One of the most published crimes of the Regency era was the Red Barn Murder, which had the perfect trifecta to arouse public interest – a pretty girl, a conman, and the ghost of the victim returning from the grave to rat out her killer.
The victim was Maria Marten, the pretty daughter of Thomas Marten, a poor molecatcher from Polstead, Suffolk. Maria was apparently attractive enough to love but not dowered enough to marry. She had a illegitimate son named Thomas Henry, the child of Peter Matthews, who paid for the boy’s upkeep, but when she fell pregnant by a new beau, William Corder, she wanted to get married and be respectable. Although their baby died, Corder still seemed amenable to marrying her.
On 18 May 1827, Corder came to Maria’s cottage with a plan to elope. In front of her stepmother, Ann Marten, he told Maria that they couldn’t just get married in the local church, because “he had heard that the local constable had obtained a warrant to prosecute her (no warrant had been obtained, but it is not known if Corder was lying or was mistaken).” Thus, Maria should meet him at the Red Barn, a local landmark, so they could run away together from there.
Maria duly went to meet her lover, and that’s the last time anyone saw her alive.
Corder came back to visit relatives, and wrote Maria’s family ‘for her’, assuring everyone they were happily married and living on the Isle of Wight, but there was always an excuse why Maria couldn’t come with him or why the letters were never in Maria’s handwriting. His wife was always too ill to visit with him, or had injured her hand and was unable to write. He even claimed her letters to her family must have been lost in the post.
All that was suspicious enough, but then Ana Marten began dreaming of Maria’s ghost. The tragic specter would indicate to her stepmother that she had been murdered, and would point to a grain storage bin to show where her body had been hidden.
The lack of letters or visits finally induced Thomas Marten to take his wife’s dreams seriously. On 19 April 1828, Marten went to the Red Barn and dug into the grain storage bin that Maria’s ghost had showed his wife. Horrifyingly, he dug up a sack with the badly decomposed remains of his daughter inside. A green handkerchief immediately recognizable as having belonged to William Corder was still tied around the body’s neck.
Corder was captured and taken back to Suffolk to be tried at Shire Hall, Bury St Edmunds. Thanks to the supernatural elements of the tale, there was huge public interest in the outcome of his trial.
Plays were being performed while Corder was still awaiting trial, and an anonymous author published a melodramatic version of the murder after the execution, a precursor of the Newgate novels which quickly became best-sellers … James Catnach sold more than a million broadsides (sensationalist single sheet newspapers) which gave details of Corder’s confession and the execution, and included a sentimental ballad supposedly written by Corder himself (though more likely to have been the work of Catnach or somebody in his employ).
The trial was a sensation, and covered by almost every newspaper in Britain and several overseas. On the stand, Ann Marten testified to his visit to Maria in May of 1527, and described the appearance of the ghost in her dreams. Corder defended himself by claiming that Maria had committed suicide and he had only hidden the body.
It took the jury just 35 minutes to find him guilty.
Corder would never confess to having murdered Maria, but he would later tell the prison chaplain that “he had accidentally shot her in the eye after they argued”. Nevertheless, when he was hanged on 11 August 1828, Corder’s last words were, “I am guilty; my sentence is just; I deserve my fate; and, may God have mercy on my soul.”
As part of his punishment, Corder’s body was dissected by anatomists. His flayed skin was tanned and used as the leather cover of a book detailing his crimes. His skeleton was eventually boiled clean, reassembled and exhibited before it was donated to the West Suffolk Hospital, theoretically for use in training students of medicine but in reality it was “put on display in a glass case … and apparently was rigged with a mechanism that made its arm point to the collection box when approached”. Corder’s skull had been buried in the Victorian era because of a supposed curse on it, but the rest of his bones weren’t laid to rest until 2004, when they were cremated.
Inasmuch as no one ever dreamed of Maria Marten’s ghost ever again, it can presumed that she finally rests in peace.