What terrifying secret is sealed within an old family tomb in Oistins, Barbados?
Nestling in the idyllic range of islands making up the Caribbean is the island of Barbados. The most easterly of them, Barbados is also the newest, having been created a mere million years ago when the oceanic plates of the Atlantic and Caribbean collided and a volcanic eruption formed new land in the clear blue sea. First discovered in 1492 by the Portuguese, who were on their way to Brazil, the island was named Isla de Los Barbados (‘island of the bearded ones’) by explorer Pedro a Campos after noting that the fig trees along the coastline gave it a beard-like appearance.
The island was first settled in 1511 by the Spanish, who enslaved the natives. But when outbreaks of smallpox and tuberculosis – the European diseases they had brought with them – led to the Caribs dying out completely, the Spaniards abandoned the island. The English then arrived, on 14 May 1625, in the shape of one Captain John Powell, who claimed the land in the name of King James I, and a few years later Captain Henry Powell (no relation) landed with a group of eighty settlers and ten slaves. The island then remained under British rule until its declaration of independence in 1966.
From the seventeenth century onwards, the nobles of England who had been awarded land on the island began importing thousands of African slaves to work the newly formed tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations. Over the next century, Barbados dominated the world’s sugar industry and the plantation owners became powerful and successful figures throughout the British Empire.
It was one of these landowners, the Honourable Thomas Waldron, who in 1724 built an elegant family burial vault in the cemetery of the parish church in the town of Oistins. It was intended for his married daughter and her family. Seven feet wide and twelve feet deep, and made out of carved coral, the vault was large enough to accommodate the entire Waldron family. The first person to be buried in it was Richard Elliot, the husband of Elizabeth Waldron. He was also the last of the family to be interred there.
Nobody has since been able to explain why Elizabeth failed to join her husband in his final resting place, and nor why the next occupant, Mrs Thomasina Goddard, was a non-family member (unless she was a descendent of the Elliots or the Waldrons by marriage), but what is known is that when the tomb was opened on 31 July 1807 to bury Mrs Goddard, it was found to be empty. The absence of Richard Elliot’s body was not considered particularly odd at the time, being put down to the work of grave robbers and looters. Rather more unusual was that, soon after Thomasina’s death, the Elliot vault passed into the hands of yet another family after being purchased by Colonel Thomas Chase, one of the most hated men on the island
A plantation owner of unstable mind and volatile temperament, Chase wasn’t popular even with his own family. Within a year of the purchase of the vault tragedy befell the Chase family with the death of the youngest daughter, two-year-old Mary Anna Maria Chase – the result, or so rumour had it, of a fit of violent temper by her father. Nothing, however, was proven, and islanders were left to draw their own conclusions about how the baby had died. On 22 February 1808, the vault was reopened and her tiny lead coffin gently placed on the shelf below the wooden coffin of Thomasina Goddard. Once the funeral was over, Chase ordered his slaves to seal the tomb with a large marble slab set in concrete.
Four years later, on 6 July 1812, the family were back at the crypt for the burial of their teenage daughter, Dorcas Chase, who had died of starvation. While some suggested the young girl had committed suicide to be free of her unpleasant father, others claimed he had locked her in an outbuilding and starved her to death himself. Either way, the marble was cut away and Dorcas’s heavy leaden casket was placed alongside that of her sister inside the family vault.
Just over a month later, Thomas Chase himself committed suicide – although there were claims that his slaves had carried out their often repeated threat to murder him. In a land of cruel employers, Chase had been particularly notorious, and there was no shortage of offers to carry his heavy lead coffin, which would have weighed about 500 pounds, to its final resting place. Presumably people wanted to make sure he had actually gone for good.
Eight slaves carried the casket down the steps of the Chase family vault. As they stepped inside, the men suddenly froze with fear. By the flickering light of their candles they could see that little Mary Anna’s coffin was now upside down, standing on end at the opposite side of the chamber from where it had originally been placed. Dorcas’s had also moved to the opposite side of the vault and only Thomasina’s coffin remained in its former location. The men inspected the vault and could find no sign of forced entry or any other disturbance. The coffins of the two girls were replaced in their previous positions and their father’s casket was settled on the opposite side of the vault. Once the service was over, the men checked for secret passages or other means of entrance before cementing the heavy marble slab back into place, this time using double-strength concrete lest the colonel himself should rise from the dead.
The disturbance was blamed on slaves with a strong grudge against the Chase family. Plantation and slave owners on the islands particularly feared revenge attacks upon their dead, which is why such strong family vaults were built in the first place. In fact, the reverse would have been true: fearing that the evil spirits they called ‘duppies’ might be at work, slaves would stay a long way from cemeteries and graveyards, especially one housing the Chase tomb.
Four more years passed before the next death, a young Chase relative, Samuel Brewster Ames, who died just before his first birthday. On 25 September 1816, workman once again broke open the marble seal, but this time they were unable to push open the wooden doors at the vault entrance. A group of the strongest men on the island were called for and after much effort they managed to force the door open. Thomas Chase’s 500-pound lead coffin had been standing on one end with the top resting against the doors, blocking them. The girls had also been disturbed again while only Thomasina remained peacefully in place.
When the tomb was re-opened a month later, for the funeral of the earlier boy’s namesake, another Samuel Brewster – killed by slaves during an uprising – it was, once again, in complete disarray, with no obvious signs as to how the disruption had been caused.
The next time the tomb was opened was during in 1819 to receive the body of Thomasina Clark, Mrs Goddard’s daughter. By now the mystery of the Chase Vault had spread far and wide, and a crowd of nigh on a thousand curious onlookers were squeezed into the churchyard. The presiding clergyman, the Reverend Thomas Orderson, was accompanied by Viscount Combermere, the governor of Barbados, who was keen to solve the mystery of the disrupted vault, and by island dignitaries such as Major J. Finch, the Honourable Nathan Lucas, Mr Rowland Cotton (a trusted relative of Combermere) and Mr Robert Boucher Clarke. The viscount ordered a thorough inspection of the exterior of the tomb until all present were satisfied it had not been breached. Two masons were then ordered to remove the concrete seal of the marble slab and, accompanied by eight pallbearers, the dignitaries descended the steps.
As the door was pushed open, there was a loud grating sound from inside. This time Dorcas’s coffin was found wedged into the doorway. Little Mary Anna Maria’s casket had been thrown so violently against the wall it had gashed a chunk from the smooth surface. The other lead caskets had been so chaotically disturbed that Thomasina’s wooden coffin appeared to have been smashed in the process and bits of her skeleton lay strewn around the vault.
It was a horrifying sight: some of the slaves fainted while others were violently sick. Combermere and his shocked party were determined to solve the mystery, however. Lady Combermere recorded the subsequent events in her diary:
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 and not even a crack was 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 Governor made several impressions in the mixture with his own seal, and many of those others attending added various private marks in the wet mortar.
Lord Combermere reasoned that anything disturbing the coffins, even flooding, would leave telltale signs in the layer of sand on the floor. Then a few months later, a woman who had been visiting the cemetery reported a loud cracking noise coming from within the Chase Vault, accompanied by an audible moaning. Her horse became so distressed that it began foaming at the mouth, later needing sedation. Other horses tethered in the churchyard broke free and galloped away in fear, straight into the sea, where they were drowned.
On 18 April 1820, Viscount Combermere and his witnesses all returned to inspect the vault. The ground had not been disturbed in any way. The seals they had made in the cement remained intact and there was no sign of any foul play. But when the marble slab was removed and the heavy vault door slowly pushed open, a scene of complete devastation was revealed.
This time even the lead casket of Dorcas Chase had been smashed and her bony arm hung out through a gash in the side. Once again there was no sign of forced entry, or of someone having gained access via a secret passage, nor had the sand scattered on the floor not been disturbed in any way. There were no footprints.
Combermere wisely decided to give up trying to solve the mystery, such was the hysteria building up across the island and throughout the empire This time he ordered that all the bodies be removed and reburied in separate sites in different churchyards. At the same time, a thorough search was made for the coffin of James Elliot, the first inhabitant of the Chase Vault nearly a century earlier, but it was never found. The tomb has remained empty ever since.
Later on that evening of 18 June, one of the members of the funeral party, Nathan Lucas, was – like Lady Combermere before him – moved to record the events of the afternoon:
… and so I examined the walls, the arch and every part of the Vault, to find every part old and similar. 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 …
Over the following two centuries, much has been made of the events at the Chase Vault: every possible reason has been considered. At first it was thought to have been straight vandalism, such was the dislike among the community of Thomas Chase, but as the heavy coffins would take at least six men to move them around, let alone throw them about, and the vault simply wasn’t big enough to accommodate that many people, this was ruled out. The absence of footprints or any signs of entry, forced or otherwise, also appears to rule out human interference.
Earthquakes have been considered, especially as Barbados sits on a seismic fault line, but no quakes had been reported during the period in which the vault was disturbed and there was no evidence of any other damage caused, either in nearby vaults or elsewhere on the island. Some prefer the idea that unseen magnetic forces were at work, especially as the coffins were usually found to be facing in the opposite direction to the one in which they were placed, suggesting they had rotated on their own axis. This may also explain why the wooden casket of Thomasina Goddard remained unaffected until it was smashed to pieces by the others. But lead is not a magnetic material. Furthermore, if such forces had been at work, locals would have noticed its effect on other metals in the graveyard such as iron headstones or steel plaques. The church bell would surely have kept ringing too.
The wildest theory about what had caused the disturbances in the Chase Vault actually came from the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, maybe unsurprisingly appears to crop up in a number of mystery stories (including two in this book – ‘Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’, page 000, and ‘Whatever Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?’, page 000). Conan Doyle believed supernatural forces had been at work but was unable to offer any further explanation except to suggest that the coffins had been moved by the spirits of the two family members who had apparently committed suicide and were therefore ‘cursed and restless’ and in conflict with each other. Indeed, since Dorcas and her father have been separated, there have been no other signs of disturbance at any of the new grave locations.
Gas emitted from the decomposing bodies was considered but soon ruled out as incapable of disturbing a heavy lead coffin. The only other suggestion that comes close to fitting the facts would be a flood. Natural flooding of an underground vault would disrupt the coffins, causing them to float around and come to rest in a different place as the water subsided. But that wouldn’t explain why the coffins were standing on end; nor was there any evidence of water damage each time the vault was re-opened. It seems that the mysteries of the Chase Vault have never been adequately explained, and probably never will be. I think we’re going to have to mark this one ‘unsolved’.
Albert Jack’s Mysterious World