The Mysterious Moving Coffins of Barbados
Graves and cemeteries are inherently spooky places. Even the best kept and cleanest ones carry with them some intangible air of death and decay. They are reminders of our mortality and where we will end up some day after we’ve cast off our mortal coil. These places are even spookier when they carry unexplained, supernatural mysteries. Graves, tombs, and cemeteries have long been known as places for paranormal or ghostly occurrences, and to find one of the more bizarre cases, one only has to look to the Caribbean paradise of Barbados.
Barbados is an island in the Lesser Antilles of the southern Caribbean Sea and is best known as a sun-kissed, tropical island paradise popular among tourists and travelers aboard cruise ships. It is lesser known for its mysterious burial vault long known for the bizarre and unexplainable phenomena associated with it. In the early 19th century, starting from the year 1807, the Chase Family Vault in the Christ Church Parish cemetery of Barbados, quickly gained notoriety as a hotbed of supernatural activity, and has become one of the most enduring and enigmatic mysteries on the island.
The Chase Family vault is a burial vault located on a hill overlooking the Caribbean at the entrance to the Christ Church Parish cemetery, an ancient colonial cemetery which is near the village of Oistin on the southern coast of Barbados. The vault was built half sunken into the ground and is constructed out of compacted blocks of the coral that makes up much of the island’s foundations, as well as concrete. The vault is entered via descending stone steps and sealed by an enormous slab of blue marble that reportedly required 6 or 7 men to move.
The Chase Vault was originally constructed for a Mr. James Elliot in 1724 and had already been old and weathered by time and the salty air when it was purchased in the year 1808 by the wealthy Chase Family of Barbados for use as a family tomb. The Chase family was not liked by the local people due to their eccentric behavior and vicious treatment of their slaves. The original owner, James Elliot, had never actually been buried within the vault and at the time of the purchase only one body had already been interred there, a Ms. Thomasina Goddard, who was housed there in 1807. The head of the family, Colonel Thomas Chase, decided not to disturb Goddard’s body and allowed it to stay within the vault. Goddard would not remain alone within the tomb for long.
In 1808, an infant born in the Chase family by the name of Mary-Anne Maria Chase, died and was interred within the vault within a heavy lead casket. In a tragic and almost sinister turn of events, the infant’s own sister, Dorcas Chase, died under mysterious circumstances 4 years later in 1812. It is said that her father’s abuse and cruelty had driven her to commit suicide by starving herself to death. Dorcas was similarly buried within the vault in a heavy metal casket that took several people to haul down into the darkness. Death was not done with the family just yet. In August of 1812, just a month after the death of his daughter, Dorcas, Thomas Chase himself died. Ominously, his cause of death was also reportedly suicide. Thomas Chase’s body subsequently joined those of his two daughters within the vault when he was buried in a very heavy metal casket that reportedly weighed around 240 pounds and allegedly took 8 men to carry down and put in place.
According to most accounts, it was during the interment of Thomas Chase that the paranormal characteristics of the vault came to manifest themselves. Upon shifting the huge marble slab to bring in Chase’s casket, it was discovered that at some point the coffin of Dorcas Chase had mysteriously moved so that it was standing upright and upside down against one of the walls. The baby’s coffin has also been moved against the wall. It was not immediately apparent as to how such heavy metal caskets had been thrown into such drastic disarray, especially as no one else was known to have entered the vault since Dorcas’ death and the marble slab had remained exactly as it had been left. In addition, the coffins and the bodies had not been disturbed and nothing had been stolen. The incident was blamed on vandals, the coffins put back where they belonged, and the vault was resealed even tighter than it had been before to deter any future break-ins.
Not much thought was given to the strange occurrence until 1816, when 11 year old Charles Brewster Ames was buried there. Again, upon unsealing the dank tomb, all of the coffins, including the enormous one of Thomas Chase himself, were haphazardly placed about the room as if they had been tossed about like toys. As before, there was no sign of tampering on the entrance. Several bewildered men toiled to set the coffins back in their proper places and resealed the tomb yet again.
The story began to take hold among the superstitious local populace. Whispers circulated of black magic and ghosts, and it was said that the tomb was haunted, cursed, or both. There were many stories around this time that have the feeling of creepy campfire tales. One such story goes that a woman on horseback heard menacing shrieks and groans emanating from the tomb as she passed it. Her horse allegedly went into a berserk panic, foaming at the mouth and threatening to throw the woman off. It was then reported that several other horses in the nearby village became insane in the ensuing days and mindlessly dove into the bay, where they drowned.
Two more times the vault was reopened. One more time in 1816 for Samuel Brewster and again in 1819 for a Thomasina Clark, and both times the coffins were found to be thrown into disorder, moved drastically from their original positions. In all of the cases, the only coffin that remained untouched and in its original position was the humble, wooden casket of the vault’s original occupant, Thomasina Goddard. The frail wooden casket had not only remained in its place, but had been missed and undamaged by the heavy lead coffins shifting around it.
The phenomena caught the attention of the governor of Barbados at the time, Lord Combermere, who had been present at Clark’s funeral and had witnessed the bizarre occurrence for himself. He ordered a thorough and extensive inspection of the tomb to look for any evidence to explain the strange happenings. The governor’s wife explained the investigation thus:
“In my husband’s presence, every part of the floor was sounded to ascertain that no subterranean passage or entrance was concealed. It was found to be perfectly firm and solid; no crack was even apparent. The walls, when examined, proved to be perfectly secure. No fracture was visible, and the sides, together with the roof and flooring, presented a structure so solid as if formed of entire slabs of stone.”
After this examination of the vault, the displaced coffins were all restored to their original positions with great effort and measures were taken to ensure that such a thing would not happen again. The governor had the marble slab completely sealed with mortar and additionally put impressions of his signet ring into the wet cement to discourage vandals. As an extra, precautionary measure, the floor of the tomb was dusted with a fine, white sand in order to capture evidence of anyone breaking in to once again defile the coffins.
When 8 months had passed, the governor’s curiosity got the better of him and he ordered the vault to be reopened just to be sure. When he arrived with a party of men at the tomb, he was relieved to see that the mortar seal was unbroken, the ring impressions were intact, and there was no sign of trespassing. Satisfied that no one had broken in, a sort of macabre curiosity nevertheless compelled the governor to have the vault opened anyway. Immediately, it became apparent that something was awry. Oddly, Thomas Chase’s coffin had been thrown up against the marble entrance almost as if in an attempt to bar entry. It took many men to dislodge the heavy coffin and finally gain entry. What they found inside completely shocked all present. The coffins were once again in disorder, only this time evidently more violently than on previous occasions. Some of the coffins were described as being upended and tossed upon each other, and the infant Mary-Anne’s coffin had been smashed against a wall with such force that a chunk had broken off the corner.
Eerily, the coating of white sand upon the floor was completely undisturbed, with not a single footprint to be seen. There was no sign of flooding or any other disruption either. The sand, floor and walls were totally dry. Additionally, it seemed unlikely that a perpetrator could have escaped past the large coffin that had been blocking the door, even if they had somehow managed to get in without breaking the seal of the door or even managed to budge the door at all to begin with. Nathan Lucas, a member of the Barbados House of Assembly at the time, was present and had this to say about the strange scene unfolding before him:
“…I examined the walls, the arch, and every part of the Vault, and found every part old and similar; and a mason in my presence struck every part of the bottom with his hammer, and all was solid. I confess myself at a loss to account for the movements of these leaden coffins. Thieves certainly had no hand in it; and as for any practical wit or hoax, too many were requisite to be trusted with the secret for it to remain unknown; and as for negroes having anything to do with it, their superstitious fear of the dead and everything belonging to them precludes any idea of the kind. All I know is that it happened and that I was an eye-witness of the fact…”
Upon witnessing such a grim and inexplicable sight, the governor decided to put an end to the phenomenon once and for all. He went about ordering the interred bodies to be buried separately in individual graves throughout the Christ Church Parish cemetery. The Chase vault itself was ordered to remain vacant and no further bodies were ever buried there. It remains empty to this day.
No further unexplainable phenomena occurred at the vault after being emptied, so perhaps it is better that the bodies were ultimately separated to be buried on their own. It seems that when thrown together they had had some volatile reaction to one another that reverberated from the shadowy realm beyond our understanding into the concrete world that our eyes and ears tell us exists. These were the dead not meant to share space in an eternal darkness together. Could they have been perhaps able to find some iota of peace in their being cast apart from one another? Or was something else was at work?
Like other such mysteries of the supernatural, there have been many attempts to explain the events that transpired at the Chase Vault. The theories range from the paranormal, such as ghosts or even that Goddard was a vampire, to the more rational attempts to explain the phenomenon, like seismic activity or underwater flooding. These “rational” explanations tend to come up lacking. If seismic activity was to blame, there would surely have been similar damage to nearby tombs, of which there was none. Flooding also seems unlikely as such heavy caskets would be unlikely to float except in the most extreme cases, and there had been no sign of any such occurrence within the vault at any rate. Even if there had been flooding at work, why would it not have phased the more buoyant wooden coffin of Goddard, the only one to consistently remain unaffected by the weird phenomenon going on around it? Others believe the events that unfurled at the Chase Vault are neither paranormal nor more mundane in nature. Some skeptics believe that the story is completely fabricated, that it is nothing more than a local myth, or even a hoax.
Whatever the cause might be, there is no denying that the perplexing mystery of the Chase Vault endures. No explanations offered thus far have managed to satisfy everyone and so the mystery of the Chase Vault remains essentially unsolved. What happened within the dark, subterranean confines of this eerie tomb all of those years ago? Only the corpses buried there would be privy to such revelations and they are not talking. Perhaps we will never really know for sure. For now, the tomb remains vacant, the echoes of its haunted past the only thing left to inhabit it.