Barbados has a lot of folklore stories that are well-known, but one that has always left an impression on my mind is the story of The Chase Vault.
As a child, my dad told me the story, and my Mum thought that he shouldn't have, but you know what, that's how I came to love stories of the unexplained and unsolvable.
The Chase Vault is located in the cemetery of Christ Church Parish Church on the south side of the island.
Christ Church Parish Church
The mysterious Chase Vault
An older viewIn 1724, the majestic vault was created and carved out of compacted coral stone with concrete walls over two feet thick and an enormous blue slab of marble to seal the entrance. The vault stood partly above and partly below the ground which allowed for some degree of protection from the elements.
It was originally constructed by The Honourable James Elliot. When his wife Elizabeth died on May 14, 1792, her body was placed inside the vault.
A few years later , the vault was purchased by the wealthy Walrond family. When the vault was opened to receive the body of Mrs. Thomasina Goddard on July 13, 1807, there was no sign of Elizabeth Elliot's coffin.
Mrs. Goddard was buried in a simple wooden coffin and became the lone occupant of the vault.
The vault was later taken over by the Chase family, the head being Colonel Thomas Chase, rumoured to be one of the most hated men on the island. Since Mrs. Goddard's body was already inside when Colonel Chase acquired the vault, he made the decision not to disturb her but allow her coffin to remain.
The family crest
The family name etched in the stone vault
The next body to be placed in the vault was Colonel Chase's daughter, little two-year old Mary Anne Maria Chase in a lead coffin on February 22, 1808.
Four years later Maria's older sister Dorcas Chase, was also placed in a lead coffin in the vault on July 6, 1812.
Some claimed that Dorcas died under strange circumstances. Rumour had it that she had been abused by her father, who had a reputation for being cruel and sadistic to his family and slaves, and that she had starved herself to death after she was forced into depression by her father.
About a month later, on August 9, 1812, however, when Colonel Thomas Chase committed suicide, the vault was opened for his burial, the caskets were found to be "in a confused state, having been apparently tossed from their places."
The eight pallbearers were the first to notice that the two lead coffins were not where they had been left a month earlier.
The leaden coffins already there were disturbed, and Mary Ann's coffin was lying upside down in the opposite corner from where it had been placed. Some thought that robbery was the reason for the disturbed coffins, but nothing of value had been in the vault in the first place.
Not only that but the huge stone had been cemented in place and to open it, the cemetery workers had to hammer and chisel it open.
The coffins were returned to their side-by-side positions and Colonel Chase's 240lb lead coffin was interred next to them. The smaller coffin of Mary Ann was placed on top of the larger ones. The heavy marble stone slab was again sealed into place.
The slaves who assisted with the burial were blamed for the disturbance since they would have had an easy revenge motive as a result of the alleged cruelty of Colonel Chase toward his servants.
Four years later, in September 25, 1816, when the vault was opened again to inter the body of 11 year-old Samuel Brewster Ames, the coffins were again found to be violently disturbed.
The vault had been completely sealed and, once again, there were no signs of tampering or forced entry.
The 240lb lead coffin of Thomas Chase was also in the wrong location. All the coffins were put in order once more, and the vault sealed.
When just a month later, on November 17,1816, the body of Samuel Brewster (the father of the infant) was to buried in the vault, there was high interest. Word had gotten around about the mysterious occurrences, and the large crowd present were intent on seeing for themselves whether the strange happenings would continue, and they were not disappointed.
This time the cemented door was examined before opening the vault, but nothing strange was found.
The Rector of Christ Church, the Reverend Mr. Thomas Orderson, a magistrate, and two other men were there to observe and investigate.
The vault was found in chaos again. The coffins had thrown themselves about, and the only one made of wood had been badly damaged by the tussle, and was later wrapped in wire to keep it together. The men looked for any evidence of forced entry or a hidden passage. They checked for cracks everywhere. However, there was nothing to explain the happenings. The coffins were again restored to order and the door of the vault sealed with mortar.
The next time the vault was opened was in July 17, 1819 after the death of Thomasina Clarke.
On this occasion, however, the Governor of Barbados, Sir Stapleton Cotton, Lord Combermere along with his aides, the Commander of The Garrison, and several clergymen were present.
When the marble door slab was removed, chaos was evident once again. The coffins were found thrown around the vault, with some coffins facing up and some down.
However, the wooden coffin found damaged the last time had not been moved one single inch.
A thorough examination of the entire area was made, and everything was found to be solid.
The coffins were re-stacked with Mrs.Goddard's frail wooden coffin being placed against a wall. Again order was restored, and the body was put in place.
Fine white sand was carefully scattered to cover the floor to catch the footprints or any movements of pranksters, diagrams were made of the coffin arrangement, the heavy door slab was mortared into place, and the Governor made several impressions in the wet mortar with his own seal.
The Governor's wife was also present and wrote of the events:
"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 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 attending added various private marks in the wet mortar."
Some reports say people could actually hear the coffins moving themselves while locked inside the cement sealed vault.
The Governor had had enough at this point and ordered his own investigation....but nothing was found, and the vault was left to await its next burial.
But the Governor couldn't wait that long.Less than a year later on April 18, 1820, the Governor ordered the vault opened, this time only in front of himself and several friends. The seal was perfectly intact upon arrival, but the coffins were still scattered as if by some unexplained force.
Some of them had even flipped upside down, and one was lying halfway up the stairs leading to the door, blocking the entrance. It was said that the sturdy side of Dorcas Chase's coffin had broken away revealing a skeletal arm reaching out.
Mary Ann's coffin had come to rest against the left wall with a small chunk chipped off.
The sand so carefully placed before gave away no footprints or signs of water or earthquake damage.
The Honorable Nathan Lucas was in attendance and wrote:
"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."
That was as much as the governor could take. He then ordered the coffins removed and buried separately elsewhere.
Lord Combermere who returned to England was killed by a horse-drawn carriage in 1891 has an unbelievable story attached to him as well. You may read it here.
The Chase Vault was left abandoned, open and empty up to this day.
The mystery which has excited worldwide interest, continues unsolved.
Many folks, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes writer) has proposed that the disturbances were caused by the spirits of Dorcas and Thomas who had both committed suicide, and were therefore cursed and restless. It must be noted that the coffins only started moving around after Dorcas Chase was interred.
I don't know about you, but I'm not scared at all.....just curious.
I did note however, that every single photo I took of the church (see first photo), even though the perimeter walls are straight and erect, the church appears to be leaning....hmmmm.
More links below for further investigation....if you dare.
More links below for further investigation....if you dare.