The Restless Dead

Many hotels, restaurants or bars at B-list tourist destinations are ‘haunted’, though it may be more by the need to attract customers than by any ghost. There are well over two hundred such establishments in the United States alone. In many instances, though, it is difficult to tell fact from fiction- especially when the tradition goes a long way back. One that is difficult to work out is that of the tumbling coffins.

There have been three such occurrences in the literature that I could find, though I keep running across rumors of others. I first became aware of the tale involving the ancient and noble Buxhoeveden family. Unfortunately, I came across this several decades ago and have since lost the reference. It seems to me that it was either in one of Nandor Fodor‘s works, or perhaps a book by Hans Holzer, who was married to Countess Catherine Buxhoeveden.

This version originates with the Baron de Guldenstubbe and his sister in Paris on May 8, 1859. Robert Dale Owen published their account in 1861. Their father, they said, was the head of a committee in 1844 that investigated the goings on in the Lutheran cemetery in Ahrensburg (now Kuressaare), on the Isle of Oesel (now Saaremaa), in the Baltic.

In June of that year a vault in the cemetery had become “noisy”, frightening passing horses and generally disturbing the peace of the neighborhood. In July the vault was opened for a burial and the coffins within were found “lying in a confused pile”. They were replaced and the vault locked. The elder Guldenstubbe who, with two of the Buxhoeveden family (the vault was in their chapel), secretly visited the vault at a later time and again found all within in confusion. They had it put to rights and agreed an investigation.

It has come down to us that the investigating committee included the Baron (as it’s head) the local Bishop, the Burgomeister, Dr. M. Luce, a Syndic (a government or university official), a secretary, and two clergymen- so it was a rather high powered affair. They reopened the vault and found all but three of the coffins “in a painfully dissolute state”. They were able to establish that no robbery had occurred, the dead still being in possession of their jewels. The pavement of the vault was investigated and found to be undisturbed. Everything was again put in order and the vault sealed with the official seal of the Consistory (the church council). Wood ashes were scattered over the floor, to detect footprints, and a military guard mounted (must have been a fascinating assignment). When they returned nothing had been disturbed, but the coffins were found standing on their heads, the lid of one open with a hand (that of a suicide) protruding. The disturbances continued until the coffins were removed and reburied elsewhere. An official account supposedly exists in the Consistory archives, but I have been unable to confirm this.

There were two earlier but similar tales from Barbados. A possible source of the Buxhoeveden story is the case of the Williams vault there. General William Asygell Williams was banished to Barbados by Oliver Cromwell for having supported the Royalists. It seemed to work out well for Williams since he grew wealthy with land and property, and had four sons. He allegedly developed the grapefruit, though it is generally accepted that it is a naturally occurring hybrid. A family vault was built on the property in 1660 and became the source of the trouble. The only source reference I can find for this is a very old but undated account by a Mr. E. G. Sinckler :

“The story… might well account for the absence of marriage and baptism records, and the lack of contemporary references to this family of children, evidently orphaned when very young.  The Legend mentions neither names nor dates, but relates how one of the sons of the family at Welchman’s Hall married an Italian lady who was a Roman Catholic, and the family strongly objected to the marriage.  This lady was a fine horse-woman and also did much to improve the grounds of the family mansion house, planting many valuable fruit trees.  The lady died, and was buried in the family vault.  At some time later, when the vault was opened again the coffins were found in the utmost disorder with that of the old General standing upright by itself!  The coffins were then arranged in order again, with that of the old General placed at the bottom, and the others on top of it, but the next time the vault was opened the old General was upright again!”

Since no evidence of tampering by any human agency could be found, it was decided that the General, being Protestant through and through, and not approving of his son’s marriage, certainly did not want to spend eternity with his Catholic daughter-in-law (which seems a bit ungrateful, since she improved the property so much). Strangely, after the woman’s coffin was removed there were no more disturbances. Was this the origin of the story of the Chase vault? Or did tourist guides ‘borrow’ the story for the Williams vault at a later date? With no other source material available, who knows?

The Chase Vault, Christ Church Cemetery

Finally, the best known account is of the Chase family vault in the cemetery of the Christ Church Parish Church in Barbados. One of the earliest sources of this version is Thomas H. Orderson, who was the Rector of the church at the time. The vault was constructed around 1724, sixty years or so after the Williams vault. The first person to be interred there was Thomasina Goddard on July 13th 1807. In 1808 the vault was purchased by the Chases, a family of rich plantation owners. Thomas Chase, the head of the family, was purportedly one of the most hated men in the islands. The vault was soon put to use, receiving the body of Mary Ann Chase, Thomas’s seven month old daughter, on February 22nd of that year. Four years later, on July 6th, 1812, another daughter, 16 year old Dorcas, was interred. Dorcas was a suicide, ostensibly driven to it by her father’s cruelty. At this point there didn’t seem to be a problem.

Just one month later, on August 9th, the vault was reopened to receive Thomas, supposedly himself a suicide, perhaps through remorse over his part in the death of Dorcas.  At any rate, when the vault was opened on this occasion the heavy lead coffins of one or both girls were found moved from their previous location. Mary Ann’s coffin was now in the opposite corner from where it had been, standing upright, head down. Other reports claim that it was Dorcas in that position, still others that it was both. Regardless, it was assumed they had been shifted by thieves, or been vandalized by Thomas’s enemies. Mrs. Goddard’s lightweight wooden coffin remained undisturbed. Everything was put back in order and the vault resealed by a heavy marble slab, requiring six or seven men to shift.

On September 25, 1816 the vault was opened for the infant Samuel Brewster Ames. On this occasion the other coffins were found in great confusion. Thomasina Goddard’s wooden coffin was the only one not moved. With admirable sang-froid the coffins were realigned (it took eight men to lift Thomas’s) and the vault resealed. Just two months later, on November 17th it was reopened to admit the remains of Samuel Brewster, a planter who had been killed by his slaves in an uprising in April and been temporarily interred elsewhere. Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, in their book The World’s Greatest Unsolved Mysteries, refer to Samuel Brewster as Samuel Brewster Ames’s father. This strikes me as unlikely because of the different last names. It seems a bit more logical that Ames was the namesake of the elder Brewster, but of a different family. Whatever the case may be, everything was put back in order and the vault resealed.

Three years later, on July 17th 1819, Mrs. Thomasina Clarke’s remains were interred. Word of the unusual doings had gotten around, however, and this time a small crowd was in attendance, including the Governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere. When the heavy marble slab was removed everyone saw that the interior was again in complete disarray. Lord Combermere and his staff thoroughly examined the interior for signs of earth tremors, flooding or human interference. They found nothing. The floor was given a covering of fine sand, the coffins reorganized and Mrs. Clark’s wooden coffin placed within. The marble slab was secured in place with cement, into which the governor and some members of his staff impressed their seals.

Eight months later, on April 18th, 1820, after reports of noise from within the vault, Lord Combermere ordered it reopened. The slab was still in place, the cement still intact and showing the unbroken impressions of the official seals. But when the vault was opened all inside was chaos. The coffins were tumbled as wildly as before. What was worse was that the tell-tale sand lay undisturbed on the floor- not a single mark, not a bit out of place. The only coffin to remain unmoved throughout the shenanigans was the wooden coffin of the original occupant Thomasina Goddard. Although still in place, it was falling apart, whether from age or from the ruckus within the vault, who can say?

This time everyone involved had had enough. The occupants were reburied elsewhere and the Chase vault was left unoccupied- and so it remains to this day. Earth tremors, flooding and human interference (many suspected the slaves, because of the recent uprising) were ruled out for one reason or another, leaving only the supernatural. But was it? Could the story be simply myth, gotten up by Lord Combermere and the rector of the parish church? Was it merely a nineteenth century tourist gimmick? Or was it something more sinister? At this late date there may be no way to tell.

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