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The Legend of London's Time-Traveling Tomb

Swinging open the front gate of Brompton Cemetery is a bit like cracking the spine of a book detailing London history. Famous suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst rests here. Beatrix Potter strolled its 39 acres and plucked names from tombstones to use in her work, including decedents Peter Rabbett and Mr. Nutkins. More than 35,000 monuments in all are present, rich and poor, known and obscure.

In the middle of the grounds and shrouded by trees stands a mausoleum. An imposing 20 feet tall with a pyramid peak, it’s made from granite, with a heavy bronze door secured by a keyhole. Decorative accents line the front, furthering the air of mystery. The door’s margin displays a rectangular band of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Erected in the early 1850s, it was intended as the final resting place of a woman named Hannah Courtoy and two of her three daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.

Courtoy’s tomb would be remarkable for its imposing stature and cryptic veneer alone: It's the largest, most elaborate construction in Brompton. But there’s more to the story. For the many visitors who make moonlight visits to the cemetery and for a small band of London raconteurs, the tomb’s missing key and resulting lack of access has led to speculation that something strange is going on inside—that it's secretly a time machine.

It’s a fantastic notion, but one that London musician and Courtoy historian Stephen Coates is quick to dismiss. “It’s not a time machine,” he tells mental_floss. “It’s a teleportation chamber.”

In order to try and digest the bizarre urban legend that’s been constructed around Courtoy’s tomb, it helps to understand the highly controversial life of the woman who ordered its construction.

Born around 1784 (sources differ), Hannah Peters fled an abusive father at a young age and found work as a housekeeper and as a tavern employee. In 1800, a friend introduced her to John Courtoy, a 70-year-old former wigmaker in poor health who had made a fortune in the lending business. Peters was shortly in his employ as a housekeeper. Within the year, she had given birth to the first of three daughters. She claimed they were Courtoy’s, although some eyes were raised in suspicion that the friend who made the introduction, Francis Grosso, might have been the real father.

Courtoy’s illness is also ill-defined in historical accounts, although it was said to follow a violent run-in with a prostitute in 1795 that left Courtoy—who had been slashed at with a knife—reserved and antisocial. He apparently warmed to Peters, who took his name and exerted considerable influence over many of his decisions. Courtoy’s 1810 will, which left the bulk of his fortune to an ex-wife named Mary Ann Woolley and their five children, was revised in 1814 so Hannah received the majority share.

When Courtoy died in 1818, the contents of the will were disputed, both by Woolley and Courtoy’s French relatives; they argued that dementia had overtaken Courtoy’s better senses. The legal arguments dragged on through 1827, at which point Hannah and her daughters had received most of Courtoy’s money.

According to the account presented in author David Godson’s 2014 book Courtoy’s Complaint, largely based on diaries kept by Courtoy housekeeper Maureen Sayers, Hannah's urge to distract herself from the often-unpleasant Courtoy led to developing a friendship that would prove essential to her later mythology. Like many Victorians of the era, Hannah was intrigued by Egyptian iconography, particularly hieroglyphics. She believed Egyptians had a deep understanding of astrology and their place in the universe, and she invited Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi over for regular visits.

Bonomi and Hannah would spend hours discussing Egyptian lore, with Hannah hoping to one day fund Bonomi’s expeditions to Egypt so he could study their work. The two would also arrange for a 175-foot-tall monument dedicated to the Duke of Wellington to be constructed and insisted that the sculpture resemble an Egyptian obelisk.

When Hannah died in 1849, her remains were set to be placed in an expensive, elaborate mausoleum in Brompton that paid tribute to her interests; Bonomi arranged for the tomb to feature Egyptian characters and a pyramidal top. Later, Mary and Elizabeth, who shied from marriage because they didn’t want men chasing after their wealth, joined her. (Susannah, who married, was buried elsewhere.) When Bonomi died in 1878, he arranged for a depiction of Courtoy’s tomb to appear on his own modest headstone. Whether Bonomi intended it or not, an illustration of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, appears to be “looking” in the direction of his friend’s final resting place.

Things appeared to remain status quo at Brompton for the next 100 years or so. Then, around 1980, the key to the tomb was lost following a visit by Hannah's relatives. And that’s when things took a turn for the weird.

Courtesy of Vanessa Woolf

Intending to pique the interest of readers during Halloween, Associated Press reporter Helen Smith wrote a story in October 1998 that may have been the first mainstream article to raise the theory that Courtoy’s tomb might actually be a time machine.

Smith described the monument as a “strange, imposing structure” containing “three spinsters, about whom almost nothing is known” and cited an unheralded author named Howard Webster as perpetuator of the story. Webster claimed his research had excavated a connection between Bonomi and Samuel Alfred Warner, a “maverick Victorian genius” and fraudster said to have attempted to interest the British armed forces in several advanced weapons—too advanced, in fact, to actually exist.

Webster speculated that Warner’s inventive abilities may have led him to consort with Bonomi, who supposedly had knowledge of the Egyptian theories of time travel. Together, the two convinced the wealthy, trusting Hannah to finance their secret project, with Bonomi providing ancient wisdom and Warner adding his breakthrough scientific resources. By placing their device in a cemetery, Warner could guarantee the structure was unlikely to be disturbed over decades or centuries, allowing him to return to London after traveling through time again and again.

The lack of a key was crucial to Webster’s tale. Since it had been lost and no one had been inside for years, it could be argued that perhaps Warner was busying himself in a manner similar to an occupant of the TARDIS, bouncing from era to era, while Hannah and her family were either entombed or buried someplace else entirely. Webster also claimed that plans for the tomb were missing, which was rarely the case with other monuments in Brompton.

The story bubbled to the surface periodically over the years. In 2003, an album cover by musician Drew Mulholland depicted the tomb and its eerie structure, which led to some renewed interest. In 2011, Coates, a musician with a band named the Real Tuesday Weld, came across mention of the theory and was intrigued. He wrote a post on his blog positing that the Courtoy tomb was not a means of time travel, but that Warner had the technology to teleport torpedoes and that he later adopted that framework to develop a series of teleportation chambers in and around "the Magnificent Seven," a group of London’s historic private cemeteries.

“It was a way to move around the city,” Coates says. “Warner and Bonomi worked together on ancient Egyptian occult theory and science. I posted that on my blog, and it started to take on a life of its own.”

Coates’s premise is a proper study in how an urban legend can proliferate. With the key still missing, it was impossible to disprove the teleportation idea with any real precision, and the mythology allowed for a great deal of speculation. Was Warner, who died in 1848, killed because he knew too much about revolutionary technology? Why did the tomb take four years to complete following Hannah’s death, which meant she didn’t actually enter it until 1853? Was Hannah duped by the two to fund what she might have believed would be a pioneering mode of travel?

It became, Coates says, “one of the myths of the city.” In 2015, the Independent ran a feature describing his belief, contrasting it with the activities of Hannah Courtoy descendant Ray Godson, who simply wanted access to the tomb to pay his respects to his great-great-grandmother. The feature came just as Coates was busy organizing visitor groups that could come—with the cemetery’s permission—hear the legend of Courtoy, Bonomi, and Warner while standing near the tomb in the middle of the night.

“I fell in love with the idea,” Vanessa Woolf, a professional storyteller based in London who hosts the gatherings, tells mental_floss. “I must credit Stephen Coates. I contacted him after hearing about the myth and told him I really wanted to tell the story. He said to go for it.” Woolf hosted the first event in 2015 and has done several more since. “The first time, we were absolutely overwhelmed with bookings,” she says.

In the story presentation, Woolf tells of a “barking mad” inventor named Warner who connects with Bonomi and hatches an idea for a teleportation network. Hannah, she relates, had an interest in the occult and unexplained phenomena.

“There’s a huge interest in the story in London,” she says. “I think people are just interested in the fabric of places where they live. This is a story rooted in the secret, in the occult, but no one is quite sure what actually happened.”

It can be difficult to corner Coates for a precise answer on whether he believes his fanciful hypothesis about the resting place of Hannah Courtoy. When initially contacted for an interview, he agreed while mentioning that he “came up with the whole teleportation system idea as the background to a short story.” In conversation, he presents the teleportation springboard as a “way for people to make up their own mind” about what the tomb might contain. A breath or two later, he expresses doubt that Hannah’s daughters might still be entombed there, before wondering whether the mausoleum might be home to a secret subterranean chamber.

It’s all “alternative theory based on historical fact,” he says. Reached by telephone, it's hard not to imagine a slight expression of amusement crossing his face.

Performance art or not, the attention has increased awareness over the cemetery's attempts to secure funds for a site-wide renovation. (Courtoy’s tomb was partially spruced up in 2009 following aging, frost-coated chunks of granite sloughing off the side, with costs partially covered by a family trust.) When asked to comment on whether the midnight vigils and sightseers have been disruptive, Brompton officials refer questions right back to Coates, who appears to have become their unofficial spokesman on all things involving molecular disruption and Egyptian time-hopping.

“It’s not something they promote themselves,” Coates says. “They’re very welcoming of people who come if they’re showing respect. The conservation efforts have been going on for years, and the events help that.” At the last Coates-arranged show, tickets went for $8 to $10, with a quarter of the proceeds donated to the cemetery’s rebuilding efforts.

How many people will visit once a key is made is another question. Both Coates and a Brompton Cemetery historian named Arthur Tait say that efforts are currently underway to fabricate a replacement that would allow Hannah’s relatives access to the tomb. After an initial flush of curiosity, wouldn’t the presumably ordinary interior dampen interest?

“Opening it may not establish it’s not a time machine,” Coates hedges. "It may just deepen the mystery.”

For Woolf, who still has regular engagements hosting visitors near the tomb, seeing a key may be a letdown. “It’s much nicer, in a way, not having it,” she says. “It’s really all in the minds of the audience. It’s a slab of rock. The real magic is in their minds.”

Usually. While Woolf normally gets very positive notices from those attending her performances, one reviewer on Instagram does stick out. “It said something like, ‘Oh, I was really excited, but then got really disappointed. She didn’t even open it.’”

Additional Sources: Courtoy’s Complaint.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise credited.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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olympics
9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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