Things That Are Not: The Case of the Dancing Coffins

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a good story outruns evidence, plausibility and fact. For two hundred years, readers have thrilled to the dance of the Barbados coffins, a classic ghost story so often repeated that it’s familiar even to those with only passing interest in the occult. Unlike many ghost stories, there’s a well-established chain of evidence; it shares with them, however, an inability to establish that it ever happened.

The story begins on Barbados in 1807, then a British colony renowned for its sugar plantations. In the town of Oistins on the island’s southern coast lies Christ Church, an Anglican parish containing an old-fashioned family vault in its cemetery. The Chase Vault, though built for another family, was named after its current owner, Colonel Thomas Chase, a ruthless landowner known for cruelty to his black slaves, and possibly his family. Oddly, the first interment was a woman named Mrs. Goddard, apparently unrelated to the Chases and interred in a cheap wooden coffin. Colonel Chase’s deceased infant daughter, Mary Ann, joined her the following year.

The first whiff of mystery erupts in June 1812, when Chase buried another daughter, Dorcas. Dorcas was an adult, and there were whispers that she had committed suicide in protest of her father’s cruelty. Colonel Chase himself joined her a few months later, dying under mysterious circumstances. Some suggested suicide, others that he was murdered by his slaves. Either way, when workmen reopened the vault they found the three extant coffins thrown about the vault in confusion, one standing on end against the northwest wall.

Coffins

Initially the outraged spectators assumed that black slaves had desecrated the corpses; they, however, seemed terrified by the discovery as anyone, and the matter rested. The coffins were replaced, with Colonel Chase’s massive lead coffin joining them. It was four years until another interment occurred, when a child named Samuel Brewster joined them; again, the coffins were moved. Then in November 1816 another Samuel Ames Brewster, victim of Bussa’s Rebellion (a bloody slave revolt) was buried; the Vault opened again, the now-familiar scene of chaos recurred. The final burial occurred in 1819, when a Thomasina Clark joined the Vault’s occupants; no points for guessing what they found.

By now the story of Chase Vault scandalized the island. The Governor at this time, Lord Combermere, had commanded Wellington’s cavalry against Napoleon and was a practical man little concerned with supernatural mischief. After Ms. Clark’s burial he ordered the floor of the vault covered with sand to capture the footprints of any thieves or vandals; he also ordered the vault sealed shut by local masons. This closed the matter until the following year, when it was reopened for unclear reasons, perhaps mere curiosity; Lord Combermere happened to be visiting Oistins, and conversation inevitably turned to the Chase Vault.

Combermere.png
Lord Combermere

So, on April 18, 1820 the Vault was opened one last time. Lord Combermere, his staff and a number of local notables (including Nathan Lucas, who wrote about the opening years later) waited as masons removed the seals and forced the vault open. They found, inevitably, the coffins in disarray; strangely, only Mrs. Goddard’s wooden coffin, shivered to fragments by time and rough handling, remained upright. Nor was the sand coating the Vault’s floor disturbed. The Governor, baffled as anyone, ordered the bodies re-interred elsewhere in the cemetery. The Chase vault saw no further burials, and no further disturbances, except for the footsteps and exclamations of curious tourists.

This, at least, is the story that’s come down over the years. It makes a delightful yarn, with dreadful supernatural overtones that defy explanation. The presence of two violent deaths in the Vault, the inference goes, unleashed powerful psychic or ghostly energy powerful enough to toss massive lead coffins around without leaving a trace of its cause. There’s no question of why it’s endured; there remains, however, the question of its provenance, and authenticity.

Chase Vault
The Chase Vault today

The coffins first appear in print in Transatlantic Sketches, an 1833 book by Scottish soldier and traveler General James Sir James Edward Alexander. Alexander does not provide a source for his tale, which varies in minor details (for instance, giving 1819 as the date of the final opening), but otherwise conforms to the standard version. He mentions a similar incident in Stanton, England occurring “some years ago,” concluding that “as yet no one has satisfactorily accounted for the Barbadian or the Suffolk wonder.” The “Suffolk wonder” originated from an article in European Magazine from 1815; Nathan Lucas’s account of the Chase Vault even mentions this strikingly similar story.

Robert Hermann Schombergk’s History of Barbados (1848) recounted the Chase Vault story as well. Schombergk, a German-born member of the Royal Geographical Society, spent the 1840s on Barbados interviewing British officials and black natives about the island’s history. He provides more evidence than General Alexander, specifically an unpublished manuscript signed “J. Anderson, Rector” and including an account of the incident, along with sketches of the vault. Yet further research determined that the rector was not “J. Anderson” but, in fact, Thomas H. Orderson. Perhaps this misspelling, however, was an understandable slip of the pen.

Robert Dale Owen’s Footfalls on the Boundaries of Another World (1865) adds another bizarre wrinkle. Owen, an American diplomat interested in spiritualism, shares another tale of moving coffins from the Estonian island of Ösel (modern day Saaremaa). The story’s nearly identical: an aristocratic family cursed after a suicide, the coffins repeatedly scattered without cause, even attempts to cover the vault’s floor (with ash instead of sand) to detect intruders. All that varies are Owen’s picturesque details: armed soldiers patrolling the cemetery, horses neighing madly before each occurrence, and an even more unsettling discovery inside the vault: “The lid of one [coffin] was open, and a hand, that of a suicide, protruded.”

Owen
Robert Dale Owen

The coffin lore compounded over time, with details and fresh occurrences added. In 1867 author F.A. Paley wrote about a fourth case of moving coffins, in the parish of Gretford, England around 1847. “Twice, if not thrice, the coffins in a vault were found on reopening to have been disarranged,” Paley wrote; the disturbances were “hushed up out of respect to the family to whom the vault belonged.” Perhaps that’s why Paley couldn’t name a single source beyond a letter from an anonymous woman. But even this woman suggested a non-supernatural solution, telling Paley that “I felt no doubt myself that lead coffins could float.”

That these stories proliferated speaks, in large part, to the times. Spiritualism became a massive craze in the 1850s following the Fox Sisters’ ghostly communications; that, and the Gothic details from Owen’s Ösel story bring to mind the era’s fascination with premature burial. Never mind that the evidence for these stories was thin-to-nonexistent (an old magazine article, an anonymous letter, an anecdote Owen heard from a friend) and that they seemed like variants on the same legend; repetition, after all, provides its own authority. Perhaps it helped that Lord Combermere’s son became the subject of a classic ghost photograph. Humanity’s credulity towards supernatural stories waxes and wanes; in the Victorian Era, it burned at full blast.

The most useful, thorough analysis of the tale’s evolution comes from Andrew Lang. Lang was a prolific Scottish writer, author of novels and popular histories (including an influential biography of Mary Stuart), along with collections of folklore and fairy tales; as a member of the Society of Psychical Research, he was certainly open to otherworldly visitations. While Lang doesn’t doubt that the Barbados coffins moved, his 1907 assessment (printed in Folk-Lore Magazine) nonetheless shows important discrepancies between different versions of the event – and telling gaps in the available evidence.

Andrew Lang
Andrew Lang

Lang utilizes the research of his brother-in-law Forster Alleyne, who lived on Barbados and whose father supposedly witnessed the events. Alleyne discovered another form of Orderson’s manuscripts, attributed to a “Reverend Harrison,” published by Robert Reece in an 1860 pamphlet entitled Death’s Deeds. Alleyne verified the Chase family’s deaths in Christ Church’s records (which survived the church’s destruction in an 1831 hurricane) but found no reference to the disturbances. Nor did contemporary newspapers mention moving coffins. He also notes that many colorful details (like one coffin blocking the crypt’s door) were invented long after the original accounts. Alleyne did, however, uncover the aforementioned manuscript by Nathan Lucas, which offers a more substantial source, albeit one still written years after the events.

Lang’s article is at once credulous and scrupulously thorough; later writers used his ambivalence as a springboard for wild speculation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published an article on the Chase Vault in 1919, asserting that the story “was undoubtedly true and…cannot be met by any of the ingenious explanations of the honest but skeptical researcher.” Press for an explanation, Doyle proposed that “the space must have been crowded with overheated Negroes, and when the slab was at once hermetically sealed, these effluvia were enclosed…furnishing a possible source of that material power which is needful for material effect.”

Doyle’s theory of magical black sweat wasn’t markedly more absurd than his love of ghost photography, or his championing the Cottingley Fairies. Many of Doyle’s friends and admirers bemoaned the author’s credulity; how could the creator of Sherlock Holmes be so easily taken in by nonsense? No wonder he found the Barbados Coffins credible, or his own explanations enlightening rather than embarrassing. “Poor, dear, lovable, credulous Doyle!” Harry Chase, exposer of psychic phenomenon, lamented. “He was a giant in stature with the heart of a child.”

Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his son’s ghost

 

Rupert T. Gould, a British naval officer known by scientists for modernizing chronometers and the public for his lively books and eclectic radio shows, provided the most influential modern account. His book Oddities (1928) reexamines the evidence and adds some of its own. He located Lord Combermere’s memoirs and deems the section on the coffins “entirely untrustworthy,” with a florid style “abusing of God’s patience and the King’s English.” A sample should suffice: “Every breath was hushed lest they should fail to catch the first whisper of those near the tomb that might afford a solution to the problem before them.” Understandably, Gould assumes this passage wasn’t written by His Lordship at all, but transplanted from Death’s Deeds by an injudicious editor.

After sketching the vault’s history, Gould recounts Lucas’s version and finds it plausible once the more lurid details are omitted. Nonetheless, he rejects natural explanations for the coffins and suggests that “there is something to be said for the idea that the presence of two suicides in the vault at Barbados might have something to do with the disturbances there.” Whether it’s some kind of curse from vengeful slaves, as Doyle suggests (after all, Gould writes, “the effluvium emitted by an overheated Negro is very strong indeed”) or a ghost spreading mischief that only harmed the dead, Gould seems undecided. His account, thoughtful as it often is, leaves much to be desired.

Searching for explanations, otherworldly or otherwise, seems almost a fool’s errand. Accounts of the mystery invariably note no record of earthquakes, volcanoes or other seismic activity. Flooding could presumably account for the displacement of watertight coffins, except that it would have disturbed the sand on the floor. And, of course, no one could have entered without breaking those seals and leaving footprints. But then, assuming these explanations aren’t valid (and that ghosts, poltergeists or voodoo wreaked havoc in the Chase Vault) requires assuming that the story’s details are true.

Gould
Rupert T. Gould

Even skeptic Joe Nickell stumbles with an explanation: he argues that the event is a “Masonic allegory” with cryptic references that only believers would recognize. “At least two of the men involved were high-ranking Freemasons,” Nickell informs us, asserting that Lucas’s account includes coded language about “masons” sealing the crypt and a “great arch” echoing Masonic myth. “In 1943 another restless-coffins case occurred on the island, this time specifically involving a party of Freemasons and the vault being that of the founder of Freemasonry in Barbados!” 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.

Today, Christ Church retains a modest flock and its vault has become a tourist attraction. We may never know what really happened at the Chase Vault, if anything, two centuries ago. The evidence ranges from scant to contradictory; the legend has gathered power and authority through endless retelling rather than verifiable facts. Even the most reasonable, well-argued doubts won’t put the Barbados coffins to rest.

Dracula coffin

Sources and Further Reading

This account draws from: Jerome Clark, Unexplained! Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena (1999); Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Delphi Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (2013); John Godwin, This Baffling World (1968); Rupert T. Gould, Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1966 edition; originally published 1928), online here; and Andrew Lang, “Death’s Deeds: A Bi-Located Story” (Folk-Lore December 1907); online here.