Home » Episodes » Episode 70 – Cairo, Egypt (King Tutankhamun) & Pittsburg, PA (Eban Byers)

This week Emily takes us to the exotic Cairo, Egypt to share the story of King Tutankhamun – his life, death, and the curse that allegedly haunts his tomb. Then, Rachel heads to Pittsburg to talk about Ebenezer McBurney Byers, whose untimely death was the result of multiple cancers inflicted thanks to consuming 1,400 bottles of Radiothor (aka diluted radium!).

Story 1 – King Tutankhamun

 King Tut, as we know him now, is the focus of my story today. I’m going to tell you about the unfortunate life and untimely death of the most well known Pharaoh in history – and I’m also going to tell you about the Curse of the Pharaoh. 

So, Tutankhamun was the twelfth king of the eighteenth Egyptian dynasty. He reigned from 1361–1352 B.C.E. And although his reign was relatively unimportant, Tutankhamun became the most famous of the pharaohs when his treasure-filled tomb was discovered in the early twentieth century. The untouched contents of his tomb offered historians great insight into ancient Egyptian culture – but before we talk about the treasure, let’s talk about the king.

Actually, before that even, I want to start by talking about what it was like to be a Pharaoh – because, it was a wonderful life for the pharaoh but it was a terrible life for the people they ruled over. 

Egyptian society is often well known for being able to build giant, collective works such as the pyramids. The king – or pharaoh – played a major role in these developments because he gave commands, demanded absolute conformity, and punished disobedience. Essentially kings back then were able to mobilize tens-of-thousands of human beings into a great labor force and this allowed them to accomplish big things.

There was, however, a human price to be paid because the pharaohs demanded absolute subjection to their orders – and some of them got pretty ruthless about this. Some of the pharaohs kept flies away from themselves by having enslaved people coated with honey. Not only was the honey sticky and the flies very annoying, the bees and wasps were also drawn to the sweet nectar. 

Pharaohs, like the Roman leaders, also loved to watch people fight – a joyous pass time. But, the Egyptians didn’t go with lions and gladiators… they had a sport where contenders knocked other contenders out of boats in crocodile-infested waters. So, the losers were either immediately killed by crocodiles, or they drowned. 

Oh, and speaking of crocodiles… some Pharaohs forced their women to use crocodile dung as a contraceptive, essentially they molded some poo into a block and put it in the vagina to block any pregnancy from taking place. 

Let’s just say: Ancient Egyptian life is not the life for me. 

Anywho, Tutankhaten (as he was called at birth) was born around the year 1341 B.C. His father was the pharaoh Akhenaten, and he was actually known as a relatively revolutionary pharaoh because he tried to focus Egypt’s polytheistic religion around the worship of the sun disc, the Aten. Akhenaten was relatively hated for this because he was asking people to abandon the gods they had known forever and just focus on the one god. He even went so far as to move the capital city and destroy any names and images that featured other deities. 

Fun fact: Akhenaten was married to Neffratiti – which is probably a familiar name if you paid attention in history class. Less fun fact; Neffratti was Akhenaten’s sister. So… King Tutankhamun was the result of some serious inbreeding. This is likely part of why Tutankhamun was said to have several birth defects and, in general, was weak and sickly. 

Nonetheless, when Akhenaten died Tutankhamun was next in line, so he became pharaoh at the ultra qualified age of either 9 or 10 years old. Now, on top of being a child king, Tutankhamun also suffered a variety of maladies. I mean, sometimes I think about what I would look like if I never had medical intervention ever… way crooked teeth, probably cross eyes or lazy eyes from trying to function without glasses… a leaky eye… etc. 

Anywho – in 1300 BCE, I doubt they could fix some of these things – even for the Pharaoh. So, Tutankhamun had a clubbed foot and some bones in his toes were dying from a degenerative disease called Kohler disease (a rare bone disorder of the foot). He probably walked with a cane.

Some people also thought that he suffered from Marfan syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that can leave someone with unusually long fingers, arms and legs. They thought this because some images of the royal family from that time were depicted with these features but when they actually found Tut’s body they saw that he didn’t have this disease. 

He DID have a cleft palate and a curved spine, and was probably weakened by inflammation and problems with his immune system. With that in mind, it is probably not likely that Tutankhamun was a warrior of any kind – even though there are so many paintings of him slaying his foes. I will say, he was apparently a trained archer and they found many trophies from his hunts in his tomb.

Now, because Tutankhamun was so young, it’s probable that he mostly had older advisors that helped him make decisions and whatnot. One thing he/they did do was work to reverse some of Akenaten’s whole monotheism thing. He made efforts to satisfy the supporters of the god Amun and erected a statue as an offering to gods Amun, the sun god, and Mut, the sky goddess and great divine mother.

There is some indication that the main guy behind Tutankhamun was this elderly official named Ay, who would later come to rule Egypt as pharaoh after Tutankhamun’s death. This is a little sus and I’ll tell you why.

Even though King Tutankhamun came into power when he was very young, he only ruled for about 10 years before his very untimely death. He died when he was just 19 and there are many theories about how he died – including lots of theories about murder.  

In fact, Bob Brier, a mummy specialist from Long Island University, has been tracking down clues that indicate Tutankhamun may have been killed by his elderly chief advisor and successor, Ay. An X-ray of his skull revealed a calcified blood clot at its base. This could have been caused by a blow from a blunt implement, which eventually resulted in death.

Another theory on Tutankhamun’s death suggests that he was murdered by General Horemheb, a man of low birth who became one of Akhenaten’s closest advisors. Under Tutankhamun, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the army and deputy of the king. Following the demise of Tutankhamun and later Ay, Horemheb became pharaoh. AND during his reign, he had the names of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Ay removed from the royal list of pharaohs, which suggests that he had personal reasons for eradicating those rulers from the records. So, maybe he killed Tutankhamun.

Other theories are less murdery. CT scans in 1995 showed that the king had an infected broken left leg, while DNA from his mummy revealed evidence of multiple malaria infections, all of which may have contributed to his early death.

In 2005 a study revealed that he broke his leg and developed an infection in the wound shortly before death. According to one theory, the pharaoh sustained the injury by falling from his chariot during a hunt. Alternate theories about King Tut’s demise still abound, however, including the hypothesis that he succumbed to the lethal bite of an enraged hippopotamus. This one seems least likely.

So how do we know all this? Well, we know all of these things about King Tutankhamun because the Egyptians were very dedicated to burying their pharaohs in a way that would preserve them. 

In fact, Egyptians believed that the mummified body was the home for this soul or spirit. If the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost. The idea of “spirit” was complex involving really three spirits: the ka, ba, and akh. The ka, a “double” of the person, would remain in the tomb and needed the offerings and objects there. The ba, or “soul”, was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And it was the akh, perhaps translated as “spirit”, which had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife. To the Egyptian, all three were essential.

SO, they wanted to put everything that their beloved pharaoh could possibly need in his tomb, so he could have a happy afterlight. THat’s why you would find everything from jars holding his organs (might need those), to food (sounds smelly), to chariots so he could take a ride in the tomb. And, we know all of this because of King Tutankhamun. You see, most tombs that were found were looted badly or destroyed. It wasn’t until they found Tut’s tomb that they found a super intact tomb. 

SO, let’s talk a bit about that discovery. 

It began in 1891 when an archeologist named Howard Carter first arrived in Egypt; by then, most of the ancient Egyptian tombs had been discovered, and many archeologists believed that all of the Pharaoh’s tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been found. However, Howard didn’t agree. He thought that the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun was still undiscovered.

After World War I, Carter began an intensive search for “King Tut’s Tomb,” he searched the Valley of the Kings for five years finding little. The man funding his search, Lord Carnarvon, became frustrated and nearly stopped paying for Carter’s search. Carter convinced Carnarvon to pay for one more year. The pressure was on. Carter had one more year to find something. 

In 1922, after six years of searching, Howard Carter was digging near King Ramses tomb when he finally found a step underneath some old workmen’s huts. Turns out they had been like CENTIMETERS from the tomb for months. He soon uncovered a stairway and the door to King Tut’s tomb.

On November 26, 1922, Carter and fellow archaeologist Lord Carnarvon entered the interior chambers of the tomb, finding them miraculously intact. When the two men were first entering they had to enter through a small hole – they had to make sure it was actually a tomb before starting the excavation. When Carter went through Carnarvon was like “do you see anything? And Carter was like “yes. Wonderful things.” – He had just stumbled upon a room FILLED with gold.  

And, even though the room looked magnificent it was actually surprisingly small for a Pharaoh which led people to believe that it was built in a hurry. 

They also know the process was done quickly because microbes found on the wall of the tomb indicate that the paint on the wall wasn’t even dry when the tomb was sealed. So, a lot of archeologists believe that it was built for an Egyptian noble, but was used for Tutankhamun when he died at a young age. 

The tomb had four main rooms: the antechamber, burial chamber, annex, and treasury. 

  • The antechamber was the first room that Carter entered. Among its many items included three funeral beds and the pieces of four chariots. 
  • The burial chamber contained the sarcophagus and King Tut’s mummy. The mummy was contained in three nested coffins. The final coffin was made of solid gold. 
  • The treasury contained the king’s canopic chest which held his organs. There were also many treasures such as gilded statues and model boats. 
  • The annex was full of all sorts of objects including board games, oils, and dishes.

It was an amazing discovery and one of the most important in the history of archeology. In all, there were over 5,000 objects in the tomb. It took Carter and his team ten years to catalog everything.

Of course, the most fascinating piece of the tomb is obviously Tutankhamun himself. Recent research suggests that returning Egypt to its traditional polytheistic beliefs was so important to Tutankhamun (and his advisers) that he had himself mummified in an unusual way to emphasize his strong association with Osiris, the god of the underworld. 

Archaeologist Salima Ikram wrote that Tutankhamun’s skin was soaked black with oil, his heart was removed and his penis was mummified at a 90-degree angle. In legend Osiris had black skin, strong regenerative powers and a heart that had been hacked to pieces by this brother. 

Now, let’s talk a bit about the CURSE. The curse of the mummy began when many terrible events occurred after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Legend has it that anyone who dared to open the tomb would suffer the wrath of the mummy. Because mummies have been associated with many magical powers throughout history, some of the mummies found from Egypt were ground into a fine powder and sold as mystical mummy powder. It’s believed the powder had magical healing powers and it wasn’t until the discovery of King Tutankhamun and the hype of the media that things would change forever.

One reason people started worrying about the curse is that some of the hieroglyphs were translated to say, “They who enter this sacred tomb shall swiftly be visited by wings of death.”

Needless to say, Archeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter’s team was put under the microscope after opening the tomb of King Tutankhamun, as people wondered if the curse had truly affected the people who witnessed the tomb’s opening in 1922. Here are a few of the people and pets connected to “the curse.”

At least NINE people associated with the unboxing of Tutankhamun died in the following days, months and years – and a few other strange things happened. 

The hype began when Lord Carnarvon, the person who funded the dig of King Tut’s Tomb, died shortly after the discovery. The path to his death began in the spring of 1923 when he was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. During his morning shaving routines, he further aggravated the mosquito bite. It soon became infected and Lord Carnarvon found himself ill. He suffered a high fever and chills. A doctor was sent to examine him but medical attention arrived too late and Lord Carnarvon died.

Once Carnarvon died the media went wild with stories of his death. They claimed King Tutankhamun wanted vengeance and announced a mummy’s curse, which targeted those who had entered the tomb. Not only did the death of Carnarvon get all the people in an uproar but other stories began to surface as well. Of the stories that surfaced, two remain prominent. One of the prominent stories is that a cobra killed Howard Carter’s (explorer who discovered King Tut’s burial place) pet canary after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. The other story is that Lord Carnarvon’s dog howled and dropped dead at two in the morning when Carnarvon died.

Howard Carter didn’t experience an untimely death, but his pet canary did… in fact, it was eaten by a cobra. Because the cobra is symbolic to the Egyptian Monarchy and it is believed that the Royal Cobra was released in Carter’s home as a symbol of how the King strikes his enemies. This began local rumors that the curse had been released.

Sir Bruce Ingham, Carter’s friend, also experienced some bad luck. Apparently, Carter thought it was appropriate to give Bruce a paperweight made out of a mummified hand – and the hand was wearing a bracelet that was inscribed: “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence.” After receiving this creepy gift, Ingham’s house burned down. And then while they were rebuilding it… it flooded. No one has an explanation for this other than bad luck.

George Jay Gould was a wealthy American financier and railroad executive who visited the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923 and fell sick almost immediately afterward. He never really recovered and died of pneumonia a few months later.

American Egyptologist Aaron Ember was friends with many of the people who were present when the tomb was opened, including Lord Carnarvon. Ember died in 1926, when his house in Baltimore burned down less than an hour after he and his wife hosted a dinner party. He could have exited safely, but his wife encouraged him to save a manuscript he had been working on while she fetched their son. Sadly, they and the family’s maid died in the catastrophe. The name of Ember’s manuscript? The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Richard Bethell was Lord Carnarvon’s secretary and the first person behind Carter to enter the tomb. He died in 1929 under suspicious circumstances—though one modern historian has attributed his death to the work of Satanist killer Alastair Crowley. Bethell was found smothered in his room at an elite London gentlemen’s club. Soon after, the Nottingham Evening Post mused, “The suggestion that the Hon. Richard Bethell had come under the ‘curse’ was raised last year, when there was a series of mysterious fires at it home, where some of the priceless finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb were stored.” No evidence of a connection between artifacts and Bethell’s death was established, though.

Sir Archibald Douglad Reid proved that you didn’t have to be one of the excavators or expedition backers to fall victim to Tutankhamun’s curse, Reid, a radiologist, merely x-rayed Tutankhamun before the mummy was given to museum authorities. He got sick the next day and was dead three days later.

And, Hugh Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist, visited King Tut’s tomb and may have helped excavate the site. After seeing death sweep over about two dozen of his fellow excavators by 1924, Evelyn-White died by suicide—but not before writing, allegedly in his own blood, “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear.”

Oddly, Howard Carter never was affected by the curse. He died of lymphoma at the age of 64. Perhaps the pharaohs saw fit to spare him from their curse.

OR, if you ask skeptics and scientists, everything that I just walked through was merely happenstance.. OR related to the fact that the tomb may have been filled with a deadly fungus that had grown over the centuries and was released when the tomb was opened.  Air samples were taken from inside an unopened sarcophagus through a drilled hole to test the air quality- and high levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide were all found. However, all of these would have a strong scent and people would have been repelled by the odor.

If we do think about the curse a little more – I will say that some folks believe that the curse carried over to some of the things in Tut’s tomb. For example they found this 3000 year old trumpet that was used during that time as a military trumpet used to call troops to battle. In 1939, Rex Keating, a British documentarian, decided to play the trumpet on live TV as a publicity stunt. Cringe. 

Of course, the first time he picks it up it literally shatters in his hands because it’s 3000 years old.  But they decide to “fix it” and MODIFY it – and they do end up playing it on air at a later date. It does not sound good. Interestingly enough… the ancient trumpet has been played 4 times since it was unearthed and it coincides with some interesting events. 

It was first played in 1939 by a Brit and 3 months later, Britain entered WW2. It was played again right before the 6 day war between Egypt and Israel in 1967 and the third time it was played was in 1990 riiiight before the gulf war. The final time it was played was in 2011 right before the Egyptian Revolution. STOP USING A CURSED MILITARY TRUMPET TO CALL FOR WAR. 

Fun fact… in 2020 King Tut’s body was removed from his tomb to restore it for this new Egyptian museum… And some believers kind of think that maybe that’s part of why the last couple of years have been HORRIBLE. 

So, I’m going to end this story – even though there are many other things that could probably be said – and wrap up with a quote from Howard Carter, the man who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun: 

“May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.” 

And that is the abbreviated story of King Tutankhamun, his life, death and the discovery of his cursed tomb. 

Story 2 – Eban Byers

We’re going back to April 12, 1880. Ebenezer McBurney Byers was born into a wealthy family in Pittsburgh. This kid had everything going for him. He was a socialite, he went to Yale, he was athletic, and the ladies loved him. Eban won the US Amateur Golf Championship in 1906, and he worked for Daddy Dearest at the Girard Iron Company.

Things were awesome for Eban, but as we all know by now, that’s not what this podcast is about. In 1927, Eban was headed home via train from the annual rivalry football game between Harvard and Yale. He was lying on a berth, which I googled, and it’s essentially those bunk-bed looking cots that they have for sleeping on long train rides, when he fell down, injuring his arm.

This must have been the kind of injury where you fall on something at just the right angle to do some real damage, because it caused him persistent pain. But don’t you worry, because he went to the doctor, who prescribed him a magical elixir/cure-all called Radithor.

What’s that? Radithor sounds a little like Radium? Why yes, yes it does.

Let’s talk quickly about the discovery of radium, by J.J. Thompson. In 1903, he wrote about the presence of radioactivity in well water, eventually leading scientists to the discovery that most famous health springs emanated radon gas from the ground where the water flowed. So, scientists started thinking that health springs got their healing properties from radioactivity. 

But it was hard to bottle radon gas, as it quickly diffused into the air, so obviously in order to heal from radium, you needed to drink it from the spring water. Thus, the creation of devices in which one could add radium into their water at home. And in the 1920s and 1930s, radium was in EVERYTHING – at least, everything you could buy in the grocery store or see on the price is right: think, beauty creams, toothpaste, food, even suppositories. You heard me; people were sticking radium up their asses!!!! 

Radithor was created and patented by William J.A. Bailey. He went to Harvard… but dropped out. But then he just started calling himself a doctor, so that’s fine. The fake doctor dissolved high concentrations of Radium 226 and Radium 228 isotopes into distilled water, and began to advertise it as “A Cure for the Living Dead.” He claimed it cured all sorts of stuff, aches and pains, impotence, whatever ails you, by stimulating the endocrine system. To me, Fake Dr. Bailey seems like he should have gone into business instead of medicine, because he got real doctors to prescribe Radithor by giving them a 17% commission every time they prescribed it.

At this time, most of the benefits that Fake Dr. Bailey and his team full of chemists believe radium had were hypothetical. There wasn’t a ton of research on radioactivity; scientists knew that it could be lethal in high doses, but it’s probably fine in small doses when diluted with water… right?!?! You think I’m kidding, but at the time, scientists thought radioactivity could delay old age, prevent insanity, and even stop chronic diarrhea. Sign me up!

Radithor was mass marketed in 1918 to all of the USA. The marketing team, who still didn’t fully know what would happen if someone ingested this shit, stated that Radithor “will enhance the vital processes of the body.” So everyone was all, sounds great! People started experiencing the placebo effect and doctors were enjoying their high commission. 

Eban, probably not knowing the history behind its creation, took the Radithor prescribed by his doctor. And he started to feel better – it must be stimulating all the endocrines! So he thought, “I’d better keep drinking this magic water and a lot of it.” He started out slow, following the doctor’s prescription of only taking a small spoonful a day, but the placebo effect is a bitch. He increased his dose to a whole bottle… then two bottles… and eventually, Eban started drinking about 3 bottles a day. Over the next 3 years he had consumed over 3x the lethal dose of radium by the time he stopped taking it in 1930. At this point, he had consumed nearly 1400 bottles of Radithor and then, horrifyingly, realized this *ahem* magic elixir was rotting his body from the inside out.

Just a quick note from your friendly neighborhood therapist: Don’t take medications in incorrect doses. You are not the fucking doctor!

Although, he didn’t realize what it was at first. Back in 1927, when Eban first started ingesting the poison, he felt it gave him a “toned-up” feeling. But by 1930, he lost weight, he had headaches, and his teeth started to fall out of his mouth.

And cancer is a bitch that didn’t stop at his teeth. He developed “radium jaw,” which is apparently a condition in which his upper and lower jaw completely decayed. His bones straight-up were being eaten by this cancer. I did read that he didn’t feel a ton of pain, because his nerves were melted by the radiation, so at least there’s that.

 Eban had to have all his jaw tissue removed, leaving him with a freaking HOLE WHERE HIS MOUTH USED TO BE. For the record, surgeons did their best to remove all of the infected tissue and to build him a new jaw so he wouldn’t look crazy disfigured, but this is 1931 – plastic surgery was not even close to what it is today. 

Also, there was swelling in his brain and more holes in his skull.

In 1931, the Federal Trade Commission asked Eban to testify about his experience, but he was way too sick to travel. They sent him a lawyer, who was able to observe the hole in his jaw and skull and reported back, “All the remaining bone tissue of his body was disintegrating.”

Eban Byers died on March 31, 1932 at the age of just 51. Originally, the cause of death was determined to be radiation poisoning, but actually he died from all the cancers that the radiation had caused. Eban was buried in Allegheny Cemetery, in Pittsburg, in a lead-lined coffin.

Obviously, this was big news. For a little historical context, the first Radium Girl died in 1923; she too lost her jaw. 

The Wall Street Journal ran a story titled, “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off.” It’s literally the 1930s version of click-bate. But Eban Byers’ death did lead to increased awareness of how dangerous radiation poisoning was, as well as the creation of laws that banned many products, including Radithor. 

The FDA ordered Fake Dr. Bailey’s business to cease and desist and said that he had to stop marketing Radithor as “harmless.” But don’t you worry, because this fake doctor was a survivor. He went on to found the “Radium Institute” in New York, and marketed many radium-filled products, including a belt-clip, a paperweight, and a mechanism to make your own radioactive water at home.

Eban Byers’ body was exhumed in 1965 for testing. The study found that the radiation levels in his body were still incredibly dangerous – over 30 years postmortem!

Oh and by-the-by, remember those radium-infused products I was talking about? Some of them were still being sold into the 1980s. For example, Lifestone Cigarette Holder allowed people’s cigarette smoke to pass over a small source of radium. The manufacturer claimed, “The wondrous efficacy of radium emanation protects your health from an injurious element in cigarettes and makes it sweeter and milder.” It will make you beautiful and definitely won’t give you cancer!

And PS, Radioactive health springs are still operating.

And that is the crazy story of the radioactive death of Eban Byers – The man who was fine until his jaw came off.

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