This is going to be a jaunt outside of my usual blogging fare.
Over the past couple years, I’ve become a bit of a true crime/unsolved mysteries fanatic. A majority of the podcasts I listen to are true crime-related, and I’ve even joined a local “My Favorite Murder” book club that reads about and discusses – you guessed it – murder.
I’m also fascinated by crimes that happened in history (pre-1900’s type of history), which is why I enjoy podcasts like Lore as much as I do.
So, without further adieu, I’m going to spin the tale of the Red Barn Murder.
Polstead, which means “place by a pool,” is a tiny town in Suffolk, England situated on a small tributary stream of the River Stour. Famous for its cherries, it is even MORE famous as the site of the Red Barn Murder in 1827.
Maria Marten, born July 1801, was the daughter of a local molecatcher who would travel from farm to farm, ridding his neighbors of unwanted vermin for a small fee in addition to food and lodging.
Maria was noted as being an attractive woman and began seeing a 22-year-old man named William Corder in the spring of 1826. At the time, she already had 2 children of her own from previous dalliances – one of which was with William’s older brother, Thomas – although the youngest passed away as an infant.
William was known in town as a bit of a ladies man and a fraudster, which caused his farmer father a great deal of grief. Given the nickname “Foxey,” William had fraudulently sold his father’s pigs – a matter which was handled without involving the local authorities. Even still, William continued to swindle his way through life by cashing forged checks and stealing pigs from neighboring towns. Hoping to save face, his father had William sent away to London for a period of time, but he was sent for when his elder brother Thomas drowned attempting to cross a frozen pond.
The death of his eldest brother was just the start of William’s troubles. Within the span of 18 months, his father and all three brothers passed away, leaving him to run the family farm alongside his mother.
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, Maria was pregnant, and soon gave birth to his child in 1827 at the age of 25. Unfortunately, the child passed away (there is speculation that it was murdered), however, Maria was still keen to settle down and marry William.
Hoping to avoid further scandal, William charmed Maria in front of her stepmother Ann and suggested that they meet at the Red Barn, where he broached the subject of them eloping to Ipswich. When pressed on the urgency of their nuptials, William explained that he’d heard rumors that the local authorities were going to press charges against Maria for having children out of wedlock.
That Friday, May 18th, 1827, William appeared at Maria’s cottage and implored her to meet him at the Red Barn right away under the guise that the constable had acquired a warrant for her arrest. Fearing she’d be recognized, William asked her to dress in men’s clothing and meet him, and he would bring her things ahead to the barn so she could change before they left for Ipswich to be married.
The Red Barn was situated on Barnfield Hill, about a half mile from Maria’s family cottage. That was the last day that anyone saw Maria alive.
William returned home some time later, after disappearing for a time “getting married,” but when he came home without his new wife, friends and family began to question him. Where was Maria? Why hadn’t she returned from Ipswich with him?
For a while, William told anyone who asked that Maria was just staying in Ipswich until the “bastard scandal” died down a bit and that he would send for her when the time was right. Eventually, the pressure to prove that Maria was safe and sound became too much, and William fled. Although, he did send letters home to Maria’s family, from Maria herself, in which she told them that she couldn’t come home for one reason or another: illness, a hurt hand, etc.
As time passed, Maria’s stepmother Ann soon began to claim that she was experiencing “strange visions” that they were supposed to go to the Red Barn – that they were supposed to go and retrieve Maria’s remains.
On April 18, 1828 – almost a full year since she was last seen – Maria’s father, at the urging of his wife, went to inspect the Red Barn. After digging in one of the grain storage bins, he quickly uncovered the remains of his daughter Maria, who had been buried in a sack. She was badly decomposed but was identified by a missing tooth and the clothing she was wearing.
An inquest was held at the Cock Inn, and evidence was found at the scene of the crime – Corder’s green handkerchief around Maria’s neck.
William wasn’t hard to find, actually. Using information from one of his friends, the authorities were able to track him down to a ladies boarding house in London, where he was currently residing with his new wife, Mary Moore.
Extradited back to Suffolk, William’s trial started on August 7, 1828, in Bury St. Edmunds. The reason it was pushed back so far was because of the interest the case had garnered: hotels in the area began filling up as early as July 21 with people clamoring to attend the trial. The interest was so great, in fact, that attendees had to be admitted by ticket only.
William pleaded not guilty, and the cause of death could not be determined. Evidence suggested that a sharp object had been plunged in Maria’s eye socket, however, it couldn’t be proven if the wound was caused by William’s sword or Maria’s father’s spade while he was discovering her remains.
Strangulation couldn’t be ruled out, given that William’s handkerchief was found around Maria’s neck, although it was also noted that Maria appeared to have been shot or stabbed due to further wounds found on her body.
William was indicted on nine charges, including forgery. Ann Marten gave testimony regarding William’s visit prior to Maria’s disappearance, and Maria’s younger brother George revealed that he saw William with a pistol the day of the murder, and later saw him leaving the Red Barn with a pickaxe.
The prosecution suggested that William initially didn’t plan to murder Maria, but that he felt he had to once Maria discovered that he had been stealing money from her, in addition to her knowing about his illegal doings.
William gave testimony that he had met Maria in the Red Barn, but that he left after they argued. He claimed that as he left, he heard a gunshot, and after running back into the barn found Maria prone on the ground from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He begged the jury to declare him innocent.
It didn’t take the jury long to reach a verdict. After deliberating for 35 minutes, they found him guilty, and Judge Baron Alexander sentenced him to death by hanging and that his remains should be dissected.
William languished in prison for three days, and finally, after being urged by the chaplain, his wife, and several of the prison staff, he confessed to the crime. He denied stabbing Maria but stated that he accidentally shot her as she was changing out of her disguise.
Okay, just fair warning – things are gonna get kinda weird from this point on, so if you’re like “I’m good, I get it, good story, bro,” I’ll leave you with this GIF of a cute dog and a link to check out something adorable.
If you’re like “HOW WEIRD DOES IT GET?!,” then I encourage you to keep reading.
On August 11, 1828, William was taken to the gallows of Bury St. Edmund before a crowd of 7,000-20,000 (reports differ depending on what paper covered the story at the time). Shortly before noon, William was hanged, and after an hour, his body was cut down and taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hill. To add insult to injury, the hangman took William’s trousers and stockings as “his due.”
Upon arrival to the courthouse, William’s body was cut open and laid on display until six o’ clock that evening as upwards of 5,000 people filed past to see the body of the murderer.
The next day the dissection and postmortem was conducted in front of a group of Cambridge University students and physicians. A series of experiments were conducted on his body, and his skull was assessed – apparently the shape of it led them to believe that it was highly developed in the areas that would be most prone to secretiveness and deceit. A death mask/bust was made of William and put on display at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmund, and his skeleton was reassembled and used as an exhibit and teaching aid at West Suffolk Hospital.
And HERE is where it gets weird… several copies of Willam’s death mask were made and sold, and the rope with which he was hung was sold off in increments. His skin was also tanned and used to bind an account of the murder, and both the book and the original death mask are STILL on display at Moyse’s Hall Museum. His skeleton remained on display for some time at West Suffolk Hospital where it was rigged up to a device that would cause one of his arms to point to the collection box when visitors walked past. It even spent a stint at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England where it was displayed next to the remains of Jonathan Wild, a famous 18th-century crime boss.
There’s a legend that around 50 years after his execution, a Dr. Kilner of West Suffolk Hospital took William’s skull as a macabre trophy and replaced it with a fake. After bringing it home, however, he started seeing ghosts and hearing voices. At one point he heard a great crash in the middle of the night, and upon investigation found that the cabinet that housed the skull had been opened, the box that contained it smashed upon the floor, and the skull itself several feet from where it had previously been held. Convinced that it was cursed, he gave it to a friend by the name of Hopkins, and after unfortunate events continued to plague the pair, they paid to have it given a Christian burial and the supposed “hauntings” ceased.
William’s body was eventually laid to rest in 2004 when it was cremated and buried.
If you’re still here, CONGRATULATIONS! You made it to the end of my longest post to date. And now I’m gonna end it with some reference materials that I used to throw together this story, in case you want some more “light reading.”
Thanks for joining me, ya’ll!
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Barn_Murder
Murderpedia – http://murderpedia.org/male.C/c/corder-william.htm