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The Coffins That Kept Moving: Barbados Tomb Mystery

By J. Mark Soveign    3/8/08

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Perhaps one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time is about an old burial vault that was located on a high, windswept hill overlooking the Caribbean.  The mystery occurred at Christ Church, Barbados, near the village of Oistin.
 
It's called The Chase Vault and it is at the center of one of the island of Barbados' most chilling and sinister mysteries.  The tomb stands at the entrance to the Christ Church Graveyard in Barbados and is built of large cemented blocks of coral. It measures 12 feet by 6 feet and is sunk halfway into the ground.  It is mentioned in practically every ghost story book in print, but how well do you know the story of the Barbados Tomb Mystery?

The incidents themselves which make up the story occured between the years 1807 and 1820 in the Christ Church Parish cemetery near Oistins, in Barbados.   Barbados is an independent island nation.  It is the eastern-most Caribbean island situated in the Atlantic Ocean.  The country lies in the southern Caribbean region.  The island was uninhabited when first settled by the British in 1627.  Slaves worked the sugar plantations established on the island until 1834 when slavery was abolished.  The economy remained heavily dependent on sugar, rum, and molasses production through most of the 20th century.

It is made out of white coral which has weathered to a dingy gray by the passage of the time.  The tomb was hewn from stone and constructed from coral and concrete.  Large stone blocks were firmly cemented together, creating walls that were nearly two feet thick.  The floor space inside was reached by several descending steps.  When the entrance is closed off by a huge slab of blue marble, it effectively seals the vault until it is required to admit another coffin.

To the passerby, it looks like just another monument, as dead and ancient as the rest of the colonial cemetery in which it lies.  But this vault is anything but ordinary.  It has been empty for 180 years, and to this day for no offical reason.  The Chase Vault was constructed for James Elliot around 1724.  The vault was built so that it would be partially underground.  It measured approximately 12 feet front to back and 6 1/2 feet wide.  However, Elliot was never interred there.

The vault was first used for the burial of a Mrs. Thomasina Goddard whose wooden coffin was placed inside on July 31 1807.  The Chase family purchased the vault a year after this interment.  Soon afterwards the Chase Family used the vault to bury a Chase infant in 1808 and then an adult daughter, Dorcas, in July 1812 a probably suicide.  Both individuals were buried in lead coffins.  Nothing unusual inside the vault was reported during these internments. The vault was resealed with the heavy marble slab that was cemented in place, a practice performed on all subsequent internments.

They Chases were a family of wealthy plantation owners on the island.  There was nothing out of the ordinary reported about the vault until August 8, 1812, when it was opened again for the burial of Thomas Chase himself. Astonishingly, the two previously-interned lead coffins were found to be drastically moved from their original positions.  The infant's coffin was found standing on it's head.  The two coffins were placed back in their original side-by-side positions and the vault was re-sealed.

In 1816 another burial took take place - this time for eleven year old Charles Brewster Ames.  Again the coffins were everywhere but in their proper places.  The 240 lb. lead coffin of Thomas Chase which was so heavy, it took eight men to move it was also in the wrong location.  After putting all the coffins back in place the crypt had been completely sealed and, again, had no signs of tampering or forced entry.

On 17 November 1816, the vault was opened again to accept the body of Samuel Brewster.  This time, a large group of witnesses crowded the scene, looking to see if the mystery was to continue. The slab of marble which covered the door, was carefully examined. No defects were found, and the vault was opened.  Once again, the coffins were found to be in disarray throughout the vault.  For the third time, the coffins were moved back to their original positions and the vault sealed.

On July 17, 1819 the vault was once again opened to admit the departed Thomasina Clark, and once again found to be in disorder.  The only coffin untouched was the wooden, and fragile, one of the orginal Mrs. Goddard's.  This time, the governor of the island, Lord Combermere ordered his own professional investigation.  The entire vault was looked over, and nothing strange could be found.  The coffins were restacked (Mrs. Goddard's wooden coffin was stacked against a wall, since it was so frail) and very fine sand was placed on the floor to catch the footprints of the perpetrators.  The vault was then reclosed, and the personal seal of the governor were placed on concrete. Everyone of the island awaited the next reopening.

On 18 April 1820, some eight months after the burial of Thomasina Clark, the vault was ordered to be reopened. The seals were found to be intact, but when the entrance slab was moved the coffins, with the exception of Goddard's wooden casket, were again found to be in disarray.  The heaviest lead coffin of Thomas Chase was reported to be leaning against the inside of the vault door thus blocking any alleged perpetrator's exit.

The account in The People's Almanac includes the macabre detail that "a bony arm, that of Dorcas Chase, was sticking out of a hole in the side of the coffin."  The sand on the floor did not show any kind of human activity within the vault.  There was also no indication of flooding or earthquake.  The supernatural theory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others proposed the moving caskets were caused by the spirits of two individuals (Dorcas and Thomas) who had committed suicide and, therefore, were cursed and restless.  After all, the coffins started moving only after Dorcas Chase was buried in 1812.

The governor ordered the coffins removed and buried elsewhere.  The vault left open; never to be used again.  To this day the mystery has never been solved.

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