In March 1826, a love affair blossomed between 24-year-old Maria Marten and 22-year-old William Corder. Just one year later, their secret romance ended in slaughter—and became one of the most notorious murder cases in English history.
The couple hailed from Polstead, a small town in Suffolk, England. William Corder, the son of a farmer, had a reputation for being a ladies’ man and troublemaker—he once swindled his father out of his own pigs and helped steal livestock from another farmer. The comely Marten was no stranger to romance either. She already birthed two children. One was from William’s older brother, though the baby died as an infant. The other was a baby boy whose father wanted nothing to do with the illegitimate child, apart from sending money from time to time.
William preferred to keep the relationship secret. Yet in 1827 the pair had a child. Though the offspring died soon after birth, young William still seemed intent on marrying Maria. Alas, Maria had a less than favorable reputation in the community; William spoke of rumors that authorities wished to prosecute her for having bastard children. So William suggested they elope.
The pair hatched their plan in front of Maria’s stepmother, Ann Marten. They were to meet at the Red Barn, a popular landmark located on Barnfield Hill, less than a mile from the Marten home. Afterward, they would leave for Ipswitch.
A date was set: Wednesday, May 16, 1827. William appeared eager to marry his sweetheart. As the secret wedding day arrived, however, he delayed not once, but twice. Two days later, William visited Maria, and as witnessed by Maria’s stepmother, told her they had to flee at once; a warrant, he claimed, was out for her arrest.
Historical records indicate that no such warrant had been issued. Nevertheless, William’s words frightened Maria. She feared being seen, so William convinced her to disguise herself as a man. The two were to meet in the Red Barn, where William would wait for her with a disguise. They would then flee to Ipswich as originally planned.
The unsuspecting Maria did as she was told and made her way to the Red Barn. It was the last time she would be seen alive.
Maria vanished after that day in May. When family and friends questioned William, he claimed she had simply left for Ipswich ahead of him. Inquiries continued, and William made himself scarce, leaving town altogether. He wrote to the Marten family claiming that he and Maria were indeed married and living together on the Isle of Wight. Various excuses were made as to Maria’s silence—she was ill; her hand hurt and she could not write a letter; she did write a letter but it must have been lost in the mail.
Months went by, and the suspicions of the Marten family only grew. It was around this time that stepmother Ann spoke of troubling dreams. She had visions of Maria’s murder, her body being buried in the Red Barn. On April 19, 1928, Ann’s husband made his way to the barn to soothe his wife’s troubled mind. As instructed, he dug in one of the grain storage bins. What he discovered was shockingly consistent with Ann’s vision.
Wrapped in a sack were human remains. While the body had decomposed, family members successfully identified the body as Maria’s thanks to preserved hair and clothing. A tooth missing from Maria’s mouth was also missing from the corpse’s jaw. And one glaring piece of evidence implicated Maria’s former lover—William’s signature green handkerchief was wound tightly around the body’s neck.
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The constable of Polstead set out to find William Corder. The man, it turned out, put little effort in covering his tracks. Authorities secured an address through one of William’s friends. With the help of London policeman James Lea, they soon tracked down the suspect in London.
William had established a new life in England’s capital as the master of a boarding house known as Everly Grove. He had recently married Mary Moore—a woman he met courtesy of a singles ad in the paper. Lea devised a sting operation to catch the suspect. He posed as a father inquiring about boarding his daughter, then cornered Corder and notified him of the charges.
William feigned innocence of knowing about Maria and her murder. He was taken to Suffolk and stood trial at Shire Hall, Bury St. Edmunds where he pled not guilty. By then, news of the case spread throughout the region; crowds converged upon the courthouse while media outlets reported on every little detail. The throng grew so large that spectators who wished to view the trial had to be chosen by ticket.
The evidence against William Corder was overwhelming. Maria’s stepmother recounted the events leading up to the murder—the stalled elopement and claims of a warrant, William’s luring of Maria into the Red Barn on the last night she was seen alive. Maria’s father testified about discovering the body. And Maria’s little brother claimed he saw William with a pistol and a pickaxe on the day of the murder. Lea also found the pistols, incriminating letters, and a French passport at William’s new residence.
The precise cause of death was hard to determine. The body had gunshot wounds, there was William’s handkerchief around the neck, and a gash to the eye that may or may not have been a posthumous wound resulting from the pickaxe.
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As for motive, prosecutors suggested William was eager to get rid of Maria because she knew too much about his criminal activities, and that they quarreled over the child support she received from the father of her child. Additional rumors swirled over the mysterious death of Maria and William’s infant. The baby was supposed to have been interred in Sudbury, though no record of the burial—or trace of a proper burial at all—could be found.
The jury deliberated for a mere 35 minutes. They found William Corder guilty. The judge sentenced him to hang. In a grisly twist of the era, the judge also declared that William’s body would be dissected for medical study.
William fretted over confessing as he awaited his execution. Finally, at the behest of his wife as well as the prison warden and governor, he admitted to the death of Maria Marten. He claimed that he had been quarreling with his former lover when he accidentally shot her in the eye. He also wrote in his confession that the two argued about someone discovering the actual burial site of their child.
On August 11, 1828, a weak William Corder stepped onto the gallows. He was hanged before a crowd of 7,000 or 20,000, depending on which version you believe. By the time of the hanging, the tale of the red barn murder had swept beyond England. Numerous plays, novels, and tabloid-style newspapers chronicled the events. Charles Dickens reluctantly included the story in his magazine All the Year Round. Many, many years later, American songwriter Tom Waits penned “Murder in the Red Barn”, a song that some critics suggest was inspired by the sensational story.
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Supposed locks of Maria’s hair and strands of the rope that hung William Corder were readily purchased by buyers. Around 5,000 people viewed Corder’s body after the hanging. His body was then taken to Cambridge for an autopsy in front of students and physicians. Surgeons, conducting a phrenological examination, noted that the killer’s skull was developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness…” and a lack of “benevolence.”
The Red Barn and nearby Marten cottage became tourist attractions. The barn itself was stripped clear by souvenir hunters and much of the wood was turned into toothpicks. Tourists chipped away at Maria’s tombstone until it was little more than a rocky nub. After the dissection was complete, Corder’s skeleton went on display in a museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. His skin was tanned by a surgeon and bound forever to a book containing an account of the murder. Fitting, indeed.
Images (in order): Wikimedia Commons; Illustration of William Corder: Hulton Archive / Getty; Illustration of Maria Marten: Wikimedia Commons; Hulton Archive / Getty; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons