Murder in the Red Barn: The Crime Solved by a Dream
Ann Marten was tired of the awful dream. Twice now she’d woken after terrible visions of her stepdaughter, Maria, dead and buried under the dusty floor of a barn a half-mile from the cottage Ann shared with her husband, Thomas, in Polstead, England. At first, Ann believed that it was just a bad nightmare—to interpret it otherwise was irrational claptrap—but when the dream returned, she started to have second thoughts.
One day, she approached Thomas and asked him to bring her some peace of mind. “I think, were I in your place, I would go and examine the Red Barn,” she suggested.
Bewildered, Thomas asked why.
“I have very frequently dreamed about Maria,” Ann said, “and twice before Christmas, I dreamed that Maria was murdered, and buried in the Red Barn.” She would have told him sooner, Ann explained, but was afraid he’d think she was superstitious.
The Red Barn was a prominent landmark in Polstead, a quaint corner of England’s Suffolk County countryside. Named for a unique red brick roof, the building on Barnfield Hill was the last known meeting place between Maria Marten and her lover, William Corder. The pair had used the barn as a rendezvous point before apparently eloping to Ipswich on May 18, 1827.
Maria’s family hadn’t heard from her in the 11 months since. The Martens often wrote letters to the couple, but Maria never responded. Whenever Corder returned to Polstead, he always offered a slew of excuses explaining why Maria wasn’t writing: She was busy, her mail must have gotten lost, she had injured her hand and couldn’t write back. He reassured them, however, that Maria was happy and basically fine.
But when his wife began having bad dreams, Thomas Marten decided to dutifully check the Red Barn for any indication of foul play. He puttered around the structure and carefully removed litter from the floor—and then noticed an unusual slump in the dirt. According to one account, Thomas, a mole-catcher by trade, began loosening the ground with a mole-catching spike and, upon lifting the tool, dredged up a chunk of rotting human flesh.
Thomas didn’t have to dig more than two feet to discover that his wife’s prophecy might be true: In a shallow hole lay a decomposed human skeleton wrapped in a sack. It had long hair and a green handkerchief around its neck.
Upon seeing the body, Thomas refused to dig any further. He started for home.
When he found his wife, Thomas asked if she recalled Maria wearing a handkerchief the day she ran off to elope—and, if so, what color it was.
Ann searched her memories and nodded. Maria had been wearing a bandana that William Corder had given her. “A green one,” she said.
William Corder was a troublemaker. The son of a wealthy farmer, the sly lady’s man (who went by the nickname Foxey) was known to forge checks and steal animals from neighboring farms. On one occasion, he kidnapped his father’s pigs and pocketed the money from the sale.
By some accounts, that was not the life the young man aspired to: Corder purportedly wanted to become a teacher or journalist, but when his father refused to financially support those endeavors, Corder instead sustained his bank account with the fruits of petty crime.
Whatever Corder’s motivations, none of that mattered to his paramour Maria Marten, a 24-year-old single mother. Her first child (whose father was Corder’s older brother) had died early, but her second child (born to a member of the gentry who had no interest in marrying the daughter of a lowly mole-catcher) was still alive. This second father regularly sent money to help the child, but was otherwise absent from Maria’s life. So when William Corder returned to Polstead to help his family’s farm in 1825, Maria quickly fell for the wily smooth-talker.
After all, Corder showed that he could handle some responsibility. The same year he came back to town, his father died and two of his brothers became permanently hobbled by tuberculosis, leaving young Corder as one of the last able-bodied men in the family capable of running the farm. Around the time he assumed these duties, a romance between him and Maria began to blossom.
At first, the couple tried to keep their relationship secret, but life had other plans. In 1826, Maria became pregnant for a third time. Corder proposed that they marry shortly after the infant was born.
Tragically, only two weeks after its birth, the baby died in Maria’s arms. Maria’s father and stepmother carefully placed the lifeless infant in a box and wrapped it in a napkin. Corder promised to bury it somewhere safe.
Corder also promised that he still wanted to marry Maria, child or not. There was just one stipulation, he said: It had to happen soon. According to Corder, rumors were floating that the constable was going to punish Maria for having a third child out of wedlock. Called bastardy, the crime was punishable by public whipping.
In other words, they had to elope.
Around noon on May 18, 1827, Corder ran to the Marten cottage and told Maria that it was time to go. The constable, he said, was prepared to arrest her at any moment. Maria began to sob. Meanwhile, Maria’s sister, Ann, noticed that the young man was carrying a gun. “[He] told me not to meddle with it, as it was loaded,” she’d recall.
To avoid capture, Corder told Maria to dress in disguise and handed her a men’s waistcoat, a hat, a pair of trousers, and a green bandana. He placed the rest of her clothes in a bag and told her to meet him at the Red Barn down the road, where she could get dressed in her own clothing. Afterward, they’d flee to Ipswich and get married.
Corder then slipped out the front door, and Maria—in male costume—left out the back. She was never seen again.
Eleven months after she left, the police found William Corder married to a different woman and running a boarding school for girls in west London. When the police accosted him, they asked if he had ever known a woman by the name of Maria Marten.
“I never knew any such person even by name,” he responded.
Immediately, the crime captured people’s attention and imaginations: Here was the story of a poor country girl, a single mother no less, who was seduced and fooled by a wealthy cad who lured her to her death with the promise of marriage. No less amazing was the fact that the poor woman’s body was purportedly discovered thanks to a dream. For newspapers, the story was pure catnip.
“I never knew or heard of a case in my life which abounded with so many extraordinary incidents as the present,” M. Wyatt, a magistrate, explained at the time. “It really appears more like a romance than a tale of common life.”
Within days of the body’s discovery, Polstead became a bustling place “literally crowded with strangers from all parts of the adjacent country, for the news of this appalling discovery had ere this reached the remotest parts of the kingdom,” the journalist J. Curtis reported in his contemporaneous book, An Authentic And Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten.
In fact, as Corder sat in jail, Polstead would hold its most well-attended summer fair in ages, with amusements that included roving ballad singers and theatrical productions, all telling sensationalized versions of the Red Barn murder story.
By the start of Corder’s trial in early August, the whole country was familiar with the twisted story. Thousands of people flocked to Polstead to witness the proceedings, and nearly all of the inns and public houses in the county ran out of rooms. (The day before the trial, many visitors had no beds to sleep in at all.) Demand to watch the proceedings was high enough that tickets were required.
The crowd outside the courthouse numbered in the thousands. The scene was so jammed that the ticket-taker—even members of the court—had trouble reaching the front door. When the sheriff’s carriage arrived, it couldn’t squeeze through the crowd. The Lord Chief Baron had to be “carried off his legs on his way from his carriage to the bench,” Curtis writes. It was mayhem.
“Counsellors, magistrates, jurors, &c. &c. were wedged together, and two of the former gentlemen had their forensic wigs hooked off, and one was actually ungowned. Some lost their hats, some their pocket-books, and others their money—and not a few the lappets of their coats," according to Curtis.
Once everybody who could fit in the courthouse was settled, the counts against William Corder—all 10 of them, which included shooting, stabbing, and strangulation—were read. A model of the Red Barn was placed on a table in the courtroom and the Counsel for the Crown began to make its case against the young farmer.
The evidence certainly seemed damning. Maria’s stepmother was in the room when Corder and Maria had made plans to meet at the Red Barn. At the coroner’s inquest held shortly after the body was discovered, the constable denied ever telling Corder he had a warrant out for Maria’s arrest. Corder had waffled constantly whenever asked about Maria’s whereabouts. And in Corder’s London residence, police had found a French passport—a suspicious indication that he might have been planning to flee the country.
In a trembling voice, Corder defended his name and blamed the press for slandering his reputation and sealing his fate. Reading from a written statement, he declared: “By that powerful engine, the press, which regulates the opinion of so many persons in this country, and which is too often, I fear, though unintentionally, the slanderer and destroyer of innocence, I have had the misfortune to be depicted in the most humiliated and revolting characters! I have been described by that press as the most depraved of human monsters.”
Corder went on to claim that he had indeed argued with Maria in the Red Barn, but he did not kill her—rather, she had shot and killed herself. The young man claimed he had panicked and had “buried Maria as well as I was able.”
The jury deliberated for just 35 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. Corder nearly wilted to the floor as the judge read his sentence.
“My advice to you is, not to flatter yourself with the slightest hope of mercy on earth …” the judge said. “That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be Hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!”
Days later, on August 11, 1828, a crowd of at least 7000 people gathered around the gallows and watched a visibly weak Corder step upon the scaffold. Earlier that week, he had confessed to a prison chaplain, claiming that he and Maria had gotten into an argument—possibly about their dead baby, who had never received a proper Christian burial—and had accidentally shot her in the face during a scuffle.
As Corder stared out at the crowd, the air fell still. “I am guilty—” he said, quivering. “My sentence is just—I deserve my fate—and may God have mercy upon me!”
A cap was then draped over his face, a rope was tied around his neck, and gravity did the rest.
William Corder’s corpse swung gently in the wind for an hour before being taken down and placed in a nearby hall, where the county surgeon sliced into the chest and folded back the skin to display the muscles of the chest. Then the doors were opened to the public. Thousands of spectators marched single-file to gawk at Corder’s remains.
The following day, the body became the centerpiece of an autopsy attended by doctors and medical students from across the county. Corder’s organs were removed and inspected and his body stripped of its skin, which was tanned and wrapped around the cover of a book chronicling his misdeeds.
In 1846, Punch magazine would cynically joke that “Murder is, doubtless, a very shocking offence; nevertheless, as what is done is not to be undone, let us make our money out of it.” Indeed, over the next century, the Red Barn murder continued to fascinate the public, becoming a profitable cottage industry for artists and entertainers, who wrote songs, poems, plays, and cheap penny-dreadfuls about the incident. One particular broadside, published by the printer James Catnach, sold more than a million copies.
Polstead would become a macabre pilgrimage site, where tourists—some 200,000 people are said to have visited the town in 1828 alone—eventually stripped the Red Barn bare. (The wood was reportedly sold as toothpicks.) Even poor Maria Marten’s Polstead resting place suffered from the grubby hands of souvenir-hunters, who mercilessly chipped away at her gravestone until it was little more than a stump.
Interest in the murder was so great that little physical evidence of the grisly happening remains. The book bound in Corder’s skin, however, is still stored at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. And the Cock Inn, where Polstead’s coroner carried out his inquest to identify the skeleton of Maria Marten, is still in operation. If you visit and grab a pint, you just may hear people singing an eerie ballad that is now canon.
Come all you bold young thoughtless men, a warning take by me;
And think of my unhappy fate, to be hanged upon the tree.
My name is William Corder, to you I do declare
I courted Maria Marten, most 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 into her father’s house the 18th of May,
Saying, my dear Maria, we will fix the wedding day.
If you will 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;
I then went home and fetched my gun, my pickaxe and my spade,
I went into the Red Barn, and there I dug her grave.