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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 He did, however, come upon an unpublished description by Nathan Lucas, who witnessed the final interment of the vault in April 1820.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.

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