Dozens Of Tourists Believe They’ve Suffered Terrible Curses After Stealing From Pompeii

On a care-free vacation in Italy, a young Canadian woman we know only as Nicole is touring the ancient remnants of Pompeii. It’s the amazingly preserved Roman metropolis that was engulfed by catastrophic volcanic emissions almost 2,000 years ago. She spots some dusty artifacts lying on the ground at the open archaeological site and pockets them. But it’s a petty theft that she’ll bitterly regret in the years to come.

It turns out that the Pompeii site is an absolute magnet for folks with light fingers and skewed moral compasses. And this is hardly a recent phenomenon. People with an eye on the main chance have been heisting relics from remains of Pompeii ever since it was first excavated back in the mid-18th century. Some of the loot even ended up in the prestigious British Museum in London.

But some of those who’ve seen fit to steal irreplaceable archaeological artifacts from the Pompeii site later wished they hadn’t. That’s because there seems to be some sort of curse operating. People get home with their ill-gotten gains, and their lives take an unwelcome turn for the worse. Illness strikes, financial problems multiply and ill fortune seems to be the order of the day.

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The idea that the Pompeii site might be cursed actually goes right back to the years not long after that August day in 79 A.D. when the city was engulfed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Around lunchtime the volcano, some six miles from Pompeii, exploded with a massive rolling blast and the city was bombarded with burning rocks. A deadly tide of molten lava followed, destroying everything in its path.

The next day, clouds of boiling gasses filled the skies, suffocating those who hadn’t perished in the initial blast. More than two millennia after the event, it’s difficult to put a precise figure on the casualties. A couple of thousand may have perished on the first day of the eruption, but some believe that the ultimate death toll may have been well over 20,000.

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At the age of 17, the Roman historian Pliny the Younger was a witness of the incident first-hand – from a safe distance. And his uncle, Pliny the Elder, lost his life at Pompeii. In a letter written after the catastrophe, the surviving Pliny wrote that, “There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death.”

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Pliny continued, “Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was the one last unending night for the world.” So from his description, it certainly sounds like the citizens of Pompeii themselves felt they’d been cursed. And given the comprehensive destruction of their city, that’s little wonder.

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We’ve already heard that modern-day thieves who’ve pilfered items from the Pompeii site also believe they were cursed for their actions. But where does the idea that Pompeii suffers from some kind of hex even today come from? Is it mere superstition, or is there something more sinister at work here? Writer Adrienne LaFrance addressed those very questions in The Atlantic in 2015.

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“The question of whether Pompeii’s destruction was divine punishment has been explored in paintings, plays, films, and novels,” LaFrance observed. So, had the folks of Pompeii suffered deserved retribution from their gods for some kind of misconduct that’d angered them? LaFrance is skeptical.

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But LaFrance does identify a 19th-century author as the man who created our modern idea of a cursed Pompeii. In his popular 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s account of the destruction of Pompeii is said to have shaped many modern ideas about the catastrophe. And the book includes the idea that the city was jinxed.

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Bulwer-Lytton gave credence in his fiction to the view that the citizens of Pompeii got exactly what was coming to them. In the book, the author contrasts what he claims are the decadent lives of the people of Pompeii with the more frugal and virtuous character of other peoples and places in history. So the perceived sins of Pompeiians brought destruction upon them.

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Of course, the idea that ancient cultures fell victim to curses that endure even in modern times doesn’t apply to Pompeii alone. Famously, the tomb of Tutankhamun was said to have brought misery and even death to those that discovered and excavated it. The ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s powers apparently stretched across the millennia to blight the lives of people in the 20th century.

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English Egyptologist Howard Carter led the team that discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the early 1920s. The pharaoh had passed away in his late teens in 1323 B.C. and his mortal remains had been entombed in the Valley of the Kings, near the River Nile and the ancient city of Luxor. And ever since the tomb’s discovery, there have been persistent tales of a curse blighting those involved in the excavation.

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Shortly after Carter had found the pharaoh’s last resting place, British newspaper The Times featured a warning from a widely read writer of the day, Marie Corelli. She claimed that “the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.” And her prophetic words seemed to be justified not long afterwards.

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In February 1923, Carter had entered the pharaoh’s tomb for the first time. Soon afterwards George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who’d bankrolled Carter’s work, came to view the burial chamber. But while he was there, a mosquito bit him. An infection took hold and Carnarvon died at the relatively young age of 56 in Cairo just a couple of months after visiting the tomb.

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Of course, Carnarvon’s untimely death was grist for the mill as far as those who believed in the pharaoh’s curse were concerned. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stoked the curse hysteria by speculating that “an evil elemental” phantom, invoked by clerics to protect Tutankhamun’s tomb, was at work.

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And there were others who allegedly fell victim to the Tutankhamun’s curse. Among them was Sir Archibald Douglas Reid, who’d overseen they x-raying of the pharaoh’s mummy and passed away in murky circumstances a couple years later. In the same year Arthur Mace, one of the group that’d opened the tomb, was reportedly fatally poisoned with arsenic.

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Then there was Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt who perished in 1923 from a gunshot wound inflicted by his own wife. Sir Lee Stack, the governor of the Sudan, then a British colony, was murdered in Cairo in 1924. And there were others. It seemed that just about anyone who died in the 1920s with the slightest link to Tutankhamun or even just Egypt was identified as a victim of the pharaoh’s curse.

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But Carter regarded the idea of a hex with the utmost scorn. Yet when he passed away in England aged 64 of Hodgkin’s disease in 1939, many of his obituaries revived the rumors of Tutankhamun’s curse. An Egyptologist named Herbert Winlock showed in 1934 that only six of those who’d attended the tomb’s opening lost their lives within ten years, which amounted to less than a quarter of the group. But this seemingly did little to lessen the public’s appetite for hair-raising tales of the pharaoh’s curse.

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But what about the Pompeii curse? In many ways it’d be no surprise if the ghosts of those who perished when Vesuvius blew its top came back to haunt the modern world. Given some of the indignities that the site has been subjected to over the years, any fair-minded person might think that a curse is justified.

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People have stolen any amount of stuff over the years from the site since it was discovered by treasure hunters in the 1740s. Over the years, ill-disciplined digging destroyed irreplaceable relics, buildings were restored with shocking sloppiness and the site was often treated with a total lack of respect. The fact that this is a location where thousands lost their lives in a cataclysmic tragedy has all too often been disregarded.

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Even some of the original workers who excavated the site in a more disciplined way during the 18th century succeeded in destroying valuable objects. Thousands of rolls of papyrus were discovered, a charred library of priceless knowledge from the ancient world. But they weren’t recognized for what they were. So the workers used them as kindling or chucked them into the sea, destroying knowledge from the ancient world that can never be replaced.

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At least that damage to the remains of Pompeii was unwitting. This much can’t be said for the people who deliberately harm the unique site. An example came in 2014 when a security worker noticed that a section of an exquisite fresco in a building known as the House of Neptune was missing. Somebody had simply ripped out an 8-inch square block.

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At the time, a staffer at the Italian Observatory for Cultural Patrimony, Antonio Irlando, told The Daily Beast website, “[The fresco] was no doubt intended for a private collector.” An earlier act of cultural vandalism came in 2003, when criminals made off with frescoes torn from inside the charmingly named House of the Chaste Lovers.

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Those thieves were not only dishonest and disrespectful, but they were also dim-witted. Cops saw empty pizza cartons at the site of the crime. Investigations at a nearby pizza restaurant gave the cops a pretty good idea of who the perps were. And for once, the goods were recovered.

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Massimo Osanno, who’d recently become site superintendent at Pompeii, spoke to The Daily Beast in 2014. “The problem is one of human resources. There is some video surveillance, but there are no guards,” he explained. “If a tourist climbs over a fence and finds himself directly into an area where it is no longer visible, anything can happen.”

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Then there are incidents at Pompeii that are comic rather than malicious. Writing in British newspaper the Daily Mail in 2015, journalist Tom Uttley described how his three-year-old son managed to get stuck in a 4-foot high Roman wine vase at Pompeii. Uttley decided to sit his boy on the object. “Alas, I’d underestimated the diameter of [the amphora’s] mouth,” he admitted.

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The result was perhaps predictable. “The poor boy fell straight into it [the amphora], bottom first, with only his forearms, the top of his head and the soles of his sandals visible,” Uttley revealed. “He was well and truly stuck.” Fortunately the child was extracted from the amphora without damage to him or the 1st-century A.D. artifact. But that shows just how open the Pompeii site is.

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All too many tourists take thoughtless advantage of Pompeii being so lightly supervised. Yet an extraordinary phenomenon has arisen in recent years. Tourists steal stuff, but then they send it back to the authorities who look after Pompeii. And they do that in the belief that their theft has brought the curse of the stricken ancient city upon them.

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A notable example of this belated guilty conscience came as recently as October 2020. To start at the beginning of this sorry tale, a Canadian woman – the Nicole we met earlier – visited Pompeii in 2005. And during her visit she lifted a small trove of items, to wit: a couple of amphora fragments, a pair of mosaic tiles and part of a ceramic wall.

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Fast-forward to 2020 and Nicole, now 36, decided that her life had been so blighted by her act of dishonesty and the resulting curse that she’d no choice but to return her ill-gotten goods. And she had indeed endured some tough times. The poor woman had lived through multiple instances of breast cancer as well as a double mastectomy. It seems a very heavy price to have paid for her misdemeanor.

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In the hand-written note she sent with the returned artifacts, Nicole explained, “When I visited Pompeii in 2005, I was young and dumb. I wanted to have a piece of history that couldn’t be bought.” Her letter displays a genuine depth of heartfelt remorse and a blighted life. Nicole’s regret seems entirely genuine.

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“I took a piece of history captured in time that has so much negative energy attached to it,” Nicole’s note continued. “People died in such a horrible way and I took tiles related to that kind of destruction.” Ominously, she added, “Bad luck is something that has plagued my family and myself ever since.”

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On top of the health problems that Nicole had suffered, she confided that “my family and myself have also struggled ever since financially. We can’t ever seem to get ahead in life. We are good people and I don’t want to pass this curse on to my family my children or myself anymore. Please forgive my careless act that I did years ago I really have learned my lesson.”

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With everything that life has thrown at Nicole over the years, it would be a hard heart that refused her the forgiveness she clearly craves. But most would probably find it harder to forgive a 16-year-old Dutch visitor whose name, mercifully for him, remains unknown. His crime was reported on an English-language Italian website, The Local, in 2015.

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This acquisitive youth snagged a Roman tile while visiting Pompeii and stuffed it into his bag. Yet the Dutch kid failed to notice that an eagle-eyed visitor from the U.S. with a well-developed sense of civic duty had seen him. The American duly reported him to the authorities and cops arrested the boy at the site.

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Police charged him with attempted theft and released him into the custody of his mom, who was apparently far from pleased. And the cherry on the cake of this kid’s crime was his motive. He’d stolen the roof tile to sell on an online auction site. Why did he need the money? To buy a new iPhone. Sympathy for the Dutch teenager was in very short supply.

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So this dishonest Dutch citizen, unlike Nicole, didn’t return his ill-gotten goods voluntarily, since he was apprehended at the scene of his crime. But it turns out that Nicole is far from the only one to have suffered pangs of conscience. According to an October 2020 report on the CNN website, in recent years something like 100 people have returned stolen items to the authorities in Pompeii.

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A staffer at the Pompeii site told CNN that many of the returned items had come back with messages saying that thieves had “derived only bad luck” from their stolen souvenirs. She added that some of the notes and the returned items had later been exhibited around the Pompeii.

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So what’s the moral of this story? This: if you ever make it to Italy and pay a visit to the magnificent archaeological park at the site of ancient Pompeii, don’t steal anything. Because if you do, there’s no telling what dark directions your life might take as a result of the curse of Pompeii.

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