The Chase Vault is a burial vault in the cemetery of the Christ Church Parish Church in Oistins, Christ Church, Barbados. It is best known for a widespread but unverified story of “unexplained incidents” in the early 19th century involving the coffins within the vault. According to the story, each time when the vault was opened to bury a family member, all of the extremely heavy coffins but one had changed position – despite the vault being sealed shut each time it was closed. Supposedly this happened several times without explanation over a number of years and the vault was eventually abandoned. The facts of the story remain unverified.
Over the years, different versions and variations of the tale have been published. But the core story has remained consistent and is generally told as follows.
The Chase Vault was constructed for James Elliot around 1724. The vault was built such that it was partially underground. It was approximately 12 feet (3.7 m) long and 6½ feet wide. However, Elliot was never buried there, and the vault remained empty until Thomasina Goddard was buried on July 13th 1807. Sometime in 1808, the vault was acquired by the Chase family, a fairly wealthy and important clan in Barbados. Some writers state that the patriarch of the family, Thomas Chase, was one of the most hated men on the island. One example is the account in The People’s Almanac: “The head of the family, a man with a vicious temper, was so cruel to his slaves that they had threatened his life.”
On February 22nd 1808 the body of Thomas Chase’s infant daughter, Mary Ann Maria Chase, was taken to the vault for burial. When the vault was opened, Goddard’s wooden casket was found to be undisturbed. The vault was then opened on July 6th 1812 to bury Thomas Chase’s other daughter, Dorcas Chase. Both Goddard’s and Mary Chase’s caskets were found to be undisturbed at this time, however the account in the People’s Almanac states that Mary’s coffin was discovered to have been displaced when the vault was opened to inter Dorcas. Both of the Chase girls were interred in heavy lead caskets.
One month later, on August 9th 1812, the vault was opened again to accept the body of Thomas Chase himself. It was at this time that the caskets of the Chase girls were found to be displaced. According to reports, Mary Chase’s casket was thrown from the north-east corner of the vault to the opposite corner such that it was standing on end, head downward. It was assumed the disturbance was the result of vandals or thieves. As such, the caskets were reordered and the large marble slab covering the entrance put back in place.
The vault was opened again on September 25th 1816 to accept the body of another infant, Samuel Brewster Ames. The coffins, with the exception of Thomasina Goddard’s, were again found to have been disturbed. Thomas Chase’s coffin was supposedly so heavy, it took eight men to move it. Once again, the coffins were reordered, some of them stacked on others in the small vault, and the entrance sealed.
On November 17th 1816, the vault was opened again to accept the body of Samuel Brewster. Once again, the coffins were found to be in disarray throughout the vault. For the third time, the coffins were moved back to their original positions and the vault sealed.
The vault was opened again on July 17th 1819, to accept the body of Thomasina Clark. Again, the coffins were found scattered. By this time, the mysterious incidents attracted the attention of local officials. Lord Combermere, Governor of Barbados, was reported to have attended Clark’s burial. The Chase Vault was carefully examined by the Governor and his staff. No secret entrance into the vault was detected, and sand was scattered across the floor to detect any footprints. The coffins were reordered and Clark’s wooden casket placed in the vault. It was reported that Goddard’s wooden casket was falling to pieces, either through decay or because of the activity in the vault. The remains of her casket were tied together and placed against a wall. Finally, the vault was closed and the marble slab cemented in place. The Governor and his staff reportedly placed their official seals in the cement to ensure the integrity of the seal.
On April 18th 1820, some eight months after the burial of Thomasina Clark, the vault was ordered to be reopened. The seals were found to be intact, but when the entrance slab was moved the coffins, with the exception of Goddard’s wooden casket, were again found to be in disarray. The account in The People’s Almanac includes the macabre detail that “a bony arm, that of Dorcas Chase, [was] sticking out a hole in the side of the coffin.” The sand on the floor did not show any kind of human activity within the vault. There was also no indication of flooding or earthquake.
After this incident, the vault was abandoned, and the coffins were buried elsewhere. The vault still exists today at Christ Church Parish Church, and is still vacant.
Similar events have been reported from the older Williams Vault.
Origins of the story
The story of the Chase Vault appears to originate from Thomas H. Orderson, Rector of Christ Church during the period of the unexplained incidents. Orderson gave several accounts to inquiries, each of which had some variation of the tale. The first published account of the moving coffins was by Sir James E. Alexander’s Transatlantic Sketches (1833) . It appears that most subsequent writers referred to sources that could be traced back to one of Orderson’s accounts. In December 1907, Andrew Lang published an account in Foke-Lore Journal, where he related his attempt to determine the veracity of the Chase Vault incident by combing through existing documentation. Lang was the one who identified the multiple accounts made by Orderson. Lang also found that the burial register of Christ Church, as well as contemporary newspapers on Barbados, made no note of the mysterious events. He did, however, come across an unpublished firsthand account by a Nathan Lucas, who claimed to be present at the opening of the vault in April 1820. The basic facts of the story are therefore unverified, though the empty vault remains otherwise unexplained.
Modern author Joe Nickell argues that none of these incidents happened in the real world. The available accounts are loaded with symbols and phrases which Freemasons would recognize. Nickell, who had investigated an earlier alleged Masonic hoax involving a tale of buried treasure at Oak Island, 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 darkness.’ 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.”
Nickell quotes these words from Nathan 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!”