Near this place lie the remains of Maria Martin
who died in the Red Barn, Polstead
and was buried on April 20th 1828 aged 26 years
--Plaque in St. Mary's churchyard, Polstead.
They called it the Red Barn for its distinctive tiles. It stood on Corder's Land in Polstead, Suffolk, until fire took it in 1847. Polstead itself looked the part of English countryside, greenery and little-changed dwellings from previous centuries. Maria Marten lived in Postead, daughter of a local molecatcher.
Maria bade a tearful goodbye to her son (a child born without benefit of clergy to a previous lover) and to her sister and her stepmother. The 26-year old altered her garb and appearance so that, at least from a distance, she could pass as a man. She left her family cottage and headed out into that Spring countryside, May 18, 1827.
She would never return home.
William Corder had a reputation as shifty, untrustworthy. In school they called him "Foxey" because he stole and lied, or was at least alleged to do these things. Like T.S. Eliot's McCavity, he always had an alibi, and one or two to spare. He came from a well-established, well-heeled family. His father and brothers had died within a two-year period, so he and his mother lived together on Corder's Land. William, only 24, had taken a number of mistresses. Maria Marten had been one of them; rumours, unsubstantiated, say that her stepmother had been, as well.
The following year, Corder, now living in London, became engaged to a woman of his own social class.
Then Maria's stepmother began to have dreams.
She urged her husband Thomas, Maria's father, to search the Red Barn-- for there, here dreams said, the body of their Maria would be found.
Thomas Marten regarded prophetic dreams as superstition, old wives' tales-- perhaps the sort of thing to occur in Biblical times, but not in the nineteenth century. But his daughter's disappearance haunted him, and he finally relented. In April of 1828, he went to the old Red Barn.
In a shallow grave, he found the decayed remains of a woman.
Police arrested Corder in London; he was returned to Bury St. Edmund's to stand trial in August. The story attracted attention throughout England. The papers bled with lurid details, though even the trial would never officially determine the cause of death. Those who did not regularly read the paper could purchase broadsheets on the case. Before Corder even went to trial, the Polstead County Fair staged a melodramatic recreation of the crime; they would not be the last. Souvenir hunters went home with pieces of the Red Barn. Later, Maria's grave would be reduced to rubble by those seeking a ghoulish keepsake.
Corder's motive seems to be connected with the fact that Maria Marten was pregnant by him, and according to the family, she had received a promise of marriage. In fact, they were purportedly meeting to get married in Ipswich on the day Maria disappeared. But he had grown bored with the young woman, and would never marry someone so far below his class-- and a fallen woman, at that, one who had borne her previous lover's child. If the story did not lack for sensational detail, it also called uncomfortable attention to Victorian hypocrisy regarding gender and sexual mores. It is little wonder that women, in particular, demanded Corder's head.
Corder protested his innocence; the court felt otherwise. He was sentenced to hang, and his body was to be dissected; at the time, executed corpses were often turned over to medical science. Corder was said to be horrified at the thought that he would never receive a proper burial.
Shortly before his hanging, Corder confessed. He was executed on the Monday August 11, 1828. Despite pouring rain, thousands arrived to witness his execution. Some had settled in at sunrise to get a good position in the crowd.
Thousands also viewed the body at Squire Hall before the surgeons at West Suffolk Hospital took it. The skeleton has been preserved. Moyse's Hall in Bury St. Edmund's still displays the bust made from a death-mask of his head. The surgeon who performed the dissection, George Creed, had an account of the trial bound in leather formed from Corder's skin.
The first of many Maria Marten books appeared almost immediately. James Curtis, a journalist who had covered the trial, published The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten before the year was over. His work was quickly plagiarized and sensationalized by the writers of Penny-Dreadfuls. Some accounts change her name to Maria Martin. As the story passed into legend, it acquired elements such as a gypsy curse cast on Corder by a spurned gypsy mistress.
And the dream? Most accounts loved that angle, but others have speculated that Mrs. Marten knew more about where Maria's body was than she let on, and knew it from earthly sources. The dream, perhaps, was a ruse, a way of bringing Corder to justice without incriminating herself after the fact. So many years later, we shall never know for certain what happened, or why she might have kept silent for so long.
The story has been adapted many times for the stage in the days since the 1828 Polstead Fair. To this day, it remains popular with community theatre troupes, who may play it straight, but more typically ham up the twice-told tale with comic excess, an ingenuous Maria, and a black-caped, mustache-twirling Corder.1 It also has appeared on the movie screen.
Early English film producer/director and Beatles namesake George Harrison produced the first film adaptation, Maria Marten, or the murder in the Red Barn in 1902. This one condenses the tale to 5 minutes. In 1908, William Haggar and Sons released Maria Marten (aka The Red Barn Crime). Although the Red Barn itself was gone, Motograph Films used as many of the real locations as possible for their 1913 production, Maria Marten: the Murder in the Red Barn. The morbidly-named Tod Slaughter played the villain in the only talking big-screen adaptation, MGM's 1935 release, Maria Marten, or the Murder in the Red Barn, written by Randall Faye and directed by Milton Rosmer King.
A James Catnach wrote a balled, "The Murder of Maria Marten," a year after the trial. It has been modified more than once, and recorded in the twentieth century. Since its copyright is as dead as Marten or Corder, one version follows:
Come all you thoughtless young men
A warning take by me
To think upon my unhappy fate
To be hanged upon a tree
My name is William Corder
To you I do declare
I courted Maria Marten
Both beautiful and fair
I promised I would marry her
Upon a certain day
Instead of that I was resolved
To take her life away
I went unto her father's house
The eighteenth day of May
And said my dear Maria
We will fix a wedding day
If you'll meet me at the Red Barn
As sure as I have life
I will take you to Ipswich Town
And there make you my wife
This lad went home and fetched his gun,
His pickaxe and his spade.
He went unto the Red Barn
And there he dug her grave.
With her heart so light she thought no harm
To meet me she did go
I murdered her all in the barn
And laid her body down
After the horrid deed was done
She laid there in her gore
Her bleeding mangled body lay
Beneath the Red Barn floor
Now all things being silent
Her spirit could not rest
She appeared unto her mother
Consult her at her breast
Her mother's mind being sore disturbed
She dreamed a dream and saw
Her daughter she lay murdered
Beneath the Red Barn floor
She sent the father to the Barn
Where he the ground did thrust
And there he found his daughter
Lay mingling with the dust
My trial was hard, I could not stand
Most horrorful was the sight
When her dear bones was brought to prove
Which pierced my heart wide
Her aged father standing by
Likewise his loving wife
And in her grief her hair she tore
She scarcely could be tied
Adieu adieu, my loving friends
My glass is almost run
On Monday next will be my last
When I am to be hung
So all young men who do pass by
With pity look on me
For murdering of that young girl
I was hung upon a tree
1.I first read about this story when I was a child, but I first saw it onstage in high school. A gregarious jock and a female student who missed a presentation for drama class made up the omission by performing a ridiculous, truncated version of the tale for a school variety show. It wasn't great theatre, but it generated considerable laughter.
The Baalham Resource Center. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~baalham/red_barn.htm
Gifford, Denis. A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. London: Hamlyn, 1973.
"The Red Barn Murder: Fact and Fiction." http://www.stedmundsbury.gov.uk/redbarn1.htm