In the town of Oistins, Barbados, there’s a mysterious empty vault in a cemetery next to Christ Church Parish Church. The vault itself looks like many others of its size, but locals tell tales of the moving coffins it once contained.
A man named James Elliot purchased what is now known as the Chase vault in 1724. The first to occupy it was his wife, Elizabeth, in 1792. However, in 1807 another family by the name of Walrond purchased the vault, with the intent of allowing Elizabeth Elliot’s coffin to stay there.
However, when they opened it to lay a woman called Thomasina Goddard to rest, a shocking sight met their eyes. Mrs. Elliot’s coffin was gone, and no one could explain why.
Nevertheless, Thomasina Goddard was placed inside the empty tomb, and no one ever discovered what had happened to Mrs. Elliot.
The Chase vault and its moving coffins
Things got even stranger once the Chase family acquired the vault in 1808. First, they placed little Mary Ann Chase inside, who passed away when she was only 2 years old. Thomas Chase allowed Goddard’s coffin to remain inside.
Four years later, Mary Ann’s sister Dorcas starved herself to death. Many believe she was driven to madness because of her father’s abusive behavior. Whatever the case, she was placed inside the tomb, and her father joined her that same year, having taken his own life. However, when workers opened the crypt to place Thomas among the others, all the coffins moved from their places.
It looked like they had been tossed about violently, as though they were feather-light and not made of heavy lead. In fact, Dorcas and Mary Ann’s coffins were standing upright against a wall. Immediately people wondered whether vandals had entered the tomb and tampered with the caskets– but the seal on the heavy marble tomb door had not been broken, and nothing had been stolen.
After placing Thomas’s casket in among the rest and rearranging the coffins to their original positions, the door of the tomb was sealed more tightly than before.
An unsolved mystery
Family members opened the mysterious tomb once again in 1816, this time to bury Charles Brewster Ames, a young boy. This time, all the coffins were in disarray–even Thomas Chase’s large, heavy lead casket. It appeared as though an earthquake or a flood had tossed them around, yet no earthquake or flood had taken place. Even if it had, it surely would have moved coffins in other vaults, but this was not the case.
That same year, Samuel Brewster joined the moving coffins in their mysterious tomb, and in 1819, a woman called Thomasina Clark. Each time, the coffins were seen scattered haphazardly about, and on some occasions they had broken corners or were partially open, and Thomasina Goddard’s skeleton was hanging out. Locals wondered if the supernatural was involved. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, suggested that the restless spirits of Dorcas and Thomas wreaked havoc in the tomb, thanks to the fact that they died by suicide.
Setting a trap
It was at this point that the governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere, decided to get involved. He placed sand on the tomb floor and cemented the marble slab at the opening in place. Nevertheless, when workers opened the tomb again in 1820, the coffins had moved–but the sand remained untouched.
At this point, either Lord Combermere or the family declared that the coffins should be moved out of the vault, and buried elsewhere. They were each buried in separate locations. The vault itself stayed empty, open, and unsealed.
Unraveling a centuries-old mystery
There are several versions of exactly how these events took place. For example, one version states that Lord Combermere did not command workers to place sand in the tomb, but rather came to observe the crypt when it was opened in 1920, after the family who owned it had placed the sand.
Nevertheless, a few things are certain: the Chase vault exists, and there are death records for all the people who were supposedly buried there. The only thing left to examine is whether the coffins of those people actually occupied the Chase tomb at some point.
Theories about the Chase vault
Modern scientists and researchers have explored several theories to try to explain the moving coffins of the Chase vault. The first is that perhaps an earthquake shook them about. However, earthquakes are not very common in Barbados, and not one was recorded from 1812 to 1820.
The second theory is that perhaps the vault became flooded with water. This is plausible, since the vault is 3.7 meters deep, just below ground level. It’s possible that the crypt became flooded with rainwater and the coffins floated around, crashing into each other and causing the type of damage that workers and onlookers observed each time they opened the vault. In addition, coffins can float, even if they are the heavy kind made from lead.
Further evidence supporting this theory is the fact that Barbados gets plenty of rain. In fact, it rains about half of the days of the year! It is possible that the Chase vault received enough rainfall to fill it during the Caribbean rainy season, and that the water drained out, leaving the coffins in very different positions when they came to rest. However, the flood theory does NOT explain how the sand could have remained unmoved.
An explanation from Freemasonry?
Another strange explanation comes from Joe Nickell, a researcher at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Although he believed that the dates of death were accurate, he surmised that the tale was actually fabricated to serve as a sort of allegory for Freemasons. This is because the language used in the oldest known versions of the story supposedly contain Masonic symbols.
Furthermore, folks tell a similar tale about moving coffins in a vault in an island off the coast of Estonia. It’s possible that the Freemasons used this story as inspiration, and simply changed the time and place, leaving all other story elements the same.
Visiting the Chase vault
If you take a Caribbean vacation to Barbados, you can visit the Chase vault yourself. While you’re there, you may want to check out the beautiful, historic church on the property.
Main image source: Barbados.org