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Strange & Unexplained - Moving Coffins

[- Mysterious Events -]
Barbados, an island located at the easternmost edge of the West Indies, is the site of a strange story which some writers have treated as one of the great mysteries of the nineteenth century. The mysterious events in question, said to have taken place inside the Chase vault at Christ Church overlooking Oistin's Bay, allegedly occurred between 1812 and 1819 or 1820 and involved the inexplicable movement of coffins.

According to the first published account, Sir J. E. Alexander's Transatlantic Sketches (1833):

Each time that the vault was opened the coffins were replaced in their proper situations, that is, three on the ground side by side, and the others laid on them. The vault was then regularly closed; the door (a massive stone which required six or seven men to move) was cemented by masons; and though the floor was of sand, there were no marks or footsteps or water.

The last time the vault was opened was in 1819. Lord Combermere [Governor of the colony] was then present, and the coffins were found confusedly thrown about the vault, some with their heads down and others up. What could have occasioned this phenomenon? In no other vault in the island has this ever occurred.

Over time various versions of the story saw print. Even one of the alleged witnesses, the Rev. Thomas H. Orderson, the rector of Christ Church, gave conflicting accounts to inquirers. Other accounts were published in 1844 (Sir Robert Schomburgk's History of Barbados) and 1860 (Mrs. D. H. Cussons's Death's Deeds). In the December 1907 issue of Folk-Lore, the noted English folklorist Andrew Lang reviewed the affair, drawing not only on printed sources but on his brother-in-law Forster M. Alleyne's investigation in Barbados. Alleyne had examined vault records but found nothing to substantiate the story, and the island's newspapers of the period had nothing to say on the subject. He did, however, come upon an unpublished description by Nathan Lucas, who witnessed the final interment of the vault in April 1820. Alleyne's father, who was on the island in 1820, alluded to the coffin disturbances in correspondence which survived from that year.

Lang's interest in the episode was fueled by another intellectual fascination of his, psychical research. He noted a report of similar events in a Lutheran cemetery on the Isle of Oesel, in the Baltic Sea, said to have taken place in 1844. The evidence for its occurrence, he conceded, consisted in its entirety of an anecdote to American diplomat Robert Dale Owen (who reported it in Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World 1860); no written records were known to exist, and none have surfaced since. Lang thought it was at least possible that Owen's informants "plagiarized" the Barbados story, adding a few flourishes of their own (including the lurid detail that the hand of a suicide was found sticking out of one of the coffins).

Another moving-coffins story, however, could not have been based on the Barbados incident because it saw print before the West Indian events became known. The European Magazine for September 1815 related the case of "The Curious Vault at Stanton in Suffolk" in which coffins were "displaced" several times under mysterious circumstances. Nathan Lucas, one of the alleged witnesses to the final (1820) interment at the Chase Vault, mentions this English case, even quoting the article, in his privately written 1824 account.

A final tale is told by F. A. Paley in Notes and Queries, November 9, 1867, of an "instance which occurred within my own knowledge and recollection (some twenty years ago) in the parish of Gretford, near Stamford [England], of which my father was the rector. Twice, if not thrice, the coffins in a vault were found on re-opening it to have been disarranged. The matter excited some interest in the village at the time, and, of course, was a fertile theme for popular superstition: but I think it was hushed up out of respect to the family to whom the vault belonged." Paley quoted from an unnamed woman who claimed to remember the incident.

A Masonic hoax?

These four spottily documented nineteenthcentury incidents have no twentieth-century equivalents, but they have attracted the attentions of such thoughtful latter-day writers as Lang, Rupert T. Gould, and Joe Nickell, who are responsible for the most thorough modern examinations.

Of these only Nickell comes to a firm conclusion. He argues that none of these incidents ever happened in the real world. The only one for which much information is available, the Barbados episode, is loaded with symbols and phrases which Freemasons would recognize. Nickell, who had investigated an earlier Masonic hoax involving a tale of buried treasure, contends the Barbados story was fashioned around the Masonic allegory of a "secret vault" which, according to a Masonic text, "was ... in the ancient mysteries, symbolic of death, where alone Divine Truth is to be found .... We significantly speak of the place of initiation as 'the secret vault, where reign silence, secrecy and clarkness.' It is in this sense of an entrance through the grave into eternal life, that the Select Master is to view the recondite but beautiful symbolism of the secret vault. Like every other myth and allegory of Masonry, the historical relation may be true or it may be false; it may be founded on fact or the invention of imagination; the lesson is still there, and the symbolism teaches it exclusive of the history."

Along with other suggestive evidence Nickell quotes these words from Lucas: "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." Nickell remarks, "In the Royal Arch degree of Masonry-to which the 'arch' above may have been in cryptic reference (just as the 'vault' suggests the 'secret vault' which, in Masonry, is said to have been 'curiously arched' ) -there is a reference to the 'sound of a hammer'. According to Macoy's Illustrated History and Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, 'The blow of the Master's hammer commands industry, silence, or the close of labour, and every brother respects or honors its sound."' He goes on to quote from the Royal Arch decree ("We have examined the secret vault") and notes that the striking of stone-to determine its solidness -"is the means by which the secret vault is sought for and finally located!" Of course Lucas's use of the word "mason" here is also interesting.

Through his investigation Nickell learned that the men who supposedly participated in the events were Freemasons-as was Robert Dale Owen, chronicler of the alleged episode at Oesel. He also speculates that prominent Freemasons knew of the hoax. One was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, discussing the Barbados coffins in a December 1919 article in The Strand, used a word ("effluvia") whose significance only Masons would recognize. The word is "well known to Masons since it appears in the Master Mason degree," according to Nickell; "not only that, but it does so specifically in reference to 'the grave!...

Though based entirely on circumstantial evidence, Nickell's speculations are intriguing and well argued. They are also, at this late date, unprovable. In any case, there is no compelling reason to believe any of the moving-coffin stories describe real-life occurrences.







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