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The Chase Vault – The Strange Case of the Moving Coffins

The coffins have moved again! Every time they opened the vault, it was the same macabre story. The heavy coffins had been strewn about like matchboxes. As fear and hysteria mounted, the Governor of the island ordered the vault to be sealed. Then came reports of ‘unearthly scufflings’ inside and once more the tomb had to be opened. What they saw made the workmen drop their tools and take to their heels.

Chase Vault - Moving CoffinsEveryone who attended the funeral said the same– it was the most extraordinary and significant such even in the history of Barbados. The remains of a worthy but unimportant white woman, Mrs. Thomasina Clarke, were escorted to their final resting-place by a procession of hundreds, headed by the Governor of the island, Lord Combermere, and his staff. Solemnly, on horse, on foot, and by carriage the mourners journeyed from Bridgetown, the capital, to the graveyard of Christ Church, eight miles away on Oistin Bay. There lay the vault which had caused so much controversy and fear. And it was because of the weird happenings in the Chase Vault– named after one of the islands’s most distinguished families– that Lord Combermere felt he should be present at the burial.

Although the vault had, in the past, mainly been reserved for the Chases, it was agreed that others could be interred in it. Friends of the family or those whose bereaved relatives had made a touching request. In fact, the first person to be put to rest there– 12 years earlier in 1807– had not been a Chase at all. The corpse of Mrs. Thomasina Goddard, an intimate of the family’s, had been placed there as a mark of regard.

The vault, measuring some 12 feet by 7, was considered a fine place for the deceased. Embedded in limestone rock, it was made of large blocks of coral stone firmly cemented together. From the outside, the tall arched roof appeared to be flat and the entrance was discretely set in one of the sides. The door consisted of a heavy chunk of solid marble, and it took a team of muscular laborers to open and close it.

Sudden Death

Half-a-dozen workmen were needed to seal in Mrs. Goddard– the first occupant– and she was not officially disturbed until the following February, when two-year-old Mary Anna Chase was placed beside her. Four years passed and them Mary Anna’s elder sister, Dorcas, also expired and was laid in the vault. Then, just a month later, in August 1812, yet another Chase died.

This time it was the turn of the Honorable Thomas Chase, the dead girl’s father, to be put in an expensive, lead-lined coffin and buried with full pomp and ceremony. A huge, coarse figure weighing more than 240 pounds, Chase had been a notorious bully and womanizer and was felt to be no great loss to Barbados. Nevertheless, scores of people made the pilgrimage to Christ Church to see him put underground.

It was then, as a squad of workmen pried back the marble door that the first sensation occurred. As the stone was pulled aside, the sunlight streamed into the airtight vault, people started forward to peer inside. Those at the front suddenly gasped and then froze in horror. Instead of the three previous coffins being neatly in line, they had been moved out of place. That of Mr. Goddard was lying on its side against a wall. That of Mary Anna Chase had been toppled disrespectfully into a corner. That of Dorcas Chase had been turned completely upside down.

It seemed as if some of the islanders had broken into the vault and caused the disruption. But what possible motive could such vandals have? Stifling their curiosity, the onlookers allowed the burial to go ahead. Later, however, back in Bridgetown, there was no other topic of conversation. Barbados is a small place– 21 miles long and 14 miles across– and before long everyone was discussing the bizarre goings-on and putting forward theories.

Treasure-hunting pirates was among the least grotesque of these. But it soon emerged that there was a link between the four corpses now in the vault– one which, in the circumstances, was stronger than blood or mere friendship. Each of the deceased– Mrs. Goddard, Mary Anna, Dorcas, and Thomas Chase– had died suddenly and from no apparent cause. It was whispered that they had all been murdered, poisoned by someone who had a grudge against the Chase family and their associates.

However, their conjecture ended. There was no obvious suspect and the puzzle of the displaced or ‘moving’ coffins stayed unsolved. It wasn’t until September 1816 that the talk started up again. Yet another person connected with the Chases had died– little Samuel Brewster Ames, aged 11 months. Once more no definite cause of death had been established. According to the Ames’s doctor, the baby had been ‘too weak’ to survive. At the request of the infant’s parents, Samuel was not to have an ‘ordinary’ grave. He was to enter the Chase Vault and to lie there in ‘splendor’.

The majority of those who attended the funeral were sensation-seekers. They were not disappointed. As the vault was opened for the first time in four years everyone craned forward to see or hear about what, if anything, had happened inside. At the time of the Hon. Thomas’s burial all four coffins had been reverently lined-up. But now there ¬†was again chaos in the vault– with the coffins turned over and thrown about as if they had been matchboxes.

Once again they were put straight and young Samuel’s body was placed beside them. After that there was no stopping the rumors, which spread throughout the entire British West Indies. Journalists and sightseers came to the island and one reporter wrote, “The moving of these heavy, lead-encased coffins is undoubtedly the work of black magic, of Voodoo. In my view, Voodoo witch doctors have been at work and are, for some unknown reason, taking vengeance on the souls of those buried in Chase Vault.”

The vault was again shut-up, but no special guard was placed over it. There was no investigation into the activities of local medicine-men or criminals, and the newspaperman concluded, “From all this it would appear the Lord Combermere does not want to clash or interfere with forces outside his own rational understanding. It could be said that he was afraid if he was not known to be a man of honor and courage.”

Meanwhile, the natives boycotted Christ Church and could only be made to work there under sever threats. The residents of European descent, however, were less superstitious and fearful. They arrived from Jamaica and as far away as British Honduras, on the Central American mainland, and according to the parish clerk at Christ Church were completely lacking in Christian decorum and decency. “They appeared,” he stated, “to regard that portion of hallowed ground as no better than a bull pit or a puppet show, with the advantage that it did not cost them a cent.”

It was obvious that many people were hoping for more occult happenings in the graveyard and so, when the funeral of Mrs. Thomasina Clarke was arranged– in July 1819– Lord Combermere decided to inspect the vault for himself. He and his entourage stood apprehensively by as yet again the workmen opened the chamber. The Governor was the first person to look inside it, and for once the former cavalry officer and scourge of the French in 1808, during the Peninsular War, felt his blood chill.

It seemed as if a bunch of lunatics had been set loose in the vault. Splintered and dented, the coffins looked as if they had been dashed about for sport. It was only the lead lining that had prevented the skeletons from tumbling onto the stone floor. This time the Governor did demand action. Once the coffins had again been put in their proper place and order, and that of Mrs. Clarke’s set with them, he ordered that sand should be strewn on the ground and that the door should be cemented shut. While the cement was still wet he and some of his staff pressed their seals into it.

Unearthly Scufflings

Chase Vault - BarbadosSeven months passed and periodic checks showed that the seals were still unbroken. However, there was talk of strange noises at night in the graveyard and of ‘unearthly scufflings’ inside the chamber. The stories became so hysterical that Lord Combermere held a meeting at his residence in on April 18, 1820, to discuss this latest development. There was only one way to stop the panic talk, he declared, and that was to reopen the tomb. So, later that say, he and his aides once more set off for Christ Church.

As expected, the seals had not been tampered with and there were no pick or chisel marks on the cement around the marble door. It took the natives longer than ever to chip and force the door open and once they’d done so they dropped their tools and fled. It was as well for them that they did. For, inside, the vault was a shambles. The coffins were in total disarray and, strangest and most frightening of all, there were no footprints in the white Barbados sand. The vault and its surroundings were thoroughly searched, but no clue was found.

“I examined the walls, the arch, and every part of the vault,” wrote the Hon. Nathan Lucas, one of those present, later. “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.”

This time Lord Combermere had experienced enough. He no longer cared whether the desecrators were human or otherwise. He ordered the removal of the five coffins and made arrangements for them to be reburied in another part of the churchyard. Officially, the affair was at an end. But it didn’t stop psychic investigators from probing the mystery.

Chief among these in later years was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and an obsessive believer in spiritualism and life after death. He spent the last 15 years of his life, from 1915 onward, seeking an answer to the all-important question, “Does death end all?” Regarding the macabre occurrences in the Chase Vault he had a theory…

He believed, as had many of the islanders, that all those buried in the vault had not met natural deaths. For one reason or another they had been murdered, three of them at early ages. This, therefore, brought about what Doyle called ‘effluvium’– a mysterious substance which, he said, sometimes forms after death, especially in the case of young people, and which has a ‘combustion effect’ upon the atmosphere. It was this ‘unused vitality’ emanating from the bodies which made the coffins move.

Today, despite a hurricane which devastated the churchyard in 1831, and a fire which destroyed the rebuilt church itself in 1935, the Chase Vault still exists. People are no longer buried in it, and it is now just a monument to the bizarre happenings that Conan Doyle would have called The Strange Case of the Moving Coffins.


The Chase Vault – Barbados by Locals:

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