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Food Tasters and Murder

That white powder she’s adding’s not Sweet N’ Low…

This month is Thanksgiving in the US (Canada already had their feast-day a month ago). And in the spirit of well-attended banquets and murder mysteries, we’re talking food tasters.

Anyone who’s seen Game of Thrones should be familiar with the concept and the reason for it (looking at you, Joffrey Baratheon). Simply put, a food taster is someone—often employed by royalty or folks of so-called great import—whose job is to sample food and drink for their employer, ensuring that the food is safe to consume, and that poison never reaches its target (1).

The practice has been around since ancient Rome. The Emperor Claudius famously died of poisoning, even though he had a man named Halotus as a taster, making Halotus the prime murder suspect (2). As was common in those times, the tasters were often slaves, and even more recently, Adolf Hitler forced a group of women to taste his food during WWII (3). Though they were, technically, well-fed during a devastating war, the women couldn’t enjoy the food and would often cry when they began to eat because they were so afraid.

Tasters are still a thing. Though the Secret Service won’t confirm or deny whether presidents have used them, it’s been heavily rumored that most modern presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, have traveled with them (4) (5).

On that note, from your favorite mystery writers, have a safe and indulgent Thanksgiving, and enjoy the time with friends and family.

xoxo Ryley

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Need MORE to convince you? Read on.

Mummy of Mine…

With the anniversary of the discovery of King Tut, it’s only proper to expound on mummies a bit. Not so much for the scholarly application, but more for their medicinal and artistic uses.

Yummy mummy? Nope. Pass.

It wasn’t so long ago that our population used mummy powder to cure ailments (1). Ground up leathery mummy epidermis supposedly healed a variety of skin disorders. Have a splitting headache? Take two mummy dust chocolates or mummy dust vodka tinctures and call the doctor in the morning. (Imagine being a taster for those tinctures…)

And art? From the 16th century, ground mummy made excellent paint when combined with myrrh and a polymer (white pitch, generally) (2). Shadows were deepened with the transparent glaze. And it made an excellent flesh color. Since the apothecary was usually the one who procured the mummy dust and mixed the concoctions, the jump from health to art was easy.

Okay, so their dust was consumed, but why? Bitumen from the Dead Sea was purported to have great healing properties all the way back to the first century A.D. And, mistakenly, European scholars in the 15th century believed that the dark substance of the mummies, only found in the Egyptian tombs, was the same bitumen. And thus, the craze for mummies began (3). Europeans linked mummies to medicine. And since bitumen that was found naturally was very rare, they had to find alternative sources.

Imagine. Mummy Pumpkin pie spice. Or Mummy Rub for your brisket.

Tombs were ransacked. Mummies removed. Enter mummy brown paint. Enter ground mummy medicine. Enter…not enough mummies to go around.

As they began to run out of true mummies, enterprising individuals created their own—kidnapping beggars, disposing of criminals, the elderly, the poor, those with hideous diseases—and transformed them into a mummified state, passing them off as genuine thousand-year-old mummies. No one was the wiser until the 2000s when forensic studies were more advanced.

Eventually, Egyptomania waned and so did the craze of mummy dust when it was found it did nothing to heal a person and finally fell out of favor. But you could still purchase medicinal mummy powder as late as 1924.

As for the mummy brown paint color? Not all it was cracked up to be. Literally. It proved to be unreliable both in pigment and its temperament, cracking across canvas and changing with exposure to air. People also grew horrified of using human remains as paint and eventually, it stopped being made, sometime in the mid 1960s, when the mummies ran out.

And there you have it, some Thanksgiving conversation. Remember, mummy’s the word!


You say: Oh, my gosh! That WAS amazing!

I say: Just click that button below and sign up. The December Newsletter is all about Fruit Cake…and murder.

Still not convinced? Okay, Mr/Mrs/Ms/Zir Grinch. Read on.

The Boy-King: 100 Years of King Tut’s Tomb

Golden Mask of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun

On November, 26, 1922, a British Archeologist, Howard Carter, sponsored by the Earl of Carnarvon, chiseled through the final seal of an ancient tomb hidden in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings for 3000 years, and what he found changed the world (1).

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the lights, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.”

Buried in the most expensive coffin ever made (22.5 lbs of solid gold), was a pharaoh of Egypt who would have been lost to time, his incredible death mask (gold inlaid with semi-precious gems) was to represent him as a god with skin of gold, bones of silver, and hair of lapis lazuli (2).

But what lay inside his innermost sarcophagus was a pharaoh who died incredibly young—only 18 or 19 years old—who had ruled Egypt for 10 years of his short life. King Tutankhamun was frail and thin and stooped, his left foot clubbed, the bone diseased.

Imagine the headline: Beloved Boy King killed by a Hippo while punting on the Nile…

AND his mother and father were brother and sister, so the poor kid was messed up genetically because humans carry a BUNCH of recessively crappy genes, nature’s way of saying “DON’T MARRY YOUR BROTHER”. (Haven’t you ever wondered why we have so many laws and taboos against consanguineous marriage/mating?)

To top it off, King Tut had a probable fatal wound to the back of his skull. Chariot accident? Successful assassination attempt? Attacked by hippo? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

But let’s talk about the Curse of the Pharaohs (3).

“Cursed be those that disturb the rest of Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease which no doctor can diagnose.”

No one digging for treasures to be found in the tombs of the kings and queens of Egypt actually believed the inscription above. It was just scare tactics used by the elite against the people they saw as the ignorant and superstitious unwashed. (And nothing has changed…)

LOOK OUT! That guy’s got a KNIFE!

EXCEPT nine people associated with the opening of King Tut’s tomb died HORRIBLE, PREMATURE DEATHS!

Not really, but there was quite a bit of “marketing” being done by the press to keep Tut in the news and interest high (4) (5).

Lord Carnarvon, the person who sponsored the dig, died less than a year after the tomb’s opening. Carnarvon’s son said his father’s dog let out a mournful wail at his master’s death. Sure. Carnarvon died of an infected mosquito bite.

A.C. Mace, Howard Carter’s museum conservator was next to go. He was pretty old, though.

Sir Bruce Ingram, who Howard Carter gifted a mummy’s hand wearing a cursed bracelet encased in a paper weight. He didn’t die, but his house burned down. He rebuilt it only to have it swept away in a flood. Bummer.

Sir Archibald Douglas Reid was a radiologist. He X-rayed King Tut and got sick THE NEXT DAY. Dead, three days later.

I’m going to skip through a few of these because they’re pretty boring, but this one is good.

Hugh Evelyn-White, another British archeologist, who visited and may have helped excavate the tomb in 1923, committed suicide and was said to have left a note written in his own blood that said, “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear.” That actually gave me the chills.

And, last but not least, Howard Carter, who died in 1939 of lymphoma. In his bed at home.

So, the next time you bust into a cursed mummy’s tomb, 

“Beware the beat of the bandaged feet.”


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