Murder in the Red Barn: The Crime Solved by a Dream

William Corder
William Corder
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“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.

A bust of William Corder
A bust of William Corder
St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, Moyse's Hall

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.

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The 20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Gabriele Stabile/Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Tiger King (2020)

The seedy underbelly of the exotic animal trade is juxtaposed against some of the most outrageous non-fictional characters you're ever likely to encounter in this series that just keeps escalating. Follow Joe Exotic as he juggles polyamory, tigers, and a bitter feud with animal activist Carole Baskin.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now

19. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

20. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime