Of the countless “unexplained mysteries” I read as a teenager, one in particular stands out as especially spooky: the restless coffins in a burial vault in Barbados. It is a classic scary story, along the lines of King Tut’s curse or the Devil’s Footprints found in an English snowfall. These were to me interesting but dusty and distant—unlike a Bigfoot report in California or an alleged UFO crash in my home state, they all happened long ago in faraway places—and thus I never bothered to look into the mysteries.
Nevertheless, I’ve since become more familiar with both investigation and folklore. Recently, I twice visited the Chase Vault, and in the process I discovered fresh angles on the otherwise stale story. I’d always assumed that the musty mystery—calcifying as it has for two centuries in the weltering Caribbean sun—would always remain unsolved. I no longer believe that to be the case.
The Chase Vault Story
There are several versions of the story (more on that later), but the basic one goes something like this, taken from The History of Barbados (1848), by Sir Robert Schomburgk:
A strange occurrence took place in the adjacent churchyard, the natural cause of which has never been explained. On two occasions, when the death of a member of the family of the late Colonel Chase had rendered it necessary to open the family vault, it was found that the coffins had been removed from their places, and as no signs were observed that the vault had been opened without the knowledge of the family, it excited great astonishment. Before the vault was walled up again, the coffins were restored to their original position. Shortly afterwards it was requisite to open the vault again for the admission of a member of the family, when the coffins were found to have been displaced as on the former occasion; the family now became anxious to ascertain the truth, and particular pains were taken in securing the wall, and fine sand was thrown over the floor of the vault, so that, if a person should enter it from any other part than the usual entrance, marks might be left behind. [Then-governor] Lord Combermere was residing in 1820 in the neighbourhood of the church, and having been told of this mysterious circumstance, he made unexpectedly an application to the Rector to have the vault re-opened, when to the astonishment of all present, the coffins, to the number of five or six, were found scattered about, and one of the largest thrown on its side across the passage, so that, had the door not opened outwards, an entrance could not have been effected except by removing the slab on the top, which is of immense weight. The private marks made on the previous occasion were undisturbed, and as this was the fourth occurrence of a similar disturbance without the cause being explained, the family resolved on removing the bodies from the vault, and some of them were interred in the parish churchyard. The vault is now empty, and the Rector has since ordered it to be walled up. One of the gentlemen who accompanied Lord Combermere took a sketch of the position in which the coffins were found, copies of which are still extant in the island. (Schomburgk 1848)
The earliest published version of the story seems to date to an unsourced passage in the 1833 J. Alexander book Transatlantic Sketches. Consulting it and other sources, we can add a few more names, dates, and details to this outline: The vault at Christ Church Parish Church in Oisitins was originally built for another family, the Elliots, but was purchased in 1807 by Colonel Thomas Chase, who buried his infant daughter Mary there in February of the following year. In 1812, the vault was again opened to accept a second daughter, Dorcas (a rumored suicide), and the coffins were found in disarray. Col. Chase himself was interred there later that same year—dying, it is said, either by his own hand or killed by slaves. The vault was opened twice in 1816 and again in 1820 to receive Thomasina Clark, again with the unexplainable results. This last opening allegedly drew Lord Combermere to investigate—an event to which Nathan Lucas, a local chief justice, claimed to have been a firsthand eyewitness.
The story has many iterations, including accounts attributed to Lord Combermere, Lucas, Rev. Thomas Orderson, and others; versions written by Robert Reece, Sir Algernon Aspinall, K. Redding (author of an 1860 pamphlet titled Death Deeds), and others. I will spare readers a full accounting of them here, but fairly good overviews can be found in works by Andrew Lang (1907), Brian Ridout (2018), and Rupert T. Gould (1928).
There is no agreement on the order of interments, nor even how many coffins the vault eventually held. Details aside, the key conclusion is that the versions of the story are in many ways contradictory and at least some of the information fabricated. As Joe Nickell (1982) notes, “Although Lucas avows he was an eyewitness to the last opening, he is forced to rely on the Rev. Thomas H. Orderson’s account of the earlier incidents and Orderson himself (if several ‘authentic’ accounts allegedly signed by him can be believed) never told the story quite the same way twice” (51). Lucas’s original report—considered among the most reliable and detailed accounts of the events—has never been found (if it existed at all) and was merely attributed to him by an anonymous source.
Several drawings exist of how the coffins were supposedly found when the vault was opened, including on an informational plaque (see Figure 2). These add apparent veracity to the stories, but they could not have been drawn correctly for scale and other reasons; as Ridout notes, “None of the sketches can be reconciled with each other as to the position of the disturbed coffins at the final opening” (Ridout 2018, 53).
Despite the myth, misinformation, and missing information that plagues the Chase Vault story, many writers believe that it is substantially true: that at least some coffins did indeed move under unknown circumstances on at least a few occasions—regardless of whether or not any given account’s particulars are correct. The question then is how.
A variety of naturalistic explanations have been proposed over the centuries, many of them self-evidently flawed.
The most obvious explanation is that unknown people entered the vault and disturbed the coffins. There would be no motivation, as the coffins were unopened and in any event there was nothing of value contained within. Furthermore, there was no evidence of any breach of the underground vault, no breaking of seals or traces on the ground. And all this would have been done under cover of night without artificial light to avoid detection—on multiple occasions over the course of eight years.
Another explanation is an earthquake that somehow presumably affected only that vault. While earthquakes do occur in Barbados, they are rare, usually minor, and would likely have been noted as being linked to the (repeated) coffin disturbances.
Another, somewhat more likely, natural explanation is that the vault became flooded and the coffins, despite being lead-lined and heavy, were nevertheless buoyant enough to have floated into such disarray and tumult. This theory was advanced in the 1860s, with its advocates noting that the Caribbean island is often battered by drenching hurricanes. Brian Dunning (2014) of the Skeptoid podcast, among others, did calculations to determine whether the coffins might conceivably float given their presumed mass and found it plausible.
The two possible sources would be storm water and ground water, though both are equally improbable. It’s not obvious from photographs, but the vault and the Christ Church cemetery are near the top of a hill, and rain would run off in all directions long before filling a vault. Some water might naturally seep in through the ground and bricks during a heavy rainfall, but it would seep out soon thereafter because the earth there is mostly porous coral limestone that drains water quickly.
As for groundwater, Nickell quotes the Chief Engineer of the Waterworks Department of Barbados, who explains that “the top of the water table is at sea level. Consequently, the higher the ground elevation, the greater would be the depth to the groundwater aquifer … . For flooding to be a real possibility, the vault would have to be no more than a few feet above sea level” (Nickell 1982, 55).1 There is no reason to suspect that the location or construction of the Chase Vault is unique in any way—it is only one of many, both in Christ Church and around the island—yet there are no reports of floating coffins.
Some have suggested that gases escaping from the decomposing corpses would somehow cause the coffins to move. This is implausible for many reasons; as Nickell notes, “to suggest that several coffins would be repeatedly so moved to the extent … of standing one coffin on end is ludicrous” (Nickell 1982, 54). Also, of course, decomposition is inherent in the burial process and such disturbed coffins should be routinely seen.
Some have suggested that lightning may somehow have moved the coffins. Barbados, like many Caribbean islands, is subject to frequent hurricanes sometimes accompanied by lightning strikes. Attempting to address the lack of plausible mechanism by which lightning would move the coffins, Brian Ridout recently advanced this theory in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. He states that the electric current created by a lightning strike could be responsible for the mystery:
If the current reaches a lead coffin then it will induce a magnetic field, which will be a dipole … creating a positive and a negative end to the coffin. Because the coffins were all aligned the same way the induced charges at the head ends and at the feet ends would have been similar for each. The effect would only last for a fraction of a second because lead does not hold a magnetic field, but during that fraction of a second like charges will repel and unlike charges will attract. If the coffins were small or unstable then they would move as far as there was room to do so. (Ridout 2018)
Ridout acknowledges that there is no evidence that an electricity-conducting pole was anywhere near the Chase Vault in 1820 but suggests that the nearby church roof might have been hit.
To help evaluate this (very) speculative hypothesis, I gathered more information during my onsite visit. One important measurement missing from Ridout’s calculations was how far the Chase Vault is from the (existing) foundation. From the nearest foundation corner to the vault is about forty feet (see Figure 3). I counted at least a dozen similar vaults on the west side of the church, where the Chase Vault is located, within about the same radius of the church, that would potentially have been just as affected by a lightning strike.
Spirits, Psychics, and Curses
Once naturalistic explanations have been dismissed, that of course leaves us with supernatural ones. In that event, anything from duppies (Caribbean ghosts) to curses to a miracle to telekinesis could theoretically have caused the tossed coffins, and there is exactly equal evidence for any of those. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—creator of Sherlock Holmes and endorser of both fraudulent mediums and faked fairy photos—offered a memorable take on the Chase Vault story, asking, “What is one to make of such a story as this? The facts seem to be beyond question.” Doyle posits a psychical explanation, one that evokes the Spiritualist assumptions of his era. He suggested that “animal magnetism” in the form of “negro effluvia” was responsible for the moving coffins.2
Where’s the Beef?
Before attempting to explain something, we must first be sure there is something to explain. We need not puzzle over the particulars of how the coffins could have moved by themselves in the sealed vault if there’s no real evidence they ever did. In this case, researchers have found absolutely nothing in contemporaneous church records, newspapers, or other sources suggesting anything unusual or mysterious happened at the Chase Vault at any time. Nickell notes that an 1842 book by Isaac Orderson—the rector’s brother—about historical Barbados “contained not the slightest reference to the Barbados coffins mystery” (Nickell 1982, 56). Furthermore, according to Ridout, an 1866 record of the events, appearing in Memoirs and Correspondence of Viscount Combermere, “which should have been important, was written after Combermere’s death by his wife … but there is no mention of the event” (Ridout 2018, 226). The complete lack of any reference to such a remarkable series of events over the course of eight years in any published records is perhaps as great a mystery as the moving coffins themselves.
Even advocates of the Chase Vault mystery admit that at least some of the story is embellished and wrong in various particulars. The error they make is not going far enough and not questioning the legitimacy of the entire legend. The issue is not that somewhere amid the confused and contradictory welter of demonstrable embellishments, rumors, and third-hand sources there’s a genuine unsolved mystery involving restless coffins. The Chase Vault story does not merely contain legend; it is itself legend.
With nothing apparently unique about the physical vault, to understand the mystery we can adopt a folkloric approach and ask why that vault is said to have been cursed. Regardless of whether or not the Chase Vault coffins genuinely moved, why do people—and Barbadians in particular—believe they moved?
Investigating the Chase Vault
Firsthand field investigation of many mysteries can often yield unexpected clues. Visiting Barbados most recently in 2019, I interviewed amateur historian and tour guide C.J. Hines in Bridgetown as he drove us to the Christ Church cemetery to see the infamous vault. “It’s a true story, and it’s not the first time something like that has happened in Barbados,” he said (Hines 2019). He rejected all the “scientific” explanations, averring that the legend was true—but that there’s little mystery behind it.
He explained to me that the vault’s dead were disturbed because the Chasefamily fought in life, and they fought in death. And the only way to separate the fighting, in the end, was to put them in different parts of the church cemetery. And even then, they still found a way to cause destruction … . After they took them out of the vault [in 1820], and put them in different corners of the churchyard, they had an earthquake and it went straight across the church. No matter how many times they try to repair it, it goes back the same way. That part, a lot of people don’t know. (Hines 2019)
As evidence, he later pointed out several places in the cemetery where vaults had broken and earth had sunken, attributing them to the Chase family curse (see Figure 4).
Only the Chase family vault was affected, Hines explained, because “they were dabbling in black arts, and it went to the graves with them. They were fighting amongst themselves in life, over the land, over money, relations, it was always problems with that family, and they took it directly to the grave” (Hines 2019). This “in death as in life” folkloric theme of course holds a moral lesson: Get along with your family, don’t quarrel with neighbors, and so on. Indeed, as folklorist Linden Lewis explained of Barbadian legends, “Folk tales … are born of the hopes and fears, anxieties, aspirations and frustrations of a people. They … become popular media for explaining and understanding the complex material conditions of existence of the populace. At the kernel of the folk tale there is a moral” (Lewis 1990, 86). I was reminded of another Caribbean ghost legend I’d investigated in nearby Jamaica, that of the White Witch of Rose Hall (see Radford 2010), a similar story of a cruel and quarrelsome family schooled in black magic that had come from elsewhere to wreak havoc.
Because the Chase Vault is accessible and open to the public, it may yield physical clues to confirm or refute parts of the legend. Though the mysterious events happened some two centuries ago—assuming, of course, they occurred at all—the vault has by all accounts been preserved more or less as it was in the 1800s, with a few notable and easily identified exceptions. The interior bricks, for example, are original and would likely reveal physical evidence of such acts as heavy lead coffins being violently tossed about inside a small vault.
The interior walls and ceiling are lined with red bricks (with stone at the back), which are in excellent condition for their age (protected as they are from sun and rain) yet reveal no sign at all of any significant forces being applied to them. Given the tight quarters of the vault, to have the coffins repeatedly moved so dramatically (spun 90 or 180 degrees by some accounts), their six corners would surely have struck the bricks and left many marks. Yet an examination of the bricks (see Figure 6) reveals little if any damage other than some salt seepage and discoloration. There was little or no evidence that anything unusual happened at the vault, though my onsite research had helped refute various theories.
A Masonic Hoax?
Folklore, a third category of explanation for the Chase Vault story—neither a (real) natural event nor a (real) supernatural one—has been largely neglected in previous research. Nickell spent many months investigating the Chase Vault, assembling literary evidence that Freemasons were involved in the legend. Ridout writes:
The difficulty in finding a natural cause has led to the suggestion that the derangement of coffins never happened and the likely perpetrators of the charade were Freemasons. We are informed (Nickell 1982) that the story is loaded with Masonic symbolism, but this must be viewed with caution. The structure was a “vault”; the burial chamber was “arched”; it was constructed from “masonry” bonded with “cement” and a search for unauthorised entry might reasonably include “sounding the walls and floor with a hammer.” Symbols should not be confused with facts. (Ridout 2018)
Another writer, Christopher Saunders (2019), argues, “Such breathless dot-connecting fails to explain what purpose this trickery serves; Nickell’s tale of an elaborate Masonic conspiracy to tell spooky stories wouldn’t convince Dan Brown.” Ridout acknowledges:
It is probably true that some of the prominent people involved were Masons, but less certain that this would include the parish priest who had overseen the burials. Orderson’s epitaph on his memorial stone recalls his fervent piety and it is difficult to imagine him conniving in the eviction of the Chase family so that their vault could be used for Masonic ritual. (Ridout 2018, 232)
These mischaracterize Nickell, who neither claimed nor suggested that Orderson or anyone else was “conniving in the eviction of the Chase family so that their vault could be used for Masonic ritual.” Instead, Nickell merely claimed that “the Barbados vault story was fictitious” (Nickell 1982, 83) and “shaped into an allegory related to the ‘secret vault’ of Freemasonry” (Nickell 1982, 86); there’s no hint of any conspiracy to use the vault for any ritual, Masonic or otherwise. The fact that an early version of the Chase Vault story is arguably infused with Masonic allegory signifies nothing more than that whoever recorded that particular version was familiar with Freemasonry and added those elements to a preexisting legend while retelling it.
Restless Coffin Legends
To understand the mystery, it’s important to recognize that the Chase Vault story is only one of several legends—perhaps a half-dozen or more—involving moving coffins in supposedly sealed vaults around the world.
Folklorist Andrew Lang recounts an identical tale regarding a Lutheran cemetery in Ahrensburg, in the island of Oesel, in the Baltic Sea. It seems that in June 1844, a burial vault of the Buxhoewden family “became noisy” and spooked horses (this detail later appeared in versions of the Chase Vault legend). When the vault was examined to investigate the noise, the coffins within were discovered to be “lying in a confused pile.” It happened several times, yet there was never a sign of robbery or entry, even when wood ashes were scattered upon the floor to reveal intruders (recalling the fine sand used in the Chase Vault). On the final occasion, “the coffins were standing on their heads. The lid of one was open and the hand, that of a suicide, protruded” (Lang 1907, 378; emphasis in original). The unruly (un)dead were finally quieted when removed from the vault and buried separately in earth. Lang adds that despite considerable investigation, no evidence of such happenings were ever discovered and that the “disturbances precisely parallel” those described at the Chase Vault.3 Lang describes another case in Suffolk, England, as well, referenced by a Sir James Clerke in 1833. Predictably, despite the story being told as true, no verifiable information can be found.
When my Bajan guide C.J. Hines casually mentioned to me that the Christ Church Parish cemetery was not the only place in Barbados where coffins moved, I was intrigued. He had no specific information about where it was off the top of his head, but he assured me there was at least one other identical mystery on the island.
In fact, we need not visit the British Isles or the Baltic Sea to find these tales; though the Chase Vault is the most famous mystery on the island, the Christ Church cemetery was not the only place coffins were said to move in Barbados. Indeed, the same thing is said to have happened only about seven miles to the north, in the parish of St. Thomas. Consulting previous articles and book chapters on the Chase Vault mystery, I found little or no mention of the parallel legend; it seemed to have been largely overlooked, though in his 1928 book Barbados Diocesan History, Cannon Reece briefly references an intriguing report noting that “A rather common feature among Barbados legends is the erratic behaviour in vaults of lead and copper coffins. There is of course the famous Christ Church story [as well as] three or four other stories” (emphasis added; quoted in Ridout 2018).
Even a solitary story of such a seemingly singular event would be curious, but four or five such stories about restless coffins on such a small island is remarkable indeed. The specifics of all of them do not seem to have been recorded, though one is known. I eventually found a reference to the story: the book The World’s Creepiest Places notes that the Chase Vault story “parallels another tale concerning the Williams family vault, also on the island of Barbados” (Curran 2012). It concerns a Welshman named William Asygell Williams who moved to the island in the 1600s. The cause of the trouble, as is often the case, was religion. A son in the proudly Protestant Williams family fell in love with and married a Catholic girl, raising their children as Catholics, much to his family’s fury.
When the General’s daughter-in-law died at the beginning of the 1700s, she was laid to rest in the family vault. Some years after, when the vault was opened again, it was found that a number of the coffins had moved, apparently of their own volition. The supposition was that the Protestant dead had taken exception to the Catholic interment and had moved their coffins away from hers. This story was well known across Barbados and may have influenced the tale of the Chase Vault. (Curran 2012, 34)
A few other brief versions of the tale found online describe repeated disturbances throughout various burials at that vault.
I found independent corroboration of this in the book Genealogies of Barbados Families: From Caribbeana and The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, which mentions “the family vault built by General William Asygell Williams. … Through the ensuing years this vault has been the subject of popular legend and many a family anecdote” (Brandow 1983, 593). Records date the vault to at least January 9, 1741, demonstrating that the Williams Vault preceded the Chase Vault by at least sixty years.
That is of course a hallmark of folklore; legends are regionally adapted and incorporate local people, locations, and events into the stories, adding believability and relevance. The Williams vault legend easily could have migrated a few kilometers across the small island, moving from one quarrelsome, wealthy, slaveholding European colonist family to another, with Masonic references added along the way when the story was attributed to the Chases in Christ Church Parish.4 As Lang notes, “the tendency to revive and renovate old stories by giving them a contemporary date and a familiar locality is now perfectly well understood” (Lang 1907, 376).
Despite voluminous claims to the contrary—and Conan Doyle’s assumption that “the facts are beyond question”—the centuries-old mystery of the Chase Vault is neither true nor a hoax; it is instead precisely what it appears to be: a legend. There’s no evidence that anyone (Freemason or otherwise) intentionally created or hoaxed the story; instead they did what all humans do when they hear a good story: they retold the “true story” and changed it in the process, emphasizing and adding elements according to their beliefs and agendas. The Chase Vault story is not a Masonic legend; rather it is one version of a broader moving coffin legend that happens to have been imbued with Freemason allegory. It’s served its purpose for over a century, providing fodder for mystery lovers while reminding Bajans to be kind to each other.
I thank Tim Binga, Celestia Ward, and Shana Pedroncelli for their research help in digging into the Chase Vault story.
- Several writers have offered incorrect information about the elevation of the Chase Vault. Ridout (2018) claims that “the vault is on a prominence about 100 feet above sea level,” while Dunning (2014) puts it at thirty-three meters, or 108 feet; Nickell (1982) offers an estimate of “some 250 feet,” which is closer; the entrance is at about 210 feet above sea level as measured by iPhone GPS.
- Doyle states that “all psychic phenomena seem to show that the disembodied have no power of their own, but that it is always derived from the emanations of the living, which we call animal magnetism or other names. … If the walls of cloth of a [spirit medium’s] cabinet can contain these emanations and condense them, how much more the solid walls of this vault. To bring in these weighty leaden coffins the space must have been crowded with over-heated negroes, and when the slab was at once hermetically sealed, these effluvia were enclosed and remained behind, furnishing a possible source of that material power which is needed for material effects” (quoted in Doyle 2011).
- The theme of suicide as indicator of a “bad death” likely to create a ghostly presence is notable. Suicides were taboo in most communities, and those who died by their own hand were often refused burial in the hallowed church ground. The Buxhoewden vault story contains a specific reference to a suicide, and Lang notes that “Reece (1864) says that the negroes in Barbados attributed the troubles to a suicide” (Lang 1907, 385) and notes that Colonel Chase was said to have killed himself, perhaps—according to locals—bringing his posthumous troubles to the cemetery. Indeed, Lang says, “It will be observed that the Oelsen and the Barbados tales are precisely similar in every respect, including the supposed cause of trouble, the presence of the corpse of a suicide” (Lang 1907, 386).
- Whether the Masonic allegories Nickell finds throughout the Chase Vault story also appear in the Williams Vault story would be an interesting matter to investigate; it seems just as likely that the Williams legend (or another like it) was heard in Christ Church and became attributed to the Chase family by people who happened to be Masons.
Brandow, James (Ed). 1983. Genealogies of Barbados Families: From Caribbeana and The Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society. Baltimore, Maryland: Clearfield Company.
Curran, Bob. 2012. The World’s Creepiest Places. Pompton Plains, New Jersey: The Career Press.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. 2011. Delphi Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. London: Delphi Classics.
Dunning, Brian. 2014. The moving coffins of Barbados. Skeptoid (January 28). Available online at https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4399.
Gould, Rupert T. 1928. Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts. London: Geoffrey Bles. (Reprinted 1966).
Hines, C.J. 2019. Interview by the author in Bridgetown, Barbados (March 31).
Lang, A. 1907. ‘Death’s deeds’: A bi-located story. Folk-Lore 18(4) (December 31). Transactions of the Folklore Society.
Lewis, Linden. 1990. Exploring the folk culture of Barbados through the medium of the folk tale. Caribbean Studies 23(3/4): 85–94.
Nickell, Joe. 1982. Barbados’ restless coffins laid to rest. Fate. Part I, 35(4) (April): 50–56; Part II, 35(5) (May): 79–86.
Radford, Benjamin. 2010. The White Witch of Rose Hall. In Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. Corrales, New Mexico: Rhombus Publishing Co.
Ridout, Brian. 2018. Research note: An analytical review of the Chase Vault mystery at Christ Church, Barbados. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 82(4): 219–239.
Saunders, Christopher. 2019. Things that are not: The case of the dancing coffins. The Avocado (March 9). Available online at https://the-avocado.org/2019/03/09/things-that-are-not-the-case-of-the-dancing-coffins.
Schomburgk, Robert. 1848. The History of Barbados, Comprising a Geographical and Statistical Description of the Island; a Sketch of the Historical Developments Since the Settlement; and an Account of its Geology and Natural Productions. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.