1888: Hugh Mottram Brooks, for the Trunk Murder 2008: Leon David Dorsey, the Blockbuster Killer

1828: William Corder, for the Red Barn Murder

August 11th, 2011 Headsman


This nostalgic emblem of bygone pastoral idylls doubles as a great place to dump a body. (cc) image from boodie131.

This date in 1828, throngs of thousands at Bury St. Edmunds saw the climax of the Red Barn Murder case in the form of the public hanging of William Corder.

This broadside blockbuster got its start in a Suffolk village, where a local ladies’ man and his paramour plotted a rendezvous at the titular shed for the purpose of elopement — she having become pregnant by the young man’s offices.

When the meeting was over, Corder had vanished from town … and Maria Marten had just plain vanished.

Almost a year later, Maria Marten’s stepmother began reporting dreams that the poor girl had been murdered and stashed in the barn. And sure enough, when they searched it, there lay Maria — with William Corder’s handkerchief around her neck. Corder was found in London living with his new wife.

(About the stepmom: she was just a year older than her “daughter”, and considering her essential role in divining the body’s location, has to be considered suspect herself. It’s not too hard to picture her as Maria’s rival for the tomcatting Corder. She never faced any charges, though.)

In a standing-room-only trial that commenced a mere four days before the hanging — papers reported shortages of post-horses owing to the influx of rubberneckers — Corder failed to persuade anyone that he merited the least bit of mercy with his cockamamie story that Marten done shot herself through the eye.* He was doomed by the jury with 35 minutes’ deliberation.

The Red Barn murder is one of dozens in Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder (Review)

The London Times (Aug. 11, 1828) waxed unctuously pleased with this circumstance.

We congratulate the country on a manifest improvement in the condition of its moral feeling, since the sickly sensibility of the press, and of the multitude to whose foul taste it ministered, was wont to declare itself on the side of ruthless and treacherous murder, and to stifle at once every movement of honest compassion for the victim, and all reverence for the principles by which justice is vindicated and human society held together.

Another base ruffian has now equalled or exceeded Thurtell in guilt, and is about to follow him in the experience of lawful retribution. To the honour of the people, we have not yet heard one ejaculation of unnatural pity for the miscreant who deliberately butchered the mother of his infant on pretence of accompanying her to the altar. Corder has united in this one deed of horror — if it be his only one — whatever the heart revolts at most in the conduct of man to woman. He seduced — then betrayed — then massacred the wretched creature, in cold blood; and providential were the means of his detection, as his crime was hateful to God and man.

Why will not unhappy females bethink themselves before it be too late, that he who is depraved enough to corrupt their innocence, has already made no small advance in that course which ends too often in his exacting from them the only remaining sacrifice?

Corder left the scaffold just as he had reached it, corrupting females all the way down.

Seated on a wall, which gave a commanding view of the whole scene, were several ladies, dressed in the first style of fashion. I mention this fact because it shows the intense curiosity prevalent in this county respecting every action of Corder: for nothing else could have brought respectables females to behold a catastrophe so uncongenial with the usual kindness and benevolence of the female character.

-London Times, Aug. 12, 1828

An account of the trial is long since in the public domain and available free from Google books; especially recommended is the collection of dozens of Victorian-Craigslist notes Corder received when he advertised for a wife upon reaching London.

Also of interest: this journal article comparing popular ballads around the case, and even linking to a recorded performance.

As befits such a magnetic public spectacle, Corder’s body was slated for a long afterlife as a macabre totem of the principles by which justice is vindicated.

His corpse was publicly displayed — some 5,000 people are reported to have filed past it — and the hanging rope sold off in increments. Gruesome relics from the case — Corder’s scalp, his death mask, a book bound in his skin — were harvested for exhibition. (Tourists also poured into Corder’s village of Polstead, stripping souvenirs from the red barn and chipping Maria Marten’s gravestone down to the nub.)

The murderer’s skull was one of these trophies, but its owner became convinced it was cursed and had it buried. The rest of Corder was anatomized, as was the style at the time, and its skeleton remained on public display until just a few years ago with that of 18th century crime lord Jonathan Wild.

While the traditional ballads are to be expected …

this venial crime among commoners has sustained popular memory of sufficient longevity to put the Red Barn Murder onto such unanticipated media as the silver screen

… and Tom Waits’ somber blues/rock.

* Corder confessed before his execution.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex

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