When Thomas Leslie Harvey's aging mother Sarah Jane Harvey was admitted to the hospital in 1965, he did what any loving son might do: he decided to clean her home in the Welsh seaside town of Rhyl before she got back. In the process of doing so, however, he uncovered a gruesome mystery that would change his life forever and put his mother on the witness stand, accused of murder.
Inside the 6' 11" cupboard at the top of the stairs, which he had always been told was filled with belongings left behind by lodgers who had stayed with his mother, Thomas Harvey found a mummified body. It was the body of Francis Knight, a disabled woman who had lived with his mother some 20 years before and hadn't been seen since.
According to Sarah Harvey, Knight had been partly disabled, complaining of muscular pains during the time she spent as one of Sarah Harvey's boarders during the Second World War. When Francis Knight died, Sarah Harvey told friends that she had moved to a nursing home and continued to collect the allowance of £2 per week that Ms. Knight received from her estranged husband.
Francis Knight's body spent the next 20 years in that cupboard, wrapped in a blanket and surrounded by strips of flypaper covered in dead flies. A draft of warm ocean air that ran from the floor of the cupboard to a vent at the top apparently produced the perfect atmosphere for mummification. Newspapers at the time described the grisly scene inside the cupboard using terminology normally reserved for Gothic horror tales, "Thick cobwebs with dead spiders clung to the interior walls."
When questioned about the discovery on her hospital bed, Sarah Harvey identified the body as belonging to Francis Knight, and claimed that one evening in 1940, some 20 years before, she had gone down to the kitchen to make Ms. Knight some tea and when she returned the other woman was already dead.
She admitted to locking the body in the cupboard and collecting her allowance. However, forensic examinations of the body found ligature marks on the neck that suggested Francis Knight may have been strangled with a stocking. According to Sarah Harvey, Ms. Knight had been suffering from a cold, and it was "common knowledge" that a stocking wrapped around the neck helped to cure ailments of the throat.
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Though Sarah Harvey was tried for murder, the evidence against her was found to be insufficient, and she was convicted merely of obtaining money through deception, for which she was sentenced to 15 months in prison. After serving her time, Sarah Harvey lived out the remainder of her life in a nursing home before dying of cancer.
The grisly discovery shocked the locals and remained the talk of the town for years to come—to this day, most people in the small town of Rhyl know the story of Sarah Harvey and the Mummy in the Cupboard. The story didn't die with the passing of Sarah Harvey. At least, not for one scientist.
When local pathologists who studied the corpse of Francis Knight found themselves perplexed by its mummified state, they called in an anatomy professor named Ronald Harrison. It was Harrison who ultimately determined that the mummification had been caused by the conditions within the cupboard, putting to rest many of the more fanciful tales the circulated at the time, including claims of bizarre embalming rituals or that Ms. Knight's body had been pickled in salt water.
Harrison's examination of Rhyl's Mummy in the Cupboard piqued his interest. He went on to use some of the same techniques he had learned from examining Ms. Knight's body to study the mummies of ancient Egypt—including possibly the most famous mummy of all time, that of King Tutankhamun.
Featured photo: Strange Company