Odd this day

18 May 1827

6 min readMay 18, 2024

The ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ took place on this day, and wasn’t discovered for a year. When a body was found, though, the perpetrator was hanged. Oh, yes, and, er… dissected, skinned and used to bind a book.

Yes, it is a delightful story, and it begins when William Corder — considered an untypical criminal at the time, because he was the son of a ‘respectable’ farmer — got Maria Marten, daughter of a mole-catcher, pregnant.

Historian Shane McCorristine, however, in his 2014 book William Corder and the Red Barn Murder: Journeys of the Criminal Body, points out that Corder was known for stealing from school fellows, and (in a fine bit of detail) “may also have participated in some pig theft with Samuel ‘Beauty’ Smith, a local criminal”.

For her part, Maria was no be’’er than she ough’a be, having had a child out — good heavens! — of wedlock with William’s older brother Thomas. The daughter died, and in January 1827 Thomas drowned (accidentally) in a pond. Maria had another child with “wealthy bachelor” Peter Matthews, who sent her £5 every quarter to support her and the child.

She then took up with William, and they began meeting in the Red Barn, which stood on the land William’s father managed for Peter Matthews’ sister.

(Yes, it was a small town. The barn wasn’t red, incidentally. It was wooden and thatched, as you’d expect, but had a small section with a red tiled roof, which was apparently enough to earn it its nickname. But I digress…)

Anyway, their shenanigans resulted in another child, which also didn’t survive, but did prompt her parents to put pressure on William to marry her. So, he… went to her house on this day and said local constable John Balham had a warrant for her arrest for having illegitimate children, so she must run away. He told her parents he had a licence to marry her in Ipswich, and got Maria to meet him in the barn.

He later said she shot herself with one of his pistols, but the prosecution case listed many more injuries than one gunshot, and it seems this is just another case of a violent man murdering a woman who had become inconvenient. He didn’t flee the scene, though, but remained in the area, regularly visiting Maria’s parents to give them

a long list of excuses and stories about her absence: that she was in Ipswich or Great Yarmouth, and could not write due to an injury to her hand.

When he inherited £400 from his father’s estate, he legged it to London, from where he wrote to say they were living on the Isle of Wight. He also advertised in two newspapers for a wife.

A Private Gentleman, aged 24, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded… To any female of respectability, who … must have the power of some property … it is hoped no one will answer this through impertinent curiosity … any agreeable lady … a sociable, tender, kind, and sympathising companion … Honour and secrecy may be relied on.

He got 98 replies, 45 of which he collected from a stationer’s. (He never went back for the other 53, so after the trial the stationer redacted the names and published them, turning a tidy profit.) William married one of them, and they set up “a boarding school for ladies in Brentford”.

Meanwhile, Maria’s family had understandably smelt a rat. In particular, her stepmother dreamed that Maria had been murdered and buried in the barn, and eventually persuaded Maria’s father to ask permission to dig in her barn in search of a corpse — which they duly found. The trial was a sensation, and — as a result — chaotic.

Aside from the wives of the chaplains and High Sheriff, women were expressly forbidden to attend, but this led to many mounting a ladder which offered access to an air vent in the ceiling of the court. Others, at danger to themselves, climbed up the stone ledges outside the court to get a look, and several windows were smashed during the day due to the pressure of the throng.

Corder pleaded not guilty (of course he did), but the evidence was strong, the verdict took 35 minutes, and the judge put on his black cap. The hangman was said to have used too much rope, so he

jumped down beneath the scaffold to grab the legs and add his weight to the body to hasten death — an unpleasant but standard practice

…but Corder’s (not entirely undeserved) indignities did not end when he was eventually cut down.

Reports circulated around Bury that a “galvanic battery” had been brought from Cambridge and it is likely that at this point the group experimented with galvanism on the body.

That is, a group of doctors peeled his skin back to expose the muscles, and then applied electrical charges to make the cadaver twitch. (It was this fashion which inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein later in the century, of course.)

George Cruickshank drew some caricatures of the process, including one in which someone who’s come to take a cast of the murderer’s head is told to wait until they’ve finished making him move post mortem.

b/w drawing showing a cadaver on a bench seeming to leap into life while people watch. At a door to the left, a man in a tall hat tries to enter, saying “I came to take a cast of his head”. A man answers: “You must wait till the galvanic operations are over.” Behind the man in the hat, people can be seen outside in the background crowding round under a sign reading ‘Camera Obscura of the Murder’

He was also exhibited in his partially dissected state in the Shire Hall (in Bury St Edmunds), where his trial had been held. An estimated 5,000 people filed past to peer at his innards. At some point, someone took a cast of his head, so they could examine it using the newly discovered ‘science’ of phrenology — which found that he was secretive, acquisitive, and destructive, and

had a weak moral character and his “internal monitor” was “quite wanting”.

(No, confirmation bias isn’t new, is it?)

Bust of William Corder’s head

Reports of Corder’s ‘anatomisation’ appeared in the newspapers, so his mother asked if she could have what was left of him for burial — and was informed that she couldn’t. They needed his bones to make into an articulated skeleton, which lived at the West Suffolk Hospital for many years. One of the surgeons there, George Creed, took some of the skin off his back, too, and tanned it, and it was used to bind an edition of a popular book about the case, An Authentic and Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. He also took off a bit of

scalp with an ear attached: this piece of human leather was exhibited in a shop front in Oxford Street in London for a time in 1828.

Both of these genuinely disgusting objects are now on display in Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury.

A dark piece of leather with a bit sticking out on one side; a book bound in what looks like brown leather

Here’s a picture of just the scalp, in case you want to see the ear a bit better.

A sign saying “Scalp of William Corder” on a glass shelf. Above it is a flat piece of very dark brown leather, roughly in the shape of a human head. There is a recognisable ear on the right hand side

The skeleton was cremated in 2004 and buried in Polstead, not far from Maria’s grave. If you’re ever in Bury St Edmunds with a bored child — ideally of the variety that enjoys Horrible Histories — I can recommend the museum, and these two artefacts in particular.




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