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Saturday 10 May 2014

Creeping Coffins

What have these three books got in common (apart from being battered mass-market paperbacks dating from the early 60s?). There’s a murder mystery by John Dickson Carr called The Sleeping Sphinx, a science fiction novel by Lionel Fanthorpe (using the pseudonym “Bron Fane”) called U.F.O. 517, and a non-fiction compendium called Great World Mysteries by Eric Frank Russell.

No prizes for guessing the answer is going to be Fortean in some way. Eric Frank Russell, although he was best known as a science fiction author, was one of the earliest British disciples of Charles Fort. There have been several articles about him in the last few issues of Fortean Times, as part of Bob Rickard’s series on “The First Forteans”. The other two authors have also featured in fairly recent FT articles – I know because I was responsible for both of them! I wrote about “Fanthorpe’s Fortean Fiction” in FT297, and about the Fortean aspects of John Dickson Carr’s “Locked Room Mysteries” in FT 288.

The cover of the Carr novel depicts an old coffin, and the strapline mentions “restless coffins”. And that’s the connection between the three books – coffins that move of their own accord!

The relevant chapter in Russell’s book – the only non-fiction one of the three – is called “The Creeping Coffins of Barbados”. This seemingly poltergeist-like case will probably already be familiar to readers who, like me, can remember a time when there was more to Forteana than Bigfoot videos and leaked government UFO documents.

The events occurred in the early 19th century, in a churchyard on the south coast of Barbados. Over a period of several years, every time the Chase family’s private vault was unsealed to add a newly deceased relative, the coffins were found to be in wild disarray – often standing on end. The coffins were always carefully put back in their correct places, only to be found scattered about at random the next time the vault was opened. Increasingly elaborate precautions were taken to prevent unauthorised entry to the vault, but all to no avail. Eventually they gave up and abandoned the vault.

Exactly the same story is recounted in the Fanthorpe novel, where it’s given a characteristically Fanthorpian explanation involving a time-travelling flying saucer. A number of more conventional explanations are discussed in Russell’s book, ranging from malicious damage and natural phenomena to supernatural activity. The Barbados case wasn’t unique – Russell also mentions a similar case that occurred on the island of Oesel in the Baltic, as well as two in England. For himself, Russell says he “refuses to credit that any coffins have been moved around anywhere by ghosties or eerie beasties or things that go bump in the night. Whatever shifted the coffins at Barbados and elsewhere was, I believe, a force natural enough though not within our knowledge even at the present date.”

Others who investigated the case came to very different conclusions. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, favoured a supernatural explanation, referring (as quoted by Russell) to “bodily emanations, and the residual life-force supposedly remaining in the bodies of suicides and others who have died before their time.”

Talk of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes brings us neatly to John Dickson Carr and his own fictional detective, Gideon Fell. Carr is best known for his “locked room murders”... and the creeping coffins case is a classic example of a locked room puzzle. Strangely, however, this particular novel – The Sleeping Sphinx – isn’t a locked room murder at all. It’s a very clever mystery, as you’d expect from Carr, but it’s one of the few Dr Fell stories in which the murder itself doesn’t have any “physically impossible” aspects to it.

My guess is that either Carr’s publisher or his agent told him the novel had to include an “impossible mystery” in order to please his readership (the book dates from 1947, by which time Carr’s name was virtually synonymous with the locked room genre). So the scene with the coffins was tacked on as an afterthought. That’s not a spoiler, by the way – there’s no suggestion in the novel that the “restless coffins” have any direct connection to the murder, except for the tenuous link that one of the coffins involved is that of the murder victim.

In the novel, the solution to the coffin mystery comes at the very end of the book, even after the solution to the murder itself. So I won’t say what it is – except that it’s not supernatural! Carr doesn’t mention the Barbados case explicitly, although he refers briefly to the Oesel case and the two English ones. However, he does borrow a detail from the Barbados case, where fine sand is sprinkled on the floor of the vault in a vain attempt to detect the footprints of any intruders.

In a footnote Carr mentions a book called Oddities, dating from 1928, by Rupert T. Gould. Russell’s book also refers to Gould’s Oddities. I’m not sure if this is the same book, under a different title, as one I saw for sale a few years ago – “A Book of Marvels”, also by Rupert T. Gould. I would have bought it, except that the copy in question was thoroughly saturated with stale cigarette smoke – one of the few things that can totally ruin the pleasure of reading an old book, as far as I’m concerned. So I had to settle for photographing the cover and contents page... which as you can see includes a chapter entitled “The Vault at Barbados”:


Peni R. Griffin said...

Since I own a relatively recent edition of *Oddities* (1965, I think; the date's in Roman numerals) I can tell you, quoting the Bibliography of Gould's works included in it, that *A Book of Marvels* "contains seven of the twenty essays in *Oddities* and *Enigmas* with some corrections and additions, but is superseded by the second edition of each book."

The Dancing Coffins case in notable for including some of the most casually racist discussion of plausible and implausible causes I've ever read. I have always rather hoped that the plantation slaves had some motive for accessing the vault periodically, and deliberately disturbed the coffins when they knew it was to be opened, in order to frighten the white folks away from it and account for any activity they did spot going on around it between interments. Pretending to be abjectly afraid of it themselves would go hand-in-hand with this use; and the coffins that remained undisturbed would be those of more humble members of the family, who behaved better toward the slaves than the inhabitants of the disturbed ones.

This explanation has the merit of looking straight at the people most easily dismissed by the people first confronted with the mystery; which as any good mystery reader can tell you is the key to solving a case.

Andrew May said...

Thanks very much for the clarification about the Gould books. It's strange they're not better known - I will have to try to get hold of a non-smelly copy!

I like your theory. When it comes to making mischief, there are distinct advantages to being viewed as "intellectually inferior" - especially if you're intellectually superior!

Unknown said...

This may be of interest:

Andrew May said...

Thanks for the link Peter

theo paijmans said...

I did some research on the Baltic case, but I doubt if the original research files if they were, will ever come to light.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Theo, that's interesting. Is your research written up anywhere?

When I responded to Peter Hornsby's comment I'd only had a quick glance at the link, because I was standing outside in the rain at the time. Having read it properly, it seems these stories may not stand up to close scrutiny as well as one might hope!