages of the excavation. Although the Egyptians greatly frowned upon visitors entering the tombs, it was arranged that for an extra fee, the guide would sneak them inside. Sir Alexander--perhaps speaking with the benefit of hindsight--wrote that he had a bad feeling about committing what the locals would consider a sacrilege, but his wife persuaded him to accompany her. "I wish earnestly to God that we had not gone!"

Zeyla Seton, Sunday Post, May 13, 1928

The tomb they were to visit was, they were told, from the pre-mummy era, and for the last four or five thousand years, had been filled in by the mud of the Nile. Seton recalled that "we went down some roughly hewn rock steps--about 30 of them--and there, lying on a stone slab and uncovered was the remains of a skeleton--water and mud had removed most. You could see the skull quite clearly and the leg bones but few ribs were left although the spine was almost intact." Their guide told them that these were remains of a girl of high status, although her name and age were long since erased by history.

Sir Alexander felt mournful as he gazed down at these ancient, anonymous bones, which were all that remained of this long-forgotten fellow human being. Perhaps, he thought, one day far in the future his bones may be gazed upon wonderingly by some idle tourist. He muttered a quick prayer and thankfully went back up into the world of the living. His wife, however, was oddly entranced by the skeleton. She insisted on slipping back into the tomb alone for one last look.

On the way back to their hotel, it was suggested that they stop at the Pyramid's souvenir stand, but to Sir Alexander's surprise, Zeyla declined. That night, she told him that she had already acquired one very special memento of their visit--one not to be found in any mere store. She had taken a small bone from the skeleton they had visited!

Sir Alexander was unimpressed with his wife's prize. He thought the bone "looked like a digestive biscuit."

The Setons continued their holiday, and some weeks later returned to their home in Edinburgh. Sir Alexander had forgotten all about their unconventional souvenir until Zeyla proudly brought it out to show to friends. They put the "somewhat grotesque relic" into a small case, which they left on a table in the drawing room.

As their guests were leaving, they all heard "the most almighty crash," and a large piece of the roof hit the ground about two feet from them. It could easily have killed one of them.

The superstitious Sir Alexander had a very bad feeling about this.

A few nights later, after the Setons had retired to bed, their young daughter Egidia's nanny, Janet Clarke, came to them in great alarm. She said she had heard someone moving around in the drawing room. Seton went to investigate, but found nothing. He told Miss Clarke that it had only been her imagination. Later that night, Seton thought he heard a crash, but chose to ignore it. In the morning, it was discovered that the table holding the bone was on its side, with the little case holding the relic lying on the floor.

A few weeks later, the Setons began hearing loud footsteps...in areas of the house they knew were unoccupied. Over the next few nights, their sleep was disturbed by loud, inexplicable noises. One morning, a visiting nephew announced that the night before he had seen "a funny dressed person going upstairs." Assuming that they had a burglar casing the house, Seton resolved to sit up all the next night, after making sure all the doors and windows were locked. He saw and heard nothing. Seton was about to go back to bed, when his wife cried to him that she heard someone downstairs. He dashed down the stairs. The drawing room was still securely locked tight, but when he unfastened the door, he was startled to find a scene of complete disorder. "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."

Sir Alexander concluded that they were being visited by a poltergeist. Zeyla consulted a soothsayer, but alas, she "really said practically nothing except that her fee was £1."

Some days passed without incident, and the Setons began to think the weird ordeal was over. Then, the poltergeist--or whatever one cares to call it--started up again with a vengeance. The drawing room became the center of loud bangs and noises that left the family with scarcely a moment's peace. They tried the experiment of moving all the articles in the room that had been thrown around--including the table holding That Damn Bone--down to Sir Alexander's sitting room. After a week had passed, Seton tired of the cluttered condition of his room, and announced that he would be moving everything back on the following day. "That night, however, something nearly did the job for me." All the furniture in the sitting room had been thrown about and, as usual, the bone was left lying on the floor.

It finally began to occur to the Setons that there was something very unusual about that bone.

Sir Alexander announced that he was burning the damned--in every sense of the word--object. However, this met with such a "storm of abuse" from Zeyla that he simply threw up his hands in exasperation and went out for a drink. After getting "a little tight," he went home with the stern resolve to destroy the bone.

He learned that during his absence, his nemesis had been one busy little bone. The damage was even worse than usual. Not only had all the furniture in the drawing room been hurled around, the table holding the bone was severely cracked.

Sir Alexander was feeling a bit cracked, too, especially when the newspapers somehow got hold of the story. He found himself pestered by reporters eager for him to make some statement on the matter, but he refused. He recalled that the press made his life "hell on earth," but surely the bone was doing an even better job in that department.

A few weeks later, Miss Clarke, "scared out of her life," told the Setons a most disturbing story. She had heard the usual "noises, etc." coming from the drawing room, but this time they were followed by "a terrific crash" and the sound of breaking glass. She had been too frightened to investigate. When Sir Alexander entered the room, he found the room untouched...except for the table holding the bone. The table was smashed to bits. The glass case which had held the bone was shattered into fragments. The bone itself was broken into about five pieces.

Well, thought Sir Alexander. He certainly had something for the reporters now! He allowed in a cameraman from the "Daily Mail" to record the destruction. ("You should have seen the story the next day!") He gave the bone to one of the reporters who covered the story, but the journalist soon returned it. He had become seriously ill. Zeyla, to her husband's "disgust and dismay," had gotten a doctor friend to repair the bone as best he could (he informed her that it was a sacrum, the bone at the base of the spine.) She then insisted on placing it on a new table in the drawing room. Zeyla seemed to have an almost maternal fondness for the infernal thing.

The climax to this series of uncanny events took place on Boxing Day, 1936. The Setons had guests over for dinner. After a fine meal and some cocktails, everyone was in a jovial holiday mood. Conversation turned to the topic of the bone. As they chatted about Zeyla's pet sacrum, the whole table--bone and all--was lifted by invisible hands and flung on to the opposite wall. "The maid fainted as did Zeyla's rather hysterical cousin Gert!"

The party was most definitely over.

After this incident, the American papers began carrying the story. To Sir Alexander's disgust, "they went to town with it, the whole story being magnified and I found myself again the leading figure in a story which I had begun to hate." Spiritualists held meetings on the topic which drew hundreds of people. ("I only wish now I had had a good agent--I could have made a fortune out of it!") Seton also received a letter from Howard Carter, the man who has gone down in archaeological history as the discoverer of King Tutankhamen's tomb. Carter asked him to keep the details of his letter private, but "he assured me that things quite inexplicable like this could happen, indeed had happened and will go on happening."

Sir Alexander was not Catholic, but he had great respect for an uncle of his who was a priest. One day while his wife's back was turned, he had his uncle come and perform an exorcism at his house. Then Seton burned the bone into ashes.

After this, the Seton home was never troubled again. By the bone, at least. Zeyla Seton never forgave her husband for destroying her precious bone. Their marriage, already on shaky ground, irretrievably foundered.  (This comes as no surprise, considering that Zeyla's true love seems to have been a fragment of haunted spinal column.)

Seton had no answer for the eerie happenings, other than that the bone somehow released "some strange power." If, as many people believed, the bone carried a curse, Seton wrote that it did not end with the bone's destruction. "From 1936 onwards trouble, sometimes grave, seemed to be always around the corner."

In later years, both Egidia Seton and Janet Clarke independently verified that the strange phenomena described by Sir Alexander did indeed take place. Sir Alexander and his wife ended their increasingly unhappy marriage in 1939. They both remarried, but neither found happiness in their new unions. Both continued to suffer from ill-health, financial difficulties, and depression. To the end of his days, the baronet was convinced the evil spell cast upon his entire family had never lifted.

After all, exorcism or no, there was still one venerable Egyptian lady who will forever be missing part of her spine...


  1. Sir Alexander would have done better to return the bone to the tomb, I think.

    1. I agree. I kept waiting for that in the story!


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