Moving coffins are mysterious disturbances of coffins inside sealed crypts have been recorded in cases around the world. For reasons unknown, heavy lead coffins in a vault are found in disarray, as though tossed about by some tremendous force. They are restored to their proper positions, only to be found tossed about again the next time the vault is opened for burial. No satisfactory natural explanations have ever been found.
According to one explanation, the coffins moved when crypts flooded with water. They floated to new positions and were left at ungainly angles as the water receded. While these circumstances have been Demonstrated in a church in London, flooding crypts have been unlikely in other cases of moving coffins, especially in locales above sea level. Some researchers attribute the disturbances to a Poltergeist or to the restless dead, especially if persons buried within a disturbed vault committed suicide.
The Chase Crypt of Barbados
The most famous of moving coffin cases concerns the family crypt of Colonel Thomas Chase, of Christchurch, Barbados. For several years in the early 19th century, lead coffins were found hurled about inside the vault. The mystery was never solved.
In the 19th century, Barbados was home to many wealthy white plantation owners who constructed extravagant crypts and tombs for their families. The Walrond family had theirs made of coral, concrete and hewn stone. It was located on a headland and was sunk partially into the ground as a precaution against damage from tropical storms. The inner dimensions of the thick-walled tomb were 12 feet by 6 feet. The door, made of solid marble, required several slaves to open and close it.
In 1808, the vault was sold to Chase, a well-to-do Englishman who had a reputation among the natives as a cruel and short-tempered man who treated both family and slaves poorly.
The first family member to be interred there was Thomasina Goddard, a relative of Chase’s, who died on July 31, 1807. She was placed inside the crypt in a lead coffin so heavy that it took four strong men to lift it. Goddard was followed a few months later by Chase’s infant daughter, Mary Anna, who died of disease. On July 6, 1812, Dorcas Chase, another of the colonel’s daughters, was buried. When the crypt was opened this third time, nothing unusual was noted; the heavy coffins of the other two family members remained as they had been placed originally.
In 1812, the vault was opened by a workman, who shrieked when he saw Mary Anna’s coffin standing on end in a corner. Although the door showed no signs of having been moved, the angry Chase family nonetheless assumed that a spiteful slave had broken in and done the vandalism. No culprit was ever caught.
In August 1812, Chase himself died. As the vault was opened for his burial, family members and spectators were shocked to see all three coffins in disarray, as though they had been tossed about like toys. Little Mary Anna’s coffin looked as though it had been thrown diagonally to the opposite corner of the crypt. It was assumed again that vandals had broken into the crypt and somehow managed to move the coffins.
Workmen restored the coffins to their original positions, laid side by side, and placed Colonel Chase’s coffin on top and across them. Once again, no culprit could be found for the apparent vandalism.
The crypt was not opened again until 1816, when a family baby died. Again the family was shocked to find all four coffins scattered wildly throughout the crypt. Even more astonishing, the sand on the floor had been undisturbed. The scene was repeated a few weeks later when the body of Samuel Brewster, a family member, was removed from its grave at the parish of St. Phillip and reburied in the Chase crypt. Once again, the coffins were found in disarray with the sand undisturbed.
The natives began to speak of Duppies, or evil spirits. It also was rumoured that the spirits of the previous family dead were reacting vehemently to the unwanted presence of Colonel Chase.Stories circulated that he had been so cruel toward Dorcas that she had starved herself to death and that in turn he had committed suicide.
The rumours caused a great deal of anxiety among the superstitious natives, causing the English governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere, to attempt to put the matter to rest.
In July 1819, Chase family member Thomasina Clarke was buried in the crypt. Combermere and his wife were present when the tomb was opened, and once again the coffins were found strewn madly about. No marks appeared in the sand. All coffins were restored to their original positions. Mrs. Combermere wrote in her diary:
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 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 . . .
After nine months, Combermere ordered the vault unsealed on April 18, 1820. Hundreds of persons turned out to witness it. Combermere found his seal and all other marks in the mortar undisturbed. He ordered the stone slab to be opened, but workmen could not budge it. After a great deal of effort, the slab finally was moved just enough to allow entry.
To Combermere’s surprise, but not to the natives’, the coffins had been tossed about. One had been on end resting against the slab door, accounting for the great difficulty in opening it. One of the baby coffins apparently had been thrown against the stone wall with such force as to leave a deep gash. Another coffin appeared to have been thrown down the steps to the bottom of the tomb. Horrified, the Chase family removed all the coffins and buried them elsewhere. The vault was closed, never to be used again.
Other Cases of Moving coffins
In the mid-18th century in Staunton, England (now Stanton All Saints, near Bury St. Edmunds), coffins were found disturbed on three occasions in a vault belonging to a family named French. One of the displaced coffins was so heavy that eight men were required to move it back to its proper position. Flooding was advanced as a cause, though the vault showed no signs of having held water at the times it was opened.
Similarly, coffins were found in disarray twice in the Gretford family vault near Stamford, England, in the early 19th century. Water again was supposed as the cause, though no signs of it were found.
A disturbance similar to the Chase case of Barbados occurred in 1844 in the Buxhowden crypt on the Island of Oesel, now called Sarema, located in the Baltic Sea, the home of a largely Lutheran population. In 1844, horses tethered near the vault became frantic when a loud crash was heard to emanate from within the crypt. Subsequently, other loud crashes were heard. When the vault was opened for a burial several coffins were found scattered about and even lying one atop another. Three were not disturbed: they contained the body of an old woman said to have been very devout, and the bodies of two young children. Villagers inferred that Demonic forces were responsible, since the coffins of the devout and the pure were untouched.
Such popular excitement ensued that a commission was appointed to investigate. The coffins were restored to order. The pavement was torn up to make certain there was no secret access to the vault. The vault’s floor and steps were covered with fine ash to reveal footprints of intruders, and guards were posted around the clock.
After three days, the Buxhowden vault was reopened. According to anecdotal account, all coffins but the three were scattered about in even greater confusion. The ash was undisturbed. Many coffins had been set on end, so that the heads of their corpses faced downward. The lid of one coffin had been forced open, and a shriveled right arm poked out. The deceased had committed SUICIDE by cutting his throat with a razor; the blood-stained tool allegedly was found clutched in his right hand. According to religious observances, suicides are not to be buried on hallowed ground. The family apparently had conducted a normal burial, hoping to hush up the tragedy.
The family then buried each coffin separately. There were no further disturbances. An official report by the commission was alleged to have been written but could not be located by later investigators.
- Knight, David C. The Moving coffins: Ghosts and Hauntings Around the World. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.
- Thurston, Herbert. Ghosts and Poltergeists. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1954.
- “An Unsolved Mystery of the Occult.” Ghosts of the Prairie Newsletter. Available on-line. URL: https://www.gotpnews. com. Downloaded on June 1, 1999.