Christopher Blayre, Colonel W. Ferris, cursed jewels, cursed stones, Dehli Purple Sapphire, Edward Heron-Allen Edward Heron-Allen Edward Heron-Allen, Indian Mutiny, Indra, The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
“The devil’s pet bait…”
Gemstones have for centuries been objects of fascination and most cultures have at one time or another ascribed to them magical properties. Many are seen as possessing healing or protective qualities such as the amethyst. The ancient Greeks believed that an amethyst would prevent the wearer from becoming drunk whilst medieval European soldiers wore amethyst amulets to protect them in battle. On the other hand the rarity, beauty and value of most gems have led them to become objects of desire and so it is little wonder that their ability to generate greed and envy has often been used in literature to explore the theme of how far a person would go to possess them. Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” investigates the theft of a blue garnet (the carbuncle) and gives a damning verdict on the seductiveness of gems,
“Holmes took up the stone and held it against the light. “It’s a bonny thing,” said he. “Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil’s pet baits. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed… In spite of its youth, it has already a sinister history. There have been two murders, a vitriol-throwing, a suicide, and several robberies brought about for the sake of this forty-grain weight of crystallised charcoal. Who would think that so pretty a toy would be a purveyor to the gallows and the prison?”
In “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy this sinister influence is depicted in its most extreme form. You have only to think of Gollum whose obsession with the evil ring “his precious” had corrupted both his body and mind turning him into “a small, slimy creature“.
The question that this raises is are there elements of truth in these stories? Yes people have killed to acquire gemstones but do they possess magical qualities? If they do and many people believe gems to have benevolent properties, is it also possible that some of them could be cursed? One gem whose curse seems not to have lessened over time is that of an amethyst which was mistakenly named the Delhi Purple Sapphire and unlike the talismans of the medieval age seems intent to harm rather than protect its owners.
A sacrilegious theftIn Cawnpore (Kanpur) during the bloody Indian Mutiny of 1857, a Bengal cavalryman stole a purple gemstone from the a sacred temple of Indra, the Hindu god of weather (rain and thunderstorms) and war, who carries a lightning bolt and rides a white elephant. The soldier, a Colonel W. Ferris brought the purple amethyst back to England. Although during the Victorian era the plunder and looting of religious artefacts was nothing new, for Colonel Ferris the period of time from when he “acquired” the jewel seemed to coincide with an unfortunate downturn in his health and financial fortunes. His son when he inherited the jewel also suffered the same fate, losing both his health and money. The ill fortune was not just confined to the family of the thief; a friend was also reported to have committed suicide whilst in possession of the jewel.
An unlikely victim
Edward Heron-Allen was born in 1861 in London. Educated at Harrow, he enjoyed studying the sciences, classics and music. Although as an adult he practiced law, his interests were eclectic and his exceptional intellectual ability meant that he excelled in everything he undertook. He became an accomplished violin player; an expert in palmistry, graphology, palaeontology and the Persian language and; a writer producing books on a wide-range of subjects from archaeology to Buddhism to the cultivation of the asparagus. He also wrote science fiction and horror books under the alias “Christopher Blayre”.
On the surface he seems an unlikely victim of a curse and it would appear that initially he was sceptical about the stories that surrounded the stone, otherwise why in 1890 would he have so willingly accepted it. He seems to have quickly changed his mind as he claimed to have had bad luck from the moment he became its owner. Again the bad luck seemed to extend to family friends. One of his friends who asked for it seemed to suffer every type of misfortune and another a singer lost her voice and never sung again. Heron-Allen believed that the stone was cursed and “stained with the blood, and the dishonor of everyone who has ever owned it.” He kept it in seven boxes and surrounded it with lucky charms. In despair he even tried to throw it into a canal only to have it returned to him from a dealer who himself had acquired it from a dredger. With the birth of his baby daughter in 1904 and in fear that the bad luck would affect her, Heron-Allen sent the stone to his banker instructing him to lock it away until after his death and never to let his daughter hold it.
In 1943, after Heron-Allen died, his daughter donated the stone to the Natural History Museum along with a note on the accursed history of the gem and a written warning. Even after over fifty years the family’s belief in the curse remained undiminished with his grandson, Ivor Jones a 77 year old former naval officer refusing to hold it stating that
“My mother certainly wouldn’t touch it and she recommended that we didn’t either because of the curse.”1
“Cast it into the sea.”
In 1974, a curator at the Natural History Museum chanced upon the stone whilst looking in the mineral cabinets along with the Heron-Allen’s note.
“Whoever shall then open it, shall first read out this warning, and then do as he pleases with the jewel. My advice to him or her is to cast it into the sea.“²
Obviously the warning went unheeded as most curators are reluctant to dispose of any objects in their collection for more practical reasons let alone the threat of malignant misfortune. Maybe the advice should have been listened to, as the stone continued to cause trouble.
In 2000, John Whittaker, former head of the Natural History Museum’s micropalaeontology team, took the amethyst to the first annual symposium of the Heron-Allen Society. Maybe the stone still carried a grudge against its former owner for on the way Whittaker found himself in the middle of a horrendous thunderstorm,
“the sky turned black and were overtaken by the most horrific thunderstorm I’ve ever experienced…we considered abandoning the car and my wife was shouting ‘Why did you bring that damned thing.”3
At the second symposium he became sick with a stomach bug and third time unlucky he ended up passing a kidney stone!
A literary parallel
In my personal opinion the stone’s setting does not make it a particularly attractive piece of jewellery but it is interesting. The silver ring is decorated “with astrological symbols and mystical words with two scarab-carved gems attached”.4 All this just adds to its preternatural air emphasising the stone’s religious significance.
As I was reading about the curse, I could not help see parallels with the plotline of “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins. The background to the story concerns the murderous actions of a British army officer who steals a valuable Indian diamond from a holy shrine during the Siege of Seringapatam. This sets in motion a series of unfortunate consequences for himself, his niece and many others. Whether here the theft of the diamond really invokes a curse is open to interpretation but it is noticeable that peace is only truly restored when the Moonstone is returned to its temple by its hereditary guardians.
Although “The Moonstone” is meant to be based on the origin story of either the Hope Diamond or the Black Orlov Diamond (both also believed to be cursed gems with equally colourful histories), it could easily refer to the Delhi Purple Sapphire. All three gems were stolen from India and all seemed to have exacted their revenge. What is difficult to understand is why in the case of the Delhi Purple Sapphire did no one think to follow the advice given in “The Moonstone” and return the stone to its rightful place? It may have ended the curse but then again it would have made a less interesting story.
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
Short Biography of Edward Heron-Allen by R.B. Russell, http://www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted_sites/heronallen/ehabiog.htm
Sinister Sparkle Gallery: 13 Mysterious & Cursed Gemstones, http://www.livescience.com/18407-mysterious-cursed-gems-diamonds.html
The Delhi Purple Sapphire, http://www.gemselect.com/help/newsletter/newsletter-mar-12.php
The Cursed Delhi Purple Sapphire, http://www.otherworldnortheast.org.uk/the-cursed-delhi-purple-sapphire/
Cursed stone goes on display in London by Deidre Woollard, http://www.luxist.com/tag/the+delhi+purple+sapphire/