Sunday, 7 April 2013


The Red Barn Murder was a notorious murder committed in Polstead, Suffolk, England, in 1827. A young woman, Maria Marten, was shot dead by her lover, William Corder. The two had arranged to meet at the Red Barn, a local landmark, before eloping to Ipswich. Maria was never heard from again. Corder fled the scene and, although he sent Marten's family letters claiming she was in good health, her body was later discovered buried in the barn after her stepmother spoke of having dreamt about the murder.

Corder was tracked down in London, where he had married and started a new life. He was brought back to Suffolk, and after a well-publicised trial, found guilty of murder. He was hanged in Bury St Edmunds in 1828; a huge crowd witnessed Corder's execution. The story provoked numerous articles in the newspapers, and songs and plays. The village where the crime had taken place became a tourist attraction and the barn was stripped by souvenir hunters. The plays and ballads remained popular throughout the next century and continue to be performed today.

Maria Marten (born 24 July 1801) was the daughter of Thomas Marten, a molecatcher from Polstead, Suffolk. In March 1826, when she was 24, she formed a relationship with the 22-year-old William Corder (born 1803). Marten was an attractive woman and relationships with men from the neighbourhood had already resulted in two children. One, the child of William's older brother Thomas, died as an infant, but the other, Thomas Henry, was still alive at the time Marten met Corder. Although Thomas Henry's father wanted nothing more to do with Marten after the birth, he occasionally sent money to provide for the child.

William Corder was the son of a local farmer, and had a reputation as something of a fraudster and a ladies' man. He was known as "Foxey" at school because of his sly manner. He had fraudulently sold his father's pigs, and, although his father had settled the matter without involving the law, Corder had not changed his behaviour. He later obtained money by passing a forged cheque for £93 and he had helped a local thief, Samuel "Beauty" Smith, steal a pig from a neighbouring village. When Smith was questioned by the local constable over the theft, he made a prophetic statement concerning Corder: "I'll be damned if he will not be hung some of these days". Corder had been sent to London in disgrace after his fraudulent sale of the pigs, but he was recalled to Polstead when his brother Thomas drowned attempting to cross a frozen pond. His father and three brothers all died within 18 months of each other and only William remained to run the farm with his mother.

William Corder
Although Corder wished to keep his relationship with Marten secret, she gave birth to their child in 1827, at the age of 25, and was apparently keen that she and Corder should marry. The child died (later reports suggested that it may have been murdered), but Corder apparently still intended to marry Marten. That summer, in the presence of her stepmother, Ann Marten, he suggested that she meet him at the Red Barn, from where he proposed that they elope to Ipswich. Corder claimed that he had heard rumours that the parish officers were going to prosecute Maria for having bastard children. He initially suggested they elope on the Wednesday evening, but later decided to delay until the Thursday evening. On Thursday he was again delayed: his brother falling ill is mentioned as the reason in some sources, although most claim all his brothers were dead by this time.

The next day, Friday, 18 May 1827, he appeared at the Martens' cottage during the day, and according to Ann Marten, told Maria that they must leave at once, as he had heard that the local constable had obtained a warrant to prosecute her (no warrant had been obtained, but it is not known if Corder was lying or was mistaken). Maria was worried that she could not leave in broad daylight, but Corder told her she should dress in men's clothing so as to avert suspicion, and he would carry her things to the barn where she could meet him and change before they continued on to Ipswich.

Shortly after Corder left the house, Maria set out to meet him at the Red Barn, which was situated on Barnfield Hill, about half a mile from the Martens' cottage. This was the last time she was seen alive. Corder also disappeared, but later turned up and claimed that Marten was in Ipswich, Great Yarmouth, or some other place nearby, and that he could not yet bring her back as his wife for fear of provoking the anger of his friends and relatives. The pressure on Corder to produce his wife eventually forced him to leave the area. He wrote letters to Marten's family claiming they were married and living on the Isle of Wight, and gave various excuses for her lack of communication: she was unwell, had hurt her hand, or that the letter must have been lost.

Maria Marten appeared in her step-mothers dreams
Suspicion continued to grow, and Maria's stepmother began talking of dreams that Maria had been murdered and buried in the Red Barn. On 19 April 1828, she persuaded her husband to go to the Red Barn and dig in one of the grain storage bins. He quickly uncovered the remains of his daughter buried in a sack. She was badly decomposed, but still identifiable. An inquest was carried out at the Cock Inn (which still stands today) at Polstead, where Maria was formally identified by her sister Ann from some physical characteristics: her hair and some clothing were recognizable and a tooth she was known to be missing was also missing from the jawbone of the corpse. Evidence was uncovered to implicate Corder in the crime: his green handkerchief was discovered around the body's neck.

A `penny dreadful` of the day depicting both the crime and arrest
Corder was easily discovered; Mr Ayres, the constable in Polstead, was able to obtain his old address from a friend, and with the assistance of James Lea, an officer of the London police force who would later lead the investigation into Spring Heeled Jack, he tracked Corder to a ladies' boarding house, Everley Grove House, in Brentford. Corder was running the boarding house with his new wife, Mary Moore, whom he had met through a newspaper advertisement that he had placed in The Times (which had received more than 100 replies).

Lea managed to gain entry under the pretext that he wished to board his daughter there, and surprised Corder in the parlour. Thomas Hardy noted the Dorset County Chronicle's report of his capture:
…in parlour with 4 ladies at breakfast, in dressing gown & had a watch before him by which he was 'minuting' the boiling of some eggs.

Lea took him to one side and informed him of the charges; Corder denied all knowledge of both Maria and the crime. A search of the house uncovered a pair of pistols supposedly bought on the day of the murder; some letters from a Mr. Gardener, which may have contained warnings about the discovery of the crime; and a passport from the French ambassador, evidence which suggested Corder may have been preparing to flee.

The scene where the body was buried
Corder was taken back to Suffolk where he was tried at Shire Hall, Bury St. Edmunds. The trial started on 7 August 1828, having been put back several days because of the interest the case had generated. The hotels in Bury St. Edmunds began to fill up from as early as 21 July and, because of the large numbers that wanted to view the trial, admittance to the court was by ticket only. Despite this the judge and court officials still had to push their way bodily through the crowds that had gathered around the door to gain entry to the court room.

Corder entered a plea of not guilty. The exact cause of death could not be established. It was thought that a sharp instrument, possibly Corder's short sword, had been plunged into Marten's eye socket, but this wound could also have been caused by her father's spade when he was exhuming the body.

Strangulation could not be ruled out as Corder's handkerchief had been discovered around her neck, and, to add to the confusion, the wounds to her body suggested she had been shot. The indictment charged Corder with "…murdering Maria Marten, by feloniously and wilfully shooting her with a pistol through the body, and likewise stabbing her with a dagger." To avoid any chance of a mistrial, he was indicted on nine charges, including one of forgery.

Maria`s murder by Corder
Ann Marten was called to give evidence of the events of the day of Maria's disappearance and her later dreams. Thomas Marten then told the court how he had dug up his daughter, and George Marten, Maria's 10-year-old brother, revealed that he had seen Corder with a loaded pistol before the alleged murder and later had seen him walking from the barn with a pickaxe. Lea gave evidence concerning Corder's arrest and the objects found during the search of his house.

The prosecution suggested that Corder had never wanted to marry Maria, but that her knowledge of some of his criminal dealings had given her a hold over him, and that his theft previously of the money sent by her child's father had been a source of tension between them.

Corder then gave his own version of the events. He admitted to being in the barn with Maria, but said he had left after they argued. He claimed that, while he was walking away, he heard a pistol shot and, running back to the barn, found Maria dead with one of his pistols beside her. He pleaded with the jury to give him the benefit of the doubt, but after they retired, it took them only 35 minutes to return with a guilty verdict. Baron Alexander sentenced him to hang and afterwards be dissected:
That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!

Corder spent the next three days in prison agonising over whether to confess to the crime and make a clean breast of his sins before God. After several meetings with the prison chaplain, entreaties from his wife, and pleas from both his warder and John Orridge, the governor of the prison, he finally confessed. He strongly denied stabbing Maria, claiming instead he had accidentally shot her in the eye after they argued while she was changing out of her disguise.

Corder`s popular public execution

On 11 August 1828, Corder was taken to the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, apparently too weak to stand without support. He was hanged shortly before noon in front of a huge crowd; one newspaper claimed there were 7,000 spectators, another as many as 20,000. At the prompting of the prison governor, just before the hood was drawn over his head, he weakly asserted:
I am guilty; my sentence is just; I deserve my fate; and, may God have mercy on my soul.

After an hour, his body was cut down by John Foxton, the hangman, who, according to his rights, claimed Corder's trousers and stockings. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The crowds were allowed to file past until six o'clock when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people queued to see the body.

Corder`s death bust in Moyses Hall
The following day, the dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and physicians. A battery was attached to Corder's limbs to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined. There was some discussion as to whether the cause of death was suffocation; but, since it was reported that Corder's chest was seen to rise and fall for several minutes after he had dropped, it was thought probable that pressure on the spinal cord had killed him.

Since the skeleton was to be reassembled after the dissection, it was not possible to examine the brain, so instead the surgeons contented themselves with a phrenological examination of the skull. Corder's skull was asserted to be profoundly developed in the areas of "secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, philoprogenitiveness, and imitativeness" with little evidence of "benevolence or veneration". The bust of Corder held by Moyse's Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds is an original made by Child of Bungay, Suffolk, as a tool for the study of Corder's phrenology.

Corder`s scalp and a book of the trial bound in his skin
The skeleton was reassembled, exhibited, and used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse's Hall Museum. Artifacts from the trial and some which were in Corder's possession are also held at the museum. Corder's skin was tanned by the surgeon George Creed, and used to bind an account of the murder.

Corder's skeleton was put on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England, where it hung beside that of Jonathan Wild. In 2004, Corder's bones were removed from display and cremated.

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