Barbados: well macabre
In 1808 the wealthy Chase family of Barbados acquired a vault in which to inter their dead relatives. Already some eighty years old, the vault was partially underground and hewn out of the compacted coral that makes up much of the island’s foundations. Despite its age, the crypt had only housed a single occupant; one Thomasina Goddard.
The head of the Chase family, Colonel Thomas Chase, decided not to disturb Goddard and she was not moved to another vault. Indeed, she was soon saved from her lonely prostration when the young Mary-Anne Maria Chase joined her in lead-lined eternity. Then, four years later the vault was re-opened to allow Mary-Anne’s sister Dorcas’ sad entry.
The unfortunate Chase family suffered another death when Colonel Thomas himself passed away barely a month after Dorcas. Only upon this latest reopening of the vault did the foundations of the legend begin to take root. It was found that Dorcas’ coffin had moved from its original position so that it now rested against the far wall “standing on end, with its head downward” (although some sources insist that Mary-Anne’s coffin had already moved mysteriously by the time they opened the vault up for Dorcas). Blaming vandals or thieves, the funeral party replaced the coffin, slid the marble slab back over the entrance and left.
From then on, every time the vault was opened to allow the submission of another of the Chase’s relatives the vault’s contents would be in disarray. This included Thomas Chase’s heavy casket which, according to sources, took eight men to lift.
Four times over the following years would the marble slab be heaved aside and the sun’s light rush in to illuminate the enigmatic danse macabre that seemed to have thrown the coffins into morbid disarray. Finally, the strange activities began to attract attention from the island’s inhabitants and members of the public and island officials attended the next burial (Thomasina Clark’s) in great numbers.
Even the governor’s wife was present. She wrote:
“In my husband’s presence, every part of the floor was sounded to ascertain that no subterranean passage or entrance was concealed. It was found to be perfectly firm and solid; no crack was even apparent. The walls, when examined, proved to be perfectly secure. No fracture was visible, and the sides, together with the roof and flooring, presented a structure so solid as if formed of entire slabs of stone. The displaced coffins were rearranged, the new tenant of that dreary abode was deposited, and when the mourners retired with the funeral procession, the floor was sanded with fine white sand in the presence of Lord Combermere* and the assembled crowd. The door was slid into its wonted position and, with the utmost care, the new mortar was laid on so as to secure it. When the masons had completed their task, the Governour made several impressions in the mixture with his own seal, and many of those attending added various private marks in the wet mortar…”
Eight months passed until the vault was ordered to be opened once again. Rather than waiting for the next Chase to have expired, the Governor and a party of men decided to check out the crypt on their own. The cemented seals were found to be intact and no evidence of tampering could be discerned until, upon reopening, it was witnessed that once again the contents were in disarray. And indeed, it was a chaotic scene that greeted the onlookers: Mary-Anna’s coffin had come to rest against the left wall; a small chunk had been chipped off from it, seemingly from the violence of its journey. The floor’s sandy coating was undisturbed and no sign of flooding or earthquake was apparent. In fact, all the coffins seemed to have moved from their resting places.
Nathan Lucas (who is quoted with the prefix ‘The Honourable…’ in some sources, suggesting that he was a member of The Barbados House of Assembly), another eyewitness, described the event:
“…I examined the walls, the arch, and every part of the Vault, and found every part old and similar; and 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 of the fact…”
After this incident the story ends abruptly. The bodies were moved to other burial sites in the Christ Church Parish cemetery and the Chase vault left empty. It still stands vacant to this day at Oistins on the island’s southern coast.
The strange happenings at the Chase vault are not unique. At least one similar case has been reported in Suffolk, England in the late 18th century. At some un-named church, a family vault was reopened in order to add another coffin to the several lead coffins that were already in residence, only for them to have moved from their original places. By all accounts, this caused great consternation and surprise to many of the locals. The wandering coffins were replaced and the vault carefully resealed. Some time afterwards, however, the same thing occurred. The vault’s contents were again restored. The events then occurred for a third time. To quote The Stanton Courier Issue No 8 June, 1969:
“One coffin, obviously more nimble than its fellows, had managed to reach the fourth step leading to the vault. The services of eight good men and true were needed to raise it. Expert opinion maintained the weird happenings were caused by water flooding the vault, although on the three occasions it was opened no trace of water could be found. This is the obvious solution, of course, but is there another explanation? Could it have been caused by something else?”
For the Chase vault, theories abound; seismic and volcanic activity are suggested as causing the macabre movements, even proposals that Thomasina Goddard had been a vampire. Most researchers believe that the disarray was caused by rising underground water levels which made the airtight coffins float, changed their positions, and then deposited them gently as it dispersed. The modern author Joe Nickell argues that actually none of this incident contains any true mystery and that it is all a Masonic hoax. At least one researcher, Andrew Lang, couldn’t even find any reference to the baffling event in either the contemporary Barbadian newspapers or the church’s burial register.
Whatever the truth, the curious underground goings-on in the Chase vault are certainly interesting, and they make a macabre tale to recount after dark, remaining a firm favourite in the pantheon of supernatural legends for many years to come.
*A note of interest: Lord Combermere would return to England and, upon his death, leave a little mystery of his own.