Monday, May 12, 2014

The Red Barn Murder

by Regina Jeffers

In Polstead, Suffolk, England, on 18 May 1827, the son the local squire, one William Corder, shot his lover Maria Marten. The two were reported to have planned an elopement to Ipswich, but after going to meet Corder at the Red Barn, a local landmark, Marten was never heard from again.

The daughter of a molecatcher (Thomas Marten), Maria had had a checkered past, having had two illegitimate children, one the child of William Corder’s older brother Thomas. That child died in infancy, but another child, Thomas Henry, was alive at the time of Maria’s death. She was four and twenty when she and William began their affair.

William held a reputation as a fraudster and a bit of a cad. He sported the nickname of “Foxey,” which indicated his disposition for duplicity. William was known to have sold his father’s pigs without his father’s permission. Later on, he forged a £93 cheque, as well as assisting a local thief, Samuel “Beauty” Smith, to steal a neighbor’s pig.

In shame, William had been sent to London, but he was recalled to Polstead when his brother Thomas accidentally drowned when crossing what he thought was a frozen pond. Over the next eighteen months, William’s father and three brothers died. This turn of events left William the family farm, not a bad thing for a minor son.

Corder reportedly attempted to keep his relationship with Marten a secret, but it became public knowledge when she bore him a child in 1827. Some say the child died soon afterwards, but other rumors suggest the child had been murdered. Corder, according to Ann Marten, supposedly suggested the elopement, claiming he had heard rumors that the parish officers planed to prosecute Maria for the girl’s loose ways.

Originally, the couple was to elope on 16 May, a Wednesday. Corder postponed until Thursday, saying his brother had taken ill. This was questionable for many said his brothers had all passed. On Friday 18 May, Corder called upon the Marten household with the news the local constable had a warrant for Maria’s arrest. In reality, no such warrant existed. He suggested that Maria dress as a man to aid her escape. They would meet at the barn so she might change clothes before they left for Ipswich.

Corder left shortly after the incident, and to cover his trail, he sent letters to Marten’s family, claiming that she was too ill to respond to their letters, that they were now living on the Isle of Wight, that she had injured her hand, etc., but she would return soon for a visit. Unfortunately for Corder, after Maria’s stepmother, Ann Marten, claimed to have had a dream where Maria’s ghost showed the woman her gravesite, Maria’s father dug up his daughter’s remains in the Red Barn on 19 April 1828.

At an inquest, members of her family identified Maria’s badly decomposed body. In addition, evidence was presented to indicate Corder’s participation in Maria’s death. His green handkerchief was about Maria’s neck.

Corder was found to be living in London at a ladies’ boarding house, Everley Grove House, in Brentford. William had married Mary Moore, whom he had met through a newspaper advertisement. He ran the boarding house. One of the investigators, James Lea, posed as a father seeking appropriate housing for his daughter, and was admitted to the house, where he took Corder into custody. Supposedly, a search of Corder’s residence turned up a pair of pistols and a passport, courtesy of the French Ambassador.

The authorities returned Corder to Suffolk. The trial took place at Shire Hall, Bury St Edmunds; it was a grand affair with spectators vying for a chance to view the proceedings. It also received much attention in the media of the day. The judge, Chief Baron Alexander, spoke out often against the craziness. (William Corder)  Corder pleaded not guilty. Despite an exact cause of death not being discovered, the indictment charged Corder with “murdering Maria Marten, by feloniously and willfully shooting her with a pistol through the body, and likewise stabbing her with a dagger.” (William Corder) He was also charged with forgery.

The prosecution suggested that Maria had knowledge of William’s “shady dealings,” and that was reason he had lured her into the belief he would marry her. William claimed Maria had committed suicide after they had argued. He pleaded for leniency in the case, but it took only 35 minutes for him to be found guilty. He was sentenced to hanging. With the encouragement of the prison chaplain and from his wife, William finally confessed to killing Maria. However, he claimed the incident had been an accidental shooting during their argument over her “disguise” as a man.

On 11 August 1828, Corder was hanged before some 7000+ spectators. Finally, Foxton, the hangman, who claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings as part of his payment, cut down his body. The corpse was returned to Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen. Over the next couple of hours, crowds were permitted to file past the body. “According to the Norwich and Bury Post, some 5000 people queued to see the body.” (William Corder)

The next day, the body was dissected and an autopsy conducted before a group of students and physicians from Cambridge. “A battery was attached to Corder’s limits to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined.” (William Corder)

“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. The skeleton was reassembled and exhibited in the West Suffolk Hospital.

“Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse's Hall Museum. Artefacts 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.

“Until 2004, Corder's skeleton was on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England, where it hung beside that of Jonathan Wild. In response to requests from surviving relatives, Corder's bones were removed from display and cremated.” (William Corder)

Plays incorporating the gruesome details of the murder were performed while Corder awaited trial. Authors took up the tale, and the story became a staple of the penny gaffs. James Catnatch sold over a million broadsides following the execution. The single sheet newspapers contained details of the execution and of Corder’s half-hearted confession. The accounts also contained a maudlin ballad, reportedly written by Corder. All the drama surrounding the murder, the capture, the trial, and the execution makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

“Pieces of the rope, which was used to hang Corder sold for a guinea each. Part of Corder's scalp with an ear still attached was displayed in a shop in Oxford Street. A lock of Maria's hair sold for two guineas. Polstead became a tourist venue with visitors travelling from as far afield as Ireland; Curtis estimated that 200,000 people visited Polstead in 1828 alone.

“The Red Barn and the Martens' cottage excited particular interest. The barn was stripped for souvenirs, down to the planks being removed from the sides, broken up and sold as toothpicks. It was planned to be demolished after the trial, but it was left standing and eventually burnt down in 1842. Souvenir hunters eventually chipped even Maria’s gravestone away to nothing. Pottery models and sketches were sold and songs composed, including one mentioned in the Vaughan Williams opera Hugh the Drover.

“Corder's skeleton was put on display in a glass case in the West Suffolk Hospital, and apparently rigged with a mechanism that made its arm point to the collection box when approached. Eventually, a Dr. Kilner, who wanted to add Corder’s skull to his extensive collection of Red Barn memorabilia, replaced the skull. After a series of unfortunate events, Kilner became convinced the skull was cursed and handed it on to his friend Hopkins. Further disasters plagued both men and they finally paid for the skull to be given a Christian burial in an attempt to lift the supposed curse.

“Interest in the case did not quickly fade. Maria Marten; or The Murder in the Red Barn, which existed in various anonymous versions, was a sensational hit throughout the mid-1800s and may have been the most performed play of the 19th century; Victorian fairground peepshows were forced to add extra apertures to their viewers when exhibiting their shows of the murder to cope with the demand. The plays of the Victorian era tended to portray Corder as a cold-blooded monster and Maria as the innocent he preyed upon; her reputation and her children by other fathers were airbrushed out, and Corder was made into an older man. Charles Dickens published an account of the murder in his magazine All The Year Round after initially rejecting it because he felt the story to be too well known and the account of the stepmother's dreams rather far-fetched.

“Although diminished, the fascination continued into the 20th century with five film versions, including the 1935 Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn, starring Tod Slaughter, which was only released in the U.S. after some scenes were cut. A fictionalized account of the murder was produced in 1953 for the CBS radio series ‘Crime Classics.’ The incident has inspired a number of contemporary musicians: No Roses by the Albion Country Band, released in 1971, included the traditional song ‘Murder of Maria Martin’; more recently, ‘Murder in the Red Barn,’ a song by Tom Waits (co-written with his wife Kathleen Brennan) from his 1992 album Bone Machine, and Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman's ‘The Red Barn’ on the 2004 album ‘2’ have commemorated the event. The song "Maria Martin" included on the folk album White Swans Black Ravens was recorded live in Moyse's Hall Museum. Swavesey Village College Theatre Company produced a stage adaptation in 2000, and later revived the production in 2006. The latest revival toured to theatres and received critical acclaim.

“In November 2007 a report of a fire that nearly destroyed Marten's still-standing cottage was on the front page of the East Anglian Daily Times. Firefighters saved 80% of the thatched roof at Marten's former home after a chimney fire threatened the ‘iconic Suffolk cottage,’ now run as a bed and breakfast.” (William Corder)

Other Sources of Information:
Curtis, James (1828). The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. London: William Clowes. Hindley, Charles [1869] (1969). The History of the Catnach Press. Detroit: Singing Tree Press.

About the Author: Award-winning author, Regina Jeffers writes Austen-inspired novels, including Darcy’s Passions, Darcy’s Temptation, Vampire Darcy’s Desire, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Phantom of Pemberley, Christmas at Pemberley, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, Honor and Hope and The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. She also writes Regency romances: The Scandal of Lady Eleanor, A Touch of Velvet, A Touch of Cashémere, A Touch of Grace, A Touch of Mercy, A Touch of Love, A Touch of Honor and The First Wives’ Club. A Time Warner Star Teacher and Martha Holden Jennings Scholar, Jeffers often serves as a consultant in language arts and media literacy. Currently living outside Charlotte, North Carolina, she spends her time with her writing, gardening, and her adorable grandchildren.


  1. I think this story says more about the gruesome imagination of the English people than Corder's criminality. What he may or may not have done pales in comparison!

  2. I believe time has shown, Pauline, that "gruesome details" are universal.

  3. I had never heard of this but now I have! What an interesting story and how it has lived on through the years.


  4. I've never heard of this either, but what a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing it with us, Regina!

  5. I have never heard of this either. What a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing it with us, Regina!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.