Maria Marten and the Murder at the Red Barn
[H]erein will be found mythology, necromancy, biography, topography, history, theology, phrenology, anatomy, legal ingenuity, conjugal correspondence, amatory epistles, poetry, theatrical representations, affecting anecdotes, &c. &c.
So claims the author J Curtis in the preface to his book, alluringly titled An authentic and faithful history of the mysterious murder of Maria Marten. Such a grandiose assertion could be considered ambitious for even the most creative work of fiction, but the murder of Maria Marten was no product of the imagination. Curtis sets out to provide a factual account of this real-life event, which took place in 1827, and its aftermath, in a comprehensive manner which can best be described by revealing the book’s full title: An authentic and faithful history of the mysterious murder of Maria Marten, with a full development of all the extraordinary circumstances which led to the discovery of her body in The Red Barn; to which is added, the trial of William Corder, taken at large in short hand specially for this work, with an account of his execution, dissection, &c. and many interesting particulars relative to the village of Polstead and its vicinity; the prison correspondence of Corder, and fifty-three letters in answer to his advertisement for a wife. The whole compiled and arranged with upwards of three hundred explanatory notes, by J. Curtis, and embellished with many highly interesting engravings. In the words, quoted by Curtis, of a local magistrate:
I never knew or heard of a case in my life which abounded with so many extraordinary incidents as the present. It really appears more like a romance than a tale of common life; and were it not that the circumstances were so well authenticated, it would appear absolutely incredible; it, however, verifies the remark of Lord Byron, that ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’
In 1826, 24-year-old Maria Marten from Polstead, Suffolk embarked on a relationship with William Corder, aged 22. The daughter of a molecatcher, Maria already had children by two different men, including one by William’s older brother Thomas. Her association with farmer’s son William remained secret until Maria became pregnant; she gave birth to a baby who died not long after. Once their affair had been revealed, Maria’s father wanted the two to marry, so William suggested eloping to Ipswich.
On 18 May 1827, in front of witnesses, he arranged to rendezvous with Maria at the Red Barn, a well-known local landmark so named for its red tiled roof, and which was part of the Corder farm property.
Following the supposed elopement, William maintained contact with Maria’s family, and claimed that they had married. But they never heard from Maria directly again, and William’s excuses for why she had not been in touch became increasingly outlandish:
Corder had frequent interviews with her father and family, and delivered messages to them which he pretended to have come from Maria, whom he always pretended was in good health, but represented that she was incapable of writing in consequence of a lame hand.
‘Thus’, claims Curtis, ‘did this subtle, scheming villain effectually lull suspicion month after month’. As concerns grew, Maria’s stepmother allegedly began to experience prophetic dreams. ‘I have very frequently dreamed about Maria, and twice before Christmas, I dreamed that Maria was murdered, and buried in the Red Barn’. Eventually, she convinced Maria’s father to dig up the barn, where he uncovered his daughter’s body, with the green scarf she had been wearing when she had last been seen still tied around her neck. The scarf belonged to William.
The cause of death was determined to be a gunshot wound to the head, and William swiftly became prime suspect. He was tracked down to an address in London, where he was found to be living with a new wife, who it transpired he had met after placing lonely heart advertisements in local newspapers.
He was promptly arrested for Maria’s murder and returned to Suffolk to face trial. Proceedings began in front of a packed courtroom in Bury St Edmunds on 7 August 1828. The case had garnered such interest that entrance had to be ticketed, and ‘as early as six o’clock in the morning, both the entrances to the Court were literally besieged by persons of every grade in society, from the Baronet’s heir to the Suffolk peasant’. On the stand William protested his innocence, but the jury swiftly found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by hanging. On 11 August 1828 Corder was led to the gallows, where in front of a crowd of thousands he spoke his final words:
I am guilty – my sentence is just – I deserve my fate – and may God have mercy upon me!
While the circumstances surrounding the murder of Maria Marten are, to quote the book’s title, undoubtedly ‘mysterious’, it is likely to be the events which followed that modern readers find most truly bizarre. True crime ‘obsession’ is often considered to be a recent phenomenon, but Curtis’s work clearly demonstrates the insatiable appetite of 19th century audiences for horror and gore:
Immediately after the corpse had been taken into prison, there was a considerable scuffle among the spectators; numbers of whom wished to obtain a piece of the rope which ended the mortal career of the prisoner. Many exaggerated reports have gone forth with regard to the disposal of this “relic”; and some of the journals boldly asserted, that it sold after the rate of a guinea an inch.
Not content with collecting this macabre memorabilia, those present at the execution clamoured to see the corpse of the murderer, which was moved to the courthouse for display:
Mr Creed, the county surgeon, assisted by Mr Smith and Mr Dalton, made a longitudinal incision along the chest, as far as the abdominal parts, and folded back the skin so as to display the muscles of the chest to public view. The anxiety of the people to gain admission to see the mangled body of the murderer, was as intense as it had been at the trial and execution – the entrances to the court were literally crowded.
Once viewing of the body had ended, two artists arrived to take casts of the head and face of the murderer, and the bust was later placed in a window on public display. The following day an autopsy was performed in front of an audience of medical students and professionals.
For 21st century readers, the fascination contemporary audiences had with these sensational murder trials is illustrated not only by Curtis’s description of events, but by the minutiae of information he felt it was necessary to include in his book to satisfy their curiosity. Indeed, Curtis goes so far as to publish Corder’s prison letters, the responses received by him to his advertisement for a wife, and even the intriguing medical observations that were made following examination of his corpse:
Phrenology is a science in which I am not minutely versed; still I am enabled to give you the development of the most material organs of the murderer’s cranium… The organ of destructiveness is, unfortunately, extremely small; but to counterbalance that defect, we have those of combativeness, and secretiveness, very large; and also that of acquisitiveness (theft). Adhesiveness (or attachment) is likewise fully developed; so is cautiousness. Firmness (or perseverance) is rather full. The intellectual development is very confined. The organs of benevolence and veneration are almost wanting.
The curious circumstances surrounding Maria’s disappearance and the discovery of her body, along with the supernatural element of her stepmother’s prophetic dreams and the dramatic murder scene of the Red Barn ensured the story’s widespread popularity. Curtis describes how even before Corder was convicted of the crime ‘there were ballad singers with songs connected with the Polstead murder, where the name of Corder was unfairly introduced, considering that at the time he was awaiting his trial’. The book also includes the full script of a play titled The Red Barn, or The Mysterious Murder by Mr West Digges:
Corder – How well this pent up soul assumes the garb of smiling love to give my fiend-like thoughts the prospect of success! – the deed were bloody, sure, but I will do’t, and rid me of this hated plague: – her very shadow moves a scorpion in my sight! I loathe the banquet I have fed upon!
When we are able to travel once more, those present-day readers keen to indulge their true crime obsessions might wish to plan a trip to Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, where on display alongside Corder’s death mask, is a copy of Curtis’s book formerly owned by the surgeon who performed the autopsy on Corder, who had it bound with the murderer’s own skin. Local true crime enthusiasts will also be able to borrow the 1935 film version of the story on DVD from the University of St Andrews Library. Or – for an even more immersive experience – they might wish to perform the song Maria Marten from The New Penguin book of English folk songs, also available in the Library once we are open again.
Rare Books Collections Assistant