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