Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mystery of the Moving Coffins

This mystery took place in the West Indies at Christ Church Parish Barbados in the early 19th century.  It involved several incidents of moving coffins within the Chase family vault. This vault is located seven miles from Bridgetown in a cemetery in Oistins, Barbados.

The first coffin to be placed in this vault which is built half above and half below ground held the body of a Chase family friend by the name of Mrs. Thomasin Goddard. She was placed in a simple wooden coffin built in July of 1807. 

Next to be placed in the vault was two year-old Mary Anna Maria Chase in 1808. Her older sister Dorcas Chase was placed in the vault on July 6, 1812. Both girls were buried in heavy lead caskets. Some people at the time said Dorcas starved herself to death because she was in a deep depression at the time, a state brought on by having to live with her ruthless father.

A few weeks after Dorcas was placed in the vault her father, Thomas Chase died, at his own hand, and was placed in the vault. His casket was so heavy it took eight men to carry it. Legend states that Thomas was one of the most despised men in Barbados. It was at this juncture the mystery began.

As Thomas Chase’s coffin was placed within the vault the pallbearers who carried his coffin noticed that the two coffins of his daughters that had been put in the vault earlier where not where they had been placed. Mary Ann’s coffin was lying upside-down in the opposite corner from where it had been placed. 

The family coffins where moved back in their original positions side by side, with Thomas’ coffin next to them. Mary Ann’s coffin being small was set on top of one of the larger coffins; the crypt was resealed with its heavy stone door.

The locals began to whisper about this unusual event. The mourners blamed the Chase slaves who had assisted in the burials. It was stated that they were taking revenge upon a very cruel master. In reality, his slaves did hate Thomas Chase for he was a cruel master but their superstitions would have prevented them from disturbing the dead. The whispers stopped eventually.

Four years later in September of 1816 the vault was once again opened to bury an infant Charles Brewster Ames. Just as before the coffins where not where they had been left. In fact this time it appeared they had been thrown about, including the coffin of Thomas Chase, which weighted two hundred and forty pounds. Again the vault was put back in order and sealed.

Shortly after, the vault was reopened to bury Samuel Brewster. This time a large group of witnesses were brought to view the vault as it was opened. 

The stone slab that covered the door was carefully examined. No trace of tampering was found but when the vault was opened once again the coffins where found out of place. Mrs. Goddard’s coffin, the only wooden one was badly damaged so it was wrapped in wire to keep it together.

This time the vault was investigated to see if a reasonable cause for the moving coffins could be found. 

One witness the Reverend Thomas D. Orderson who examined the vault was perplexed when nothing was found that could explain the strange happenings. Orderson later made detailed drawings of how the caskets were found. Once again the vault was set to rights and sealed.

It was determined that an influx of water could not be the cause because the vault was one hundred feet above sea level and water would have to flow through flint rock. It was also determined the vault was too far inland for water to reach.

In July of 1819 the vault was opened to bury Thomas Clarke, again the coffins were in disarray. Ironically, this time the one coffin left untouched was Mrs. Goddard’s wooden one. One of the witnesses present was the governor of the island, Lord Combermere who ordered a professional investigation. 

The entire vault was looked over carefully but no explanation could be found. This time the coffins were restacked and Mrs. Goddard’s coffin was placed against the wall. Sand was placed upon the floor in an effort to catch the footprints of any who might enter the vault. The vault was reclosed and the personal seals of the governor were placed in concrete.

One eyewitness, Nathan Lucas stated, “Thieves certainly had no hand in it, and as for practical wit or hoax, so many were requisite to be trusted with the secret of it to remain unknown.”

Combermere’s widow wrote about the mystery years later, “the events were so inexplicable—that they may be supernatural.”

By this time the entire island awaited the next opening of the vault. In April of 1820 the vault was opened not for a burial but to satisfy the governors curiosity. Thousands of people were present as the governor and several friends approached the vault, they discovered the seal was unbroken. 

When they attempted to remove the stone that sealed the entrance it would not budge. They enlisted the help of more men and discovered the cause—Thomas Chase’s huge coffin was standing on its head with its end resting against the middle of the entrance slab.  

When the governor and his companions entered the vault they found the coffins had all moved once again. Some were even flipped upside down. “The coffin of an infant had been hurled with so much force against the opposite wall, near where it was lying, that a deep indentation had been made in the stonework by the corner where it struck.” 

To their amazement the sand on the floor revealed no footprints.

Another witness, Sir Robert Schomburgk described the vault in this manner, “The coffins were flung about as if they had been toys in the hands of some gargantuan child, and no human agency could have possibly contrived the disturbance.”

After this the mystery still unsolved, the vault was abandoned at the request of the Chase family. The coffins inside were buried in other locations. The vault itself still stands at Christ Church but it is vacant.

A side note to this story: 

Governor or Lord Combermere was struck by a horse drawn carriage and killed. The entire household was attending his funeral when a photographer took what is now a very famous photo of his ghost sitting in his favorite chair in his Combermere Abbey Library located in Chesire England.

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