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Bailing in the Mummies

[ SKEPTICAL INQUIREE BENJAMIN RADFORD

Benjamin Radford is a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and author or coauthor of several books, including Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits.

Q: Today I heard a speaker repeat the story that mummies were used as fuel in British trains. I recall this was a classic legend first related by Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, but the speaker insisted that she thoroughly researched the subject, and it was true. Got anything on this?

A: This bit of morbid historical curiosa, suitably limned with anti-colonial themes, has been around for over a century and reported as true by a handful of writers. Discover magazine writer LeeAundra Temescu wrote in 2006 that “During a railway expansion in Egypt in the nineteenth century, construction companies unearthed so many mummies that they used them as locomotive fuel.” This factoid inspired poet Charles Webb to write a piece titled “Mummies to Burn” for Slate in January 20101.

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