The Murder that Shook England

How do you know that a 19th century murder had an electrifying impact on Victorian society? When there are puppet shows, plays, broadsides (Victorian gossip flyers), peepshows, novels, pottery figures and even ballads written about the horrors that became a nationwide spectacle. The sensational murder took place in Polstead in Suffolk, England. What became known as the “Red Barn Murder” began with the love affair of farmer William Corder and “innocent country girl” and daughter of the mole-catcher Maria Marten.

William Corder and Maria Marten

When Marten gave birth to Corder’s illegitimate child, he convinced her that she needed to run for fear of grave prosecution for having a bastard child! Corder promised that if Marten fled to Ipswich with him, they would be wed and thus, she would be free of prosecution. On the 18th of May 1827, Marten stowed away into the night, dressed in men’s clothing to avoid detection, following her lover’s instructions to meet her at the barn on his property. After leaving When she left her parent’s home that night, she was never seen alive again. After spreading spewing stories of visiting Marten in Yarmouth in an effort to explain for both of their absences, Corder disappeared entirely and foul play was suspected. True to the dramatic nature of the story, Marten’s stepmother supposedly reported dreaming of Maria’s body on the property of William Corder, and after 10 months, in 1828, her body was found in a shallow grave in the “Red Barn”, right where the stepmother claimed she would be. Thomas Marten, Maria’s father, was the one to dig up the body.

The Red Barn of Polstead

Marten had been shot with a pistol and had suffered impact from a sharp object. Corder’s handkerchief was found at the scene, protruding through the sack that held Marten’s decaying body. After much searching, Corder was finally found in Brentford. Along with the suspect, they found his pistols, a dagger and a powder flask in a velvet bag that had once belonged to Marten. He was tried for the murder of Marten on August 7th, 1828 at the assize in Shire Hall, held in Bury St. Edmunds, England. Curious Victorians filed into the town from all around to witness the trial of the notorious murderer. Corder made a statement of defense claiming that Marten had committed suicide with his pistol once he had left the Red Barn. Nonetheless, Corder was found guilty and executed. In his cell, he made a confession: “I acknowledge being guilty of the death of poor Maria Marten, by shooting her with a pistol” and went on to give the partial truth of the events. Reportedly 7,000 people gathered to witness the hanging of Corder in Bury St. Edmunds, England on August 11th, 1828.

The Hanging of William Corder

There is discrepancy in the exact dates throughout the story of Marten’s murder in the Red Barn. Primary accounts in 19th century British newspapers and secondary sources disagree on exact days, including the date of Corder’s hanging and the date that Marten’s body was found. The one date that interestingly seems to have general consensus among sources is May 18th, 1827: the day Maria Marten was murdered.
The story of Marten and her lover William Corder became one of the more remarkable and dramatic murder stories of the 19th century. Their story has been replayed over and over through different types of media (plays, books, pottery, etc.) and is remembered for how it shook the Victorian people. The Red Barn today is burnt down with barely a trace remaining, but for years it was the hotspot for thrill-seekers and people who wanted to catch a glimpse of where Maria Marten took her last few breaths.

Corder and Marten as Marionettes

It’s safe to say that the murder of Maria Marten will not soon be forgotten. Who knows, maybe one day it will be turned into a Hollywood box-office hit!

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Ballads of the Red Barn Murder

Pictures from the gallery of the British Library online – “The Trial, at Length, of William Corder, convicted of the Murder of Maria Marten”