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Murder in the Red Barn
Maria was born in 1801 into the humblest of circumstances. Her father, Thomas, was a molecatcher in the village of Polstead. Maria is said to have been a good looking young woman who attracted the attention of the local lads.
Liaisons with village youth had already produced two children by the time she met up with William Corder. He was a squire’s son with a somewhat unsavoury reputation that suited his school nickname of “Foxey.” He was inclined to sell goods that did not belong to him, such as his father’s pigs, and was considered a ladies’ man. His skill as a seducer led to another pregnancy for Maria.
The Couple Elope
In mid-May 1827, Corder persuaded Maria to meet him at the Red Barn, a local landmark. They were, he said, going to run away to Ipswich to be married.
The couple met as arranged but Maria was never seen alive again.
William Corder also disappeared, but he stayed in touch with Maria’s family by sending letters that said she was in good health. The couple was living happily, he said, on the Isle of Wight. He could not bring her back to Polstead, he wrote, for fear of provoking anger over the illegitimate children she had borne. There was also the risk of her arrest on a charge of bastardy.
But, suspicion started to grow when Corder invented excuses about why Maria did not write herself – she had hurt her hand or her letters must have gone astray.
A Stepmother’s Dream
A year after Maria’s disappearance, her stepmother, Ann, reported having dreams that her stepdaughter had been murdered. The dead woman was buried under the floor of the Red Barn, she said.
She persuaded Maria’s father to start digging. As instructed by Ann, he began excavations in a grain storage bin and soon uncovered the mostly skeletal remains of Maria Marten. Identified by her clothing, hair, and a missing tooth, evidence also implicated William Corder; a green handkerchief belonging to him was wound around Maria’s neck.
The murderer had certainly wanted to make sure his job was complete because, in addition to the apparent strangulation, Maria had taken a pistol shot to her head and had probably been stabbed a couple of times with a sword.
The hue and cry went up for Corder’s arrest.
William Corder was tracked down fairly quickly. He had married the daughter of a prominent jeweller and together they were operating a private school for girls in London.
He was arrested at the school and taken to Bury St. Edmunds to face trial.
William Corder in the dock was a media sensation.
Forensic pathology in the early 19th century was primitive so it was impossible to determine exactly how Maria was killed. As a result, Corder faced nine different murder charges - shooting, stabbing, strangling, and even burying alive among them.
The lax laws of the time allowed newspapers to convict him before a single word of testimony was heard. He was denounced as a vicious killer from pulpits and in puppet shows. Through song he was pronounced guilty as sin. Judge Alexander, who presided over the trial, was not happy with the media’s conviction of the accused. He said the coverage was “to the manifest detriment of the prisoner at the bar.”
At the trial, huge crowds gathered outside the courthouse and scuffles broke out among these eager for a seat.
Improbably, William Corder’s defence was that Maria had taken her own life and that he had covered up the body. The jury took half an hour to decide Corder’s explanation for Maria’s death was more than improbable. “Guilty as charged,” was the verdict. “Hang him next week,” said the judge.
William Corder’s Execution
The notoriety of the case ensured a big crowd would turn out to witness Corder’s last moments outside the Bury St. Edmonds Prison. Seven thousand (some accounts suggest 20,000) showed up for the spectacle of his demise at the hands of John Foxton.
On the morning of his execution Corder wrote a confession, but claimed he and Maria had quarreled and he had accidentally shot her in the eye.
Shortly before noon on August 11, 1828, the hanging took place. Corder needed support to mount the steps of the scaffold. Just before the hood was placed over his head he told the assembled crowd, “I am guilty; my sentence is just; I deserve my fate; and, may God have mercy on my soul.”
After an hour John Foxton cut Corder down and, as was the custom, claimed the dead man’s trousers and stockings. Foxton also sold pieces of the rope used in the hanging to eager onlookers. Five thousand people queued up to view his body before it was taken away for dissection.
Gruesomely, his skin was removed, tanned, and then used as a cover for a book that described his awful deeds.
The murder at the Red Barn has provided a living for writers and travelling players.
Balladeers made money singing their versions of the story and the publishers of broadsheets sold copies counted in the hundreds of thousands.
Actors performed many versions of plays surrounding the events in the lives of Maria Marten and William Corder. The story had all the elements of Victorian melodrama; a poor, naïve country maiden seduced by a wealthy blackguard and discarded when she became inconvenient. There was even the paranormal element of Maria’s stepmother dreaming about the location of Maria’s body to spice things up.
The playwrights did not feel constrained by the known facts and embellished the evilness of Corder.
Trailer of a 1935 Movie That is Not Troubled by Truth or Overacting
Thousands of people visited Polstead in the following years to view the places where the grisly tragedy occurred. Souvenir hunters pretty much stripped the Red Barn of everything and they took chips of Maria’s gravestone until it was little more than a small rock.
During the dissection of William Corder’s body, surgeons applied the pseudo-medical discipline of phrenology to his brain. Of course, they found what they were looking for; larger than normal development in areas associated with “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness …” They also determined that Corder’s brain was underdeveloped in the place where benevolence was believed to reside.
Did Ann Marten really dream so vividly about Maria’s death? Rumours circulated that Ann, who was only a year older than her stepdaughter, had been carrying on an affair with William Corder. The two conspired, so the gossip went, to bump off Maria so they could continue their lover’s trysts without hindrance. When Ann learned of Corder’s marriage she exacted revenge by inventing her dreams about the whereabouts of Maria’s remains. Just a rumour, but a delicious twist nonetheless.
- “Foster’s Trial of William Corder for the Murder of Maria Marten in Polstead, Suffolk.” George Foster, 1828.
- “William Corder.” Executed Today, undated.
- “Murder in the Red Barn: The Killing of Maria Marten.” Stephanie Almazan, The Lineup, March 28, 2016.