A Barbados mystery

On a headland above St Oistin’s Bay, on Barbados, stands one of the island’s oldest churches, and next to it – as you might expect – there is a cemetery. In the cemetery stands the great stone vault of one of the island’s leading families, the Chase family. It has been hollowed out of solid limestone, then covered with large stone blocks which have been cemented together. Several steps lead down into the vault, which measures about 12 feet by 6 feet.

Originally, a huge slab of marble served as the door to the vault, but it is not there now and, if you care to visit the churchyard, you’ll find the vault gaping and empty.  Nobody will use it because of some very strange things that happened there between 1812 and 1820. In fact, quite a few superstitious islanders won’t go near the place at all.

The vault didn’t originally belong to the Chase family. In fact, it was built by the Hon. James Elliott in 1724 as the last resting place of his wife, Elizabeth. Then everybody forgot about it for 80 years. It was reopened in 1807 and found to be totally empty – something which nobody seems to have thought much about at the time.

In that same year the remains of someone called Thomassina Goddard were interred there, in her coffin. A year later, the vault passed into the possession of the Chase family, who decided to use it as a family vault.

Sadly, they very quickly had occasion to use it. On 22 February 1808 the vault was opened to receive the tiny coffin of Mary Ann Maria Chase, the infant daughter of the Hon. Thomas Chase. Five months later another Chase daughter, Dorcas, whose age is not known, was interred there. The vault, with its one adult coffin and two children’s ones all lying side by side, was then sealed.

It remained sealed until 9 August 1812, when it was reopened to receive the body of Thomas Chase himself. Mourners were stunned to find that the two children’s coffins had been upended and propped against a wall by some unknown body or force. Well, everything was put back in place, and Thomas Chase’s coffin – lead lined and so heavy that it took eight men to move it – was placed beside them. Then the marble door was cemented back into place.

So now there were four coffins, all lying in a row.  But in 1816, when the vault had to be reopened to receive the coffin of another child, all the coffins except Thomassina Goddard’s were found upended and scattered around once again – even the almost immovable lead-lined coffin.

This time, a thorough check of the vault was made, but it proved watertight and airtight. Everything was put back in place, and the vault resealed. But two months later a family member who had been killed in a slave uprising needed to be interred, and once again the coffins were found scattered around in disarray. And, once again, only Thomassina Goddard’s remains were undisturbed.

Tales of this mystery spread around the island and the next time the vault had to be opened to receive the body of a Chase family member, in 1819, quite a crowd had gathered. They included the island’s Governor, Lord Combermere. Once again, when the cement was chipped away and the stone door opened, all the coffins except Thomassina Goddard’s were found to have been thrown around as if by a giant hand.

Lord Combermere – with a superstitious native population to think of – was not amused, and ordered everything to be put back in place and the vault to be sealed very thoroughly. He planted his own seal firmly upon the door, and even left several secret marks as well to determine whether the tomb was being entered and vandalised.

Then, the next year, curiosity got the better of him. He ordered the tomb reopened, and once again all the coffins except Thomassina Goddard’s were found to be strewn around haphazardly. But the Governor’s seal on the door was unbroken and his secret marks showed that no-one had entered the vault.

Both the Governor and the Chase family had had enough. The vault was abandoned, and the coffins it contained were reburied in various island churchyards where they remain, undisturbed, to this day.

Who, or what, moved the coffins? Why was it only members of the Chase family whose remains were moved around? And how did Thomassina Goddard’s coffin escape the vault vandalism?

Your guess is as good as mine.


The empty vault in Barbados

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