Weird Suffolk: The Red Barn Murder
PUBLISHED: 16:59 18 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:59 18 May 2018
While his skin could not be saved from the gallows, it could be used to bind a book telling the grisly story of the Red Barn murder trial that sent him to his death.
William Corder was hanged on August 11, 1828, for the murder of Maria Marten, the mother of his child and the woman he had promised to marry – he had arranged to meet her at the barn in Polstead before a hasty elopement to Ipswich to avoid her arrest for bearing illegitimate children but instead he murdered her and tried to cover his tracks.
Maria was born in 1801 and by the time she was 16 had borne her first child to Peter Matthews, who lived at Polstead Hall. She lived with her father Thomas, the local molecatcher, and his second wife Ann, who was 20 years, his junior and her son Thomas Henry, who Matthews provided for.
By the time she began a relationship with William, she had borne another child to his brother Thomas, but the infant had perished at an early age. Warned by a fortune teller the year before that love would be her downfall, Maria ignored the prophecy and fell head over heels for William, who was by all accounts a ladies man and a chancer.
The young man had only recently been allowed back to the family home after the death of his father and three brothers and was his mother Mary’s only help – when Maria gave birth to his child in 1827 at the age of 25, she was keen marry William and, in the presence of Ann, he promised to do so.
On May 18, 1827, he appeared at the Marten’s cottage during the day and insisted to Maria that they leave at once before the police arrived to prosecute her for having given birth to children out of wedlock but she worried about leaving in daylight, prompting Corder to suggest she dress in men’s clothing and later meet him at the Red Barn where she could change.
Shortly after he had left, Maria set out to meet her lover at the barn on Barnfield Hill. She was never seen again.
Corder, however, was seen again and claimed that he had married Maria but that he didn’t want to upset his friends and relatives so was keeping her away until they had calmed down – when this story began to wear thin, he left the area and would write letters to Maria’s family claiming the pair were living on the Isle of Wight and that her lack of communication was down to her being ill, her hand being injured or letters being lost.
Almost a year later, Ann had three graphic dreams on successive nights: that Maria had been killed and that her body was buried in the Red Barn. Maria’s father took his mole-spike to Red Barn and pressed it into the ground, quickly hitting something solid: his daughter’s skeleton, buried in a sack.
Badly decomposed but still identifiable, an inquest was held at the Cock Inn in Polstead where Maria was identified by her sister from her hair, clothing and a missing tooth. Corder’s handkerchief was found around her neck and he was tracked down to a boarding house for ladies in Brentford which he was running with his new wife Mary.
Taken back to Suffolk and tried at Shire Hall in Bury St Edmunds, Corder pleaded not guilty to Maria’s murder but was indicted on nine charges including “murdering Maria Marten by feloniously and wilfully shooting her with a pistol through the body and likewise stabbing her with a dagger”.
After his guilty verdict and death sentence, Corder confessed that he had killed Maria by accident while she was changing out of her disguise.
He was hanged in front of a crowd of up to 20,000 people in Bury St Edmunds and after an hour, his body was cut down by hangman John Foxton who claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings before the corpse was taken to the courtroom at Shire Hall where more than 5,000 people queued to see the body.
The following day, a dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and a number of experiments were carried out, including a battery being attached to his limbs to demonstrate the contraction of muscles.
Several copies of Corder’s death mask were made – one is still at Moyse’s Hall Museum, which also hold some of Corder’s other possessions, another is in the dungeons at Norwich Castle – and his skin was tanned by surgeon George Creed and used to bind and account of the murder.
Corder’s skeleton was put on display in a glass case in the West Suffolk Hospital, apparently rigged with a mechanism that made its arm point to the collection box when approached. Eventually, the skull was removed by Dr John Kilner, who wanted to add it to his extensive collection of Red Barn memorabilia, but after a series of unfortunate events, he became convinced that the skull was cursed and handed it on to a friend named 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. In 2004, Corder’s bones were removed from display and cremated.