A Suffolk Tragedy –The Red Barn Murder; Polstead, Suffolk, 1828
Growing up in Bury St. Edmunds it is almost impossible to not know the story of ‘Maria Marten and the Red Barn’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. In essence a fairly tawdry tragedy, there are a number of features – including some overtly supernatural elements – that render it fascinating even to this day, but at the time the sensation it caused was vast, and it was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were reported, and even the English language.
I don’t have time to give a full account of the case, so I will quickly summarize it here. On Saturday 18th May 1827 William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family apparently set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two walked separately through the night to a barn, the now infamous ‘Red Barn’ on Corder’s property, Maria dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice. In the barn Maria change in to her women’s attire, and while changing met her death, and was buried by Corder within the barn.
Corder remained in the little village of Polstead, and informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but that to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth. She was unable to write because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London, and wrote to her father saying that Maria and he were now married, and living on the Isle of Wight, and very happy (and requesting that the father burn the letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P.). Yet he told others in the village during his visits many other stories, with little consistency, as to whether or not he was married, and where Maria was residing in the year before the discovery of her body.
A Sensational Case
Now Corder forms the archetype we are told for the “wicked squire” (the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks) and Maria the type for the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama, and certainly the story formed the basis for large numbers of plays, many still extant today, which were performed by travelling troupes all over the country. Local author Peter Haining informs us that these plays, performed in barns, gave us the word “barnstorming”. Certainly they were hugely popular, and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows all over the region and down to London depicting the murder, and in Bury a camera obscura show. A nonconformist minister preached to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn, which was dismantled by souvenir seekers, and in Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten, chipped away by curiosity seekers. The London papers sent reporters to the Inquest and Trial of Corder, and 7,000 people gathered in Bury on August 10th, 1828 to watch Corder hang.
The Background to the Crime
Yet all this sensation masks some of the story, which may have a bearing on what really happened on the fateful night. Firstly, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman who is referred to at the Inquest as Mr P. (His identity is known and was given in court, but does not matter for our purposes). As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardry, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not it seems a “burden on the parish”, and because the father made generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep. (Though actually only one appears to have been alive by the time of the murder, and was being raised by Maria’s parents).
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time as they lived in a fairly small village, and Corder and her went off to live in sin in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one by Corder, and again bastardy charges could have followed. The couple returned to Polstead, and the baby died; Corder took the remains off in a box, and told people they were buried in Sudbury, but he in fact buried the child in a field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and William remained lovers, despite the gulf in their social position (nowhere as great as that between her and her former lover Mr P however), and the apparent disapproval of his family. Corder’s father was dead; several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother died in what according to Haining was a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice in to the village pond. Mrs Corder suffered an immense amount of tragedy, and now William was heir, and helping to run the farm. Yet he still did not have control of the money, and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child from it. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder, who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardry charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they prepared to elope, but Corder backed out, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life seems to have been troubled by the moral condemnation of her younger sister, who appears to have regarded her as a ‘tart’, and been particularly scathing about how she dressed herself up. The death of her baby seems to have effected her greatly, she had health problems, and now Corder told her she was about to be arrested for bastardry, using this to frighten and control her. On the fatal night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, and so she dressed in his clothes, and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They left by different doors the Marten’s cottage, and walked to the Red Barn – there she was to out of sight of any villagers change, and they would make off to marry by Licence, so no banns need be read.
Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, and what followed appears straightforward enough. Maria was changing out of Corder’s clothes in to her own when she was shot by a pistol in the head, and then perhaps stabbed twice with Corder’s sword, before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they left the Marten’s cottage, Corder went to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder claimed the boy was mistaken, and this was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who also wore a velveteen coat. (The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at the trial of Corder the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.)
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. There is one curious episode during these proceedings, when he offered one of his farm hands a £1 to cut his throat. The man thought he was joking, but it may well be that Corder was under a terrific strain.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) was rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. An illustration exists (below) but it is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds, and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight, but actually to perform far more extraordinary deeds in London. We will return to those shortly. However for the next eleven months Maria was to remain buried in the Red Barn.
Supernatural Interlude 1: The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence [[CJ: That is, God]] led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest; in fact the events which led to the discovery of the body have been a staple of supernatural books from then onwards, because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt where the body was buried, and thereafter managed to convince her husband (Maria’s father) to go look. Note that in most accounts it is Maria’s mother who has the dream – that lady was long dead it seems, and so it was the stepmother, not that it makes any difference. What we know from The Times, April 22nd 1828 is that the dream was Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and occurred for three successive nights.
Now the papers made a lot of this, but in fact in that era of great scepticism they also offered fairly critical comment as well; sadly from the viewpoint of a psychical researcher like me the evidence for anything supernatural being involved is very weak. Maria and William had always met (and one presumes made love) in the Red Barn – it was “their place”, and they were well known by all to frequent it. As early as immediately after Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ Maria’s parents were suspicious something had happened to her, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe near dawn on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the aforementioned difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife’s dreams, when finally convinced he must search the barn, he took the time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. To be honest, such deference by farm labourers and the rural poor towards big farmers and landowners is not uncommon even today, or was at least not when I was growing up.
So Mr Marten took a friend, Mr Pryke, and armed with a spade and a rake they set off to the barn, went immediately to the very spot indicated in the dream and quickly uncovered the remains of poor Maria, much decomposed, indeed mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was note there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged, apparently missing any target. As Corder habitually carried, and occasionally fired in to the Marten’s fireplace, a pair of percussion cap pistols, well it looked bad for him.
So the dream – was it supernatural? On the contrary, the bizarre way Maria who could read and write and was close to her parents had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of all too conscious anxiety on the part of the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband who had spent eleven months doing nothing but worrying actually go and check Maria was not in the Red Barn dead. Some modern sceptics have suggested the Martens were in some way involved to know where the body was: the Trial record makes a nonsense of that suggestion. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe it display any supernormal faculty on the part of Mrs Marten. We are not done with the supernatural — I shall return to other supernatural elements later — but the most uncanny thing about the discovery of the body is just how long it took. However, I do have a theory here – not only did Corder have the barn key, but until April the area where they body was buried was under a large amount of winter hay, cattle food I suspect. Only after the cows returned to grazing could it be easily examined. Perhaps the Marten’s were just every patiently awaiting that chance.
Peter Haining also points out that the barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. The Red Barn was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun, and such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. It is inevitable that there are stories of ghostly re-enactments of the crime, but none holds much substance and the Red Barn itself is long gone now.
William Corder’s Lonely Hearts Club Fan
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria Corder was of course in Polstead for a long period, but eventually he set off purportedly for the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London, where Haining suggests he and Maria had a number of criminal associates. I don’t have Haining’s book here to check his sources (it is truly excellent and I do want to re-read it) but what we know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself, and quite quickly given his unwillingness fixed his eyes upon matrimony. He may have planned to leave the country – her procured a passport to travel to France, but never did – instead he did what has been described as ‘inventing the Lonely Hearts column’. He took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827 –
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement suggests Corder’s lonely hearts ad was not the first, but it certainly worked. He received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him, perhaps with the intent of immediate marriage, at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling, and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck, and attend a certain service where they would meet. Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left; he afterwards discovered the woman making enquiries for such a man was a high ranking lady with a large fortune, and he was planning to try and contact her again when he met his wife to be.
Corder met Miss Moore in a public place, and they immediately hit it off. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single state, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were wed. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy, and Mr and Mrs Corder opened a boarding school for girls at Grove House, Ealing Lane. It was there, living with his wife and a few pupils, that he was to be apprehended for murder.
After the discovery of the body it was quickly ascertained by missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse was Maria. There was only one suspect, and the village constable set off to London to try and find Corder. However London was outside his jurisdiction, so he went to a police station, where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took him fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London, quite an impressive achievement! If Corder had changed his name or tried to hide it would have been harder, but he was easily located, and Mr Lea entered his house pretending he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as he had Corder in his study, he told him the game was up and Maria Marten was found; three times Corder denied knowing the girl. Corder was arrested nonetheless, and his sword taken, along with a small black reticule, effectively a handbag, that was once the property of Maria Marten. Inside it were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder; his wife, believing the charge was bigamy at first, stood by him, and did so until their final parting the day before his execution.He was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester, and on the second night there transferred in the early hours to the Cock pub at Polstead, where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
By ten am The Cock was filled with interested persons and representatives of the London press. There was a dispute between the Coroner Weyman, and the press about whether notes could be taken for their articles – the Coroner ruled against them, so accounts of the proceedings were filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that already the sensation was great, and that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and had declared Corder the murderer, to great prejudice against him. There is a strong irony in this, as we will shortly see. Proceedings were they delayed by Corder’s representative asking he may come downstairs and witness the testimony – this was am inquest, not a trial, but the Coroner ruled against him and stated instead he may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
In fact this proved extremely difficult – she appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed — and at his trial, Corder was charged with all nine, so as to make sure one of them stuck. (‘Murder by pistol, murder by stabbing in heart, murder by stabbing in neck’, etc, etc). This legal nicety, like the fact everything in the charge must be valued (stabbed by sword (“worth one shilling”), buried in gravel and soil (“of no value”) seems a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined poor Maria had been murdered – and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
Corder’s Other Crime
Corder it seems had already stolen £5 sent by Mr P to Maria; and after her death eh continued to benefit this way. However as he was in prison in Bury he was accused of another crime that could have sent him to the gallows, this time fraud. Those guilty of fraud were shown no mercy at all under the law in 19th century England – while murderers might have their sentence commuted from death on occasion, fraudsters, no matter how innocent, were hanged.
We will never know if Corder was guilty of this crime, but it does appear likely. On the 14th April 1828 Corder had apparently arrived at the White Hart in Manningtree, stating he had business with the bank opposite, Messrs Alexanders. Making conversation with Mr Dale the landlord, he explained he was an agent sent to cash a cheque, and when the bank opened he presented a cheque for £93 on the Hadleigh branch payable to a Mr Cook of Wenlam-Hall from the account of Mr Atkins, butcher of Stratford. The banker Mr Taylor refused, as he knew neither party, but Corder explained he was Cook, and was well known in the area. The landlord of the White Hart helpfully said he knew Mr Cook by sight, so the money was handed over. The presumed Mr Cook was paid in local currency notes — I’d like to know more about what these were – and Cook/Corder dashed off to the Branch Banking Establishment at Ipswich where he exchanged the notes for gold and departed before the fraud was discovered that night. When arrested his wife found eighty pounds in gold in his drawer, and Corder never denied the charges, simply saying “I dare say they will try to make enough of it”. He appeared genuinely defeated and contrite when confronted by Mr Taylor and Mr Dale, both of whom identified him as the fraudster. It seems the crime was committed for the purpose of funding his move to Grove House and new boarding school.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life is he never seemed to have enough money. That is the fate of many of us, but Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead, and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – the Corders were locally important folk. Yet he hints time and time again at trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear he doted on his mother, she seems to have been unwilling to surrender any control over finances to him. She was very attached to him, and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles, but she may well have disapproved of Maria, if she knew anything of their relationship, and certainly Corder while a snappy dresser with expensive tastes seems to have been unwilling to seek financial aid from this obvious source.
The trial held at Bury St Edmunds continued the sensation. Chief Baron Alexander presided, and his orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos as the crowds milled around outside, and once his carriage arrived it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with murder on nine counts, to cover all possible ways he disposed of Maria, and was horrified and outraged to discover the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! As he complained, this meant the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything but reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – last seen with the victim, who was found interred in his barn, with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, and having lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder, and there was no evidence he planned to procure the promised marriage licence or actually elope with her; he appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site, and for the first time in his life kept the barn locked after the murder, and his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was certainly looked grim. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardry. Afterwards when he was supposedly living with her he had refused to give an address to her parents claiming the couple were in fear of Mr P (who whatever his moral failings, seems to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and keep an eye out for Maria’s welfare). The picture from the trial that emerges of Corder is of a weak, not very bright schemer, who lied constantly to cover up Maria’s fate. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him, and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for the fellow. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence, and indeed his wife and it seems Corder were convinced he would be acquitted – and perhaps today he would be, on technicalities.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect and try for a technicality, as he had been charged with all nine! His second chance was stronger: arguing the body was not Maria Marten. He however chose to admit it was, and the evidence was such there can be no doubt it was anyway. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner now being employed as the Prosecutor, and the Judge was certainly sympathetic to that, as he was to Corder’s point the notoriety of the case was such he had already been judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial began. However, Corder decided to argue the one strong argument he could make, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide, and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury, when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night – I was not clear from the trial evidence if it was on this night he did this, but the Martens certainly said he used to do this. If it was, Corder had the pistols when he left their house. However, we know the pistols were found in Corder’s School in what was essentially Maria’s handbag. Corder claimed she had the pistols that night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen by her family to be crying, and as she changed at the barn Corder asserted she began to abuse him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, he claimed that he told her if she spoke to him like this before they were wed how would she treat him once they were married?, and telling her he would not marry her he walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, and turned to see her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. (No explanation was given for the second bullet mark, on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left, if his account was in anyway true.) He panicked, and concealed the body, cleaned up the scene, went and borrowed a spade and then later returned with a pickaxe, and buried poor Maria in the barn. After that he did all he could to conceal her fate, and this was why he told so many lies and wrote so many untruths.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – this happened he claimed as he dragged her body to the grave — and how to account for the wounds made by a stabbing instrument, growing wider as it went in, attested to by three surgeons and attributed to his sword. Corder made an interesting defence — that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse. I’ll return to this later.
The End for Corder
The jury retired and spent over an hour discussing the case, before finding Corder guilty. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday, and was taken from the court in a state of near collapse. He committed to Bury gaol, and met twice more with is wife, who seems to have behaved with great courage and dignity, and offered him a lot of religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others sought an interview, but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the chaplain. Finally, on the morning of his execution, he wrote and had witnessed a confession. According to this the argument was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated Corder killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn they fell to fighting, and while struggling Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime, and events proceeded as above. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon and hanged in front of 7,000 witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs.
So Was Corder Guilty?
In recent years there have been a number of attempts to suggest Corder was not guilty of the murder. Given this appears one of the most open and shut cases I can think of, and that he confessed, it is hard to see any other possibility. There is however one possibility I think, well perhaps two. At the times rumours circulated Corder was also having an affair with Maria’s stepmother, who was not much older than Maria, and she was involved hence her knowledge of the burial site. I find that hard to believe. Other authors have mentioned Corder’s criminal associates, and even a gypsy fortuneteller lady, but all this strikes me as nonsense. Corder was there when she died, and covered up the death – but was he actually telling the truth about suicide? Maria seems to have been deeply disturbed that night, and perhaps she did have the pistols — if so, perhaps the handkerchief round her neck was irrelevant as Corder suggested. The “sword wounds” could easily have been made by Mr Marten as he found the body. As a child I can recall Suffolk farmers using unusual looking “mole spades” with long slender blades, not unlike those used for tree planting today. Mr Marten was a mole catcher. We know that Mr Pryce probed the ground with the handle of his rake, and found an iron spike, perhaps part of Corder’s pickaxe. The wounds in the heavily decomposed body could be many things. So did Maria shoot herself? I find it extremely unlikely, and think not. Corder must have realised if she had covering the matter up would only make things worse, and in an argument as described I find it hard to see why she did not shoot him instead. A second, slightly more plausible theory would be that actually there was some suggestion of a double suicide, and each discharged a pistol at their head, but Corder decided to live and fired his in to the wall. Possible, but there is no evidence for this at all, barring the curious bullet marks in the wooden wall of the barn. No, I am afraid I think Corder was guilty, but fired twice, trying to stop Maria in some kind of violent physical struggle, probably with the intention of scaring her – but maybe with the intention of murder. In his Confession Corder says this, and there seems little reason to doubt him, though he is at great pains to swear before God that he did not make the sword wounds alleged.
Supernatural Interlude 2: The Ghost of Corder
In Moyses Hall musueum today you can still see a collection of relics related to the infamous murder. These include a particularly grisly item, a book about the trial bound in the Corder’s skin!
For many years Corder’s skeleton was used for anatomy lessons at teaching hospitals. One doctor became fascinated by this grim artefact and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his nerves by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned. So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore I read in the 1980′s anyway.