The Moving Coffins of Barbados

An old tale tells of coffins that jumbled themselves up in a crypt in Barbados.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under History & Pseudohistory, Paranormal, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #399
January 28, 2014
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It was 1812 when wealthy landowner Colonel Thomas Chase died by his own hand on the island of Barbados in the Lesser Antilles. He was not a well loved man, and was known for excessive cruelty to his slaves and his bad temper. His body was borne to the family vault he'd purchased some twelve years before, which already contained the remains of two of his daughters. The great marble slab covering the stairs down into the vault was moved aside, and eight strong men bore the heavy, lead lined coffin into its resting place. But a horrifying surprise awaited the burial party. Sometime within the preceding month, the coffins in the vault had all been moved, and were found scattered helter-skelter about the small stone-walled crypt. So goes the story of the moving coffins of Barbados.

The story goes on to say that on four other occasions, from 1816 through 1820, the Chase Vault was opened and again the coffins had all been moved around. Each time they were carefully replaced, the vault was sealed, and not once was any evidence of tampering found.

Barbados was a British colony, its economy largely based on tobacco and cotton, and largely at the expense of imported black slaves. The existing church overlooking the Chase Vault is the fourth built on the current site, and the fifth overall. The original Christ Church Parish Church was built in 1629, close to the shore, but was destroyed by high waters 40 years later. It wasn't replaced until 1780, further inland and on higher ground, alongside an old cemetery. The Chase Vault was already there, though had not yet been used, when this first church was built. The church has since been rebuilt three times after various hurricanes and fires.

Researchers think the vault was built in about 1724 for a man named James Elliott who never used it, a stone room with an arched roof, 3.7 meters deep and 2 meters wide, built just below ground level, and accessed via stairs. That much can be seen with a visit, but for the history of burials, we turn to the Book of Christ Church, a surviving original record that recorded burial details (among other things). It was more than 80 years before the Chase Vault's first known occupant, Thomasina Goddard, was buried in 1807. She was left in place when Thomas Chase purchased it, at the death of his daughter Mary Ann Maria Chase in 1808. Sadly he had to bury a second daughter, Dorcas Chase, in 1812. It was only a month later that he died himself, and it was this opening of the vault that first revealed the apparent vandalism.

The infant Samuel Brewster Ames was buried there in 1816, and once again, the coffins had been scrambled. Thomas Chase's coffin was said to be leaning head-down against the wall. The coffins were properly stacked and the vault was closed again, but two months later when the adult Samuel Brewster was laid to rest, it was again found in disarray. When the Chase Vault accepted its final occupant, Thomasina Clark, in 1819, it was again found disturbed. This time, officials took notice. The vault was inspected and found to be solid with no secret passages or other access. A plan was made to later open the vault to check for integrity. Sand was raked smooth on the floor to capture any footprints. The marble slab covering the stairs was cemented in place, and several government officials — including the governor Lord Combermere — were said to have placed their official seals in the cement.

In 1820 the vault was duly opened. All was undisturbed including the sand and the seals, except the coffins, which were — as before — irreverently scattered and tumbled atop one another. The coffins were all removed and buried separately, and the vault was left open and unsealed, where it remains to this day.

The story looks pretty solid. The vault is there, and the death records are on file. The only thing that's missing is any evidence that anyone was placed in the vault — ever.

So where does the story come from? There was a paragraph or two outlining the same events I've just given in Captain James Alexander's 1833 book Transatlantic Sketches, but he gave no source. It wasn't until 1907 that a very thorough researcher by the name of Andrew Lang gave a talk that was published in Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review on Myth, Tradition, Institution & Custom. Lang and his correspondents uncovered not only Alexander's book but also accounts from the day, such as the burial records in the Book of Christ Church that confirmed the deaths, but also original accounts of the disrupted coffins, such as that said to have been given by the Governor himself in his 1868 Memoirs and Letters of Lord Combermere. Unfortunately there do not seem to be any surviving copies of this book, and even Lang was unable to find it.

Lang also uncovered several second-hand tellings of the tale, all of which traced back to a man identified as the rector of the Christ Church Parish Church, and whose name was variously given as either Thomas Harrison or Thomas Orderson.

Sir Robert H. Schomburgk's 1848 book The History of Barbados gives a slightly different version of the story. He says that Lord Combermere only heard about the disturbed coffins and that it was the family who decided to scatter the sand on the floor, and that Lord Combermere showed up at the church in 1820 and ordered the vault opened to see for himself. He and his party discovered the coffins thrown about, the largest of which was actually blocking the door. Unfortunately Schomburgk did not provide a source.

Modern researchers have also had a crack at this tale, most notably the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's full-time researcher Joe Nickell. Recall the frequent advice we so often refer to on Skeptoid: Before trying to explain an unusual event, first make sure the unusual event actually happened. Nickell was unconvinced by the documentary evidence. He didn't dispute the deaths and their dates, just the entire story of the vault. Nickell found a different explanation for the story, from the world of Freemasonry, which he laid out in Fate magazine in 1982. Nickell claimed that the language used in the oldest accounts to describe the strange tale was laden with Masonic symbology. He argued that the entire case was not an account of literal events alleged to have actually taken place, but rather that it was an allegory constructed from Masonic symbols; such as the sound of a hammer used to certify the solidity of the vault's walls, the arched ceiling representing the Royal Arch degree, the whole idea of a secret vault as central to Freemasonry, and of course the men who sealed the door with cement referred to as masons.

Various researchers have also suggested natural explanations, the first being earthquakes. This has been nearly universally rejected, as Barbados is not very seismically active, and no special earthquakes were recorded there during 1812 to 1820.

The other natural explanation that has been repeatedly suggested is water. If water got into the vault, it could have floated the coffins into virtually any position. This raises a number of questions. Are the coffins buoyant? Could water have gotten into the vault and drained out unnoticed? Where would the water have come from?

We can estimate the buoyancy of the lead lined coffins. They would have floated only if their weight was less than the equivalent volume of water. We don't have the dimensions of any of the coffins, but we can guess. A coffin is a six-sided affair, like the kind Dracula would sit up from; as opposed to a casket which is a rectangular box. Coffins are more compact, thus with less volume, thus are less likely to float than a casket. I looked up the dimensions of all kinds of coffins — there is clearly no such thing as a standard size — and the volumes I calculated ranged from 400 to 900 liters in volume. That means they'd displace 400 to 900 kilograms of water.

Some of today's mortuary guidelines suggest that the average casket weighs about 150 kilograms, about 25 kilograms for each of six pallbearers. Thomas' coffin is said to have required eight men to move, and if we assume that they were straining twice as hard as the average pallbearer, they were lifting only 400 kilograms. So although these numbers are all best-guess estimates, Thomas' coffin was at least neutrally buoyant, and more than likely floated like a cork.

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The Chase Vault is located at an elevation of about 33 meters, on Pleistocene coral reef limestone which is highly porous and has a fast percolation rate. This means that if the vault were to become inundated with water somehow, it would easily drain out through the ground. Even Sir Schomburgk, a surveyor and geographer by trade, noted this characteristic in his 1848 book. Barbados gets a lot of rain; it rains half the days of the year and averages around 100mm per month. I did not find any studies looking into the question of whether the Chase Vault happens to collect much rainwater, but in my view, this is very much a possibility. More than enough water is there; more than enough drainage capacity exists in the vault; and more than enough buoyancy was in those coffins.

However, it's probably more likely that Nickell's proposal is closer to the mark. Lang's 1907 report was not so much about the Barbados coffins themselves as it was about the fact that another virtually identical story comes from half a world away, on an island off Estonia. The events align nearly perfectly with those from Barbados, except they begin in 1844, not 1812. The major story elements are all matched. Officials placed their seals on the doors, and wood ash (rather than sand) was scattered on the floor to capture footprints. Even the element of the head of the family being a suicide was duplicated. No mentions of Masonic elements was made in the Estonian account, but the idea of folkloric tales being repeated and adapted across different cultures is not new.

So must we conclude that poltergeists were at work in the Chase Vault? Unfortunately, no testable evidence exists that there were ever any coffins in the vault at all; or that any were ever found disturbed. No original sources were ever found; only unevidenced claims that the rector said this, or that the governor said that in his memoirs. But even if we were to accept that the story must have happened exactly as reported in the folklore, then Barbados' abundant supply of basement-flooding rainwaters offers a perfectly rational explanation. Whenever you hear a story that seems to confound what's possible, you should always be skeptical.

Brian Dunning

© 2014 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Alexander, J. Transatlantic Sketches. Philadelphia: Key and Biddle, 1833. 96.

DOE. "Geology of Barbados." Energy. Government of Barbados, 16 Dec. 2007. Web. 22 Jan. 2014. <http://www.energy.gov.bb/web/geology-of-barbados>

Editors. "Average weather in Bridgetown, Barbados." World Weather and Climate Information. World Weather and Climate Information, 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. <http://www.weather-and-climate.com/average-monthly-Rainfall-Temperature-Sunshine,Bridgetown,Barbados>

Lang, A. "Death's Deeds: A Bi-Located Story." Folk-lore: A Quarterly Review. 1 Jan. 1907, Volume 18: 376-390.

Nickell, J. "Barbados' restless coffins laid to rest." Fate. 1 Apr. 1982, Volume 35, Number 4: 50-56.

Owen, R. Footfalls in the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: Lippencott and Company, 1861. 186-191.

Schomburgk, R. The History of Barbados. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848. 221.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Moving Coffins of Barbados." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 28 Jan 2014. Web. 22 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4399>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 19 comments

Hello Brian:

In this story you mention a similar account from "an island off Estonia". Do you happen to know the name of the island? I'm curious because I do fieldwork on Estonian islands. Thanks.

Mark

Mark Wilson, Wooster, OH
January 29, 2014 12:54pm

Regarding the water borne hypothesis, as the vault is accessible to all the world today, has there been any reports of similar floodings since the olden day investigations, that would be another piece of evidence.

We hear so much lore and legend, even from the last few hundred years, I think misunderstandings, misinformation, plain ignorance and the passage of time after events makes something like JN threw in the pot about the Masons...

Oh wait...Masons, pretty close to the Illuminati, is that, I sense a Reptilian conspiracy lol

Scott Palmer, Bristol, UK
January 29, 2014 3:06pm

Well written article with no guidance on a particular bent by brian.

Kudos to you brian.

If I may I find the flooding by water interesting.

Let me play skeptic on that theory.

I find it doubtful that (taking the story of the attempt of securing the vault at face value) that the officials of the time would not have found a vast amount of evidence of water being present and it being reported.

First that much water would have had some massive staining, a line on the walls showing a high water mark, some sort of mold/slime/growth of some type and the sand spread being moved (at the very least) or washed away.

Given that (at least reported) that the officials wanted to find a factual reason (skeptics of their time) that such a detail would have been ignored.

I also would ask if such flooding has been happening recently, especially given the fact the tomb has been left open.

Eric, Northern IL USA
January 29, 2014 11:27pm

The Estonian events took place in the town of Kuressaare, on the island Saaremaa. However, in 1844 they were known by their Swedish names Arensburg and Ösel.

Teemu, Finland
January 30, 2014 10:39am

You and Blame it on Outer Space both did your episodes this week on the moving coffins. Coincidence or conspiracy?

kyle, Nevada
January 31, 2014 1:55pm

There used to be a mystery along these lines, people would go into the vault over night, the next morning they were found dead and the big iron coffin was standing upright . . . I need to find it.

Thomas Barnett, St. Paul
February 10, 2014 6:50pm

The flooding hypotheses seems hopeless to me. If the vault were prone to flooding, it would be observable to this day and would affect the whole of the burial ground. Also, with six or seven coffins in there, the tiny space would be cramped and there would be nowhere for the coffins to go. Also, how could flooding move a coffin so that it was placed head down against a wall. Water would just pick the box up and return it more or less where it was in the beginning.

I'm with Nickell - it's all fiction. I don't however understand why Masons would have invested the story - seems like a waste of time to me.

John Price, Cheltenham
February 19, 2014 9:40am

Umm... Isn't the notion that the moving coffins of Barbados story is "not an account of literal events alleged to have actually taken place, but rather... an allegory constructed from Masonic symbols" a conspiracy theory? How is the "blame the masons" explanation presented here any different from other unsubstantiated conspiracy theories so rightly castigated elsewhere on skeptoid? I went looking for Mr Nickell's original article, but it doesn't seem to be available online. So what exactly is the evidence backing this extraordinary claim? It's noted gravely that "of course the men who sealed the door with cement [are] referred to as masons". Surely this entirely correct use of the word "mason" for a professional stoneworker is not being seriously put forward as compelling evidence of a allegory promulgated [in public!] by a supposedly secret society! What exactly would be the point of said allegory anyway? What lesson for fellow freemasons would it impart? On the face of it, this "explanation" seems so silly that it looks worryingly like Mr Nickell's assertions are being accepted and repeated here without proper critical examination or demands for evidence. Is this because he happens to work for an organisation called the Committee for Sceptical Inquiry? Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, no matter which side of the paranormal debate you happen to represent.

Hemlock, Australia
April 28, 2014 12:32am

It would be interesting to know of exactly what metal the caskets were made. Perhaps they built up magnetic energy (for lack of a bettor word) and began to repel each other. That would explain why the wooden coffin never moved. Just a theory. Personally, I'd rather think it was the original occupant that didn't want the others there.

jbdean, Los Angeles
July 27, 2014 11:52am

This story excluded the "fact" that the first coffin interred was made of wood and was never one of the coffins that was moved around. It was always found right where it was supposed to be. Was this little piece of the story left out on purpose?

Dino, South Bend Indiana
September 19, 2014 11:50am

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