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.

16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born on this day in 1564.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

The Time the U.S. Government Planned to Nuke Alaska

iStock.com/mesut zengin
iStock.com/mesut zengin

In the 1950s, the idea of harnessing nuclear power was a bit of a public relations disaster. The world at large knew nuclear bombs only as tools of mass death and destruction. But if the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)—later the Department of Energy—had its way, nuclear explosions would have been reinvented as peacetime assets to humanity.

As proof of concept, the AEC planned to nuke Alaska.

Atlas Obscura details the plot, which reads almost as farce. In the late 1950s, the AEC was developing Project Plowshare, a plan to repurpose thermonuclear weapons to change the literal face of the Earth. Imagine blasting through mountains to create railways or widening the Panama Canal. The instantaneous landscape shifts caused by such weapons were economically attractive—saving on labor costs—and might also provide access to natural resources like oil. The excavation and fracking potential seemed limitless.

In 1958, the AEC and physicist Edward Teller proposed the first step in this bold new direction: Project Chariot. The plan was to detonate a 1-megaton H-bomb near Cape Thompson in Alaska along with several other, smaller explosions to create a crater 1000 feet in diameter and 110 feet deep. The resulting deepwater harbor would facilitate mineral mining and fishing access. The U.S. government rhapsodized about the idea in the media, claiming the then-contemporary weapons had low fallout and would create a port that would be nothing but a net gain for Alaskans.

Residents, however, met these plans with a degree of skepticism. The Inuit population who lived nearby and would have to cope with the radioactive consequences of such a scheme voiced their opposition to the idea. They pointed to earlier test blasts that showed radioactivity showering the vicinity. In 1954, a blast in the Bikini Atoll had a nuclear fallout of 7000 square miles in the Pacific Ocean. Owing to such tests, the Inuit were already demonstrating heightened radioactivity levels. So were the caribou they ingested. The notion of a “clean” nuclear bomb was something no one wanted to test with their own life.

Project Chariot never materialized, and the idea of wielding nuclear power to replace manual labor was laid to rest by 1977.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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