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Murder in the Red Barn - Polstead, Suffolk

The rather sordid tale of the murder in 1827 of Maria Marten in Polstead, Suffolk, had all the elements needed to see it transformed into a Victorian melodrama, the villain of which in the reader's mind should have a large moustache forever being stroked by him, and be clothed in a black top hat and swirling cloak. Ha ha ha ha! It has thus gone into British legend, and the name of the story if not its details will be known to millions still.

Maria Marten was the daughter of a mole-catcher in Polstead. Though portrayed as an innocent abused in the revised and cliched versions of the story put out after the event, she had given birth to two children by different fathers before becoming pregnant by William Corder. Corder was a well-known local cad, the heir to a decent farmstead after his father and three brothers had died. He had erred on the wrong side of the law previously, selling some of his father's pigs without permission, stealing another from a nearby village with the help of a low-life friend, 'Beauty' Smith. At his subsequent trial for murder William was identified as the man who had passed a forged cheque for £93 in a bank in the area. He was known to have filched £5 sent for the upkeep of Maria's surviving child by its father too.

A fouler crime than the murder of Maria may have taken place before that deed - the child she bore William died mysteriously soon after birth, and Corder took the corpse off in a box to be buried in a neighbouring town, for no readily comprehensible reason. It never reached that town, probably having been buried in the fields or dumped in a river.

Maria, seeing her lover the owner of a good property and perhaps in love with him too, pressed William to marry her. His mother disapproved (Maria had also given birth to a child by another of her sons, and so was well known to her), and William the ladies' man had ambitions elsewhere perhaps. He kept putting the day off for spurious reasons. It is mooted that Maria's stepmother Ann, an actor in the later stages of the drama, may have been Corder's lover too - she was only a year or so senior to 25-year-old Maria.
On Friday May 18 1827 William persuaded Maria to meet him at the Red Barn, a property the Corder family rented for grain storage. She was to come dressed as a man, in order to evade the attentions of the local constable, said (falsely) by William to be about to arrest her for having children out of wedlock. All this was supposedly witnessed by Ann Marten. Maria disappeared that day, never to be seen alive again.

Corder went off around the country, sending letters to the Martens saying he and Maria had married, but she could not write as she had hurt her arm, or she had sent letters but they must have gone astray, or that she was in Great Yarmouth , or Ipswich , or some other great metropolis, and was temporarily out of reach. It was a hopelessly inept attempt to lay a false trail, but no clues to Maria's death had been found, and it was hoped she lived still.

The next element of the tale appealed hugely to 19th century Britain, and beyond. Ann Marten claimed she had dreams that Maria was buried in the Red Barn. She nagged her husband to search it, and when he did so he quickly discovered the decomposing body of his daughter, murdered there a year previously. The body was buried in a shallow grave, wrapped in a grain sack.

How she was murdered is not entirely clear. Corder, a keen shot, claimed in his later confession that he had shot her accidentally through the eye after they had argued in the building. A post-mortem suggested she had been stabbed in the eye then shot through the neck. Corder's green handkerchief was found around her neck. There is no suggestion she had been poisoned, but best not to rule that out just in case.
Corder was tracked down to a new home in London , where he was living with his new wife Mary, met through a newspaper advertisement that received more than 100 applicants. He was dragged back to Bury St Edmunds where he stood trial. Because of the difficulty in saying how Maria died, Corder was charged with nine different offences, covering enough options to give the jury one on which to hang him.
The trial lasted just two days, August 7 and 8 1828, which was a pity for Bury, as it had been a huge draw, filling hotels and inns from mid-July, being put back several times to let more come to witness it. The judge it is said had to force his way bodily through the crowds in the courtroom.

Corder was found guilty, the jury needing just over half an hour to decide on their verdict once evidence had been completed. He was hanged in Bury on August 11, the public event being attended by up to 20,000 spectators according to some estimates. The rope used to hang him was sold as was customary to collectors, cut into inch segments such was the demand. Corder's body was used for dissection, and until recent times his skeleton was used in The Royal College of Surgeons for anatomy classes, finally being cremated at the request of his descendants in 2004.

As for the Red Barn, it became a major tourist attraction, but its appeal waned as enthusiastic visitors stripped it bare - planks were turned into toothpicks to cash in, and guided tours arranged for the curious. Polstead was for a brief period the centre of a tourist boom in Suffolk. A measure of the impact of the case can be taken from the fact that one publisher of broadsheet versions of the tale sold over a million of them.
As the years went by the facts were changed to fit the expected version - Corder in reality was a year Maria's junior, but in the stage versions he became an older man who had wished to seduce a young innocent (a bit late for that in truth).
In an interesting quirk of fate the Marten's cottage in Polstead is again part of the tourist industry, nowadays being run as a B&B.

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