Executed 11th of August, 1828, for the Murder of Maria Marten, in the Red Barn, the Crime being revealed to the Victim's Mother in Three Dreams
THE murder for which this most diabolical criminal merited and justly underwent condign punishment was as foul and dark a crime as ever stained the annals of public justice. Maria Marten, the victim of his offence, was born in July, 1801, and was brought up by her father, who was a mole-catcher, at Polstead, in Suffolk, where she received an education far superior to her situation in life. Possessed of more than ordinary personal advantages -- a pretty face and a fine form and figure -- it is little to be wondered at that she was beset by admirers, and that, artless and inexperienced as she was, she should have imprudently fixed her affections upon an unworthy object. An unfortunate step ruined the character of the young woman, and a second mishap with a gentleman of fortune, residing in the neighbourhood of her father's house, left her with a child -- which at the time of her death was three and a half years old. About the year 1826 she formed a third liaison, with the man who became her deliberate murderer, William Corder.
William Corder was the son of an opulent farmer at Polstead. Having become acquainted with the girl Marten, the consequence of an illicit intercourse which took place between them was a child. From that time he became much attached to her, and was a frequent visitor at her father's house. The child died within a short period of its birth, and from the circumstance of its having died suddenly, and of Corder having taken it away at night and disposed of its body in a manner which he would never explain, an idea was entertained that it had come unfairly by its death. However strongly this notion may have taken possession of the public mind, after the apprehension of Corder, it does not appear that any real evidence was ever produced publicly to support the impression which had got abroad; but certain it is that the unhappy girl made use of the circumstance as a means of endeavouring to procure the father of the child to fulfil a promise which he had made that he would make her his wife. On the 18th of May, 1827, Corder called at the house of old Marten, and expressed his willingness that the ceremony should be performed; and he said that, in order that no time should be lost, and that the marriage might be as private as possible, he had made up his mind to have it celebrated by licence instead of by banns. The next day was appointed for the wedding, and he persuaded the unhappy girl to dress herself in a suit of his clothes, so as to secure the greatest secrecy, and to accompany him to a part of his premises called the Red Barn, where she could exchange them for her own, and from whence he would convey her in a gig, which he had in readiness, to a church at Ipswich. The girl consented to this singular proposition, and Corder immediately quitted the house, and was soon after followed by his unhappy victim, who carried with her such part of her own clothes as would be necessary to appear with in church. In the course of a conversation which took place between Corder and the mother of the girl, before their going away, the former repeatedly declared his intention to make the girl his lawful wife, and he urged, as a reason why she should go with him immediately, that he knew a warrant had been issued against her for her bastard children.
Within a few minutes after Corder had quitted the house he was seen by the brother of the girl to walk in the direction of the Red Barn, with a pickaxe over his shoulder; but from that time nothing was ever heard of the unfortunate girl, except through the fictitious communications received from Corder, who still remained at his mother's house at Polstead. The return of Maria Marten had been expected to take place within a day or two after the time of her quitting her father's house; but as she had before occasionally exhibited considerable irregularity in the duration of her visits to Corder, and as also there was an understanding that the latter should procure her a temporary lodging, little anxiety or alarm was at first felt at her prolonged absence. A fortnight elapsed, however, and then her mother proceeded to question Corder upon the subject, when he declared that she was quite safe and well, and that he had placed her at some distance, lest his friends might discover the fact of his marriage, and exhibit displeasure at the circumstance. Thus from time to time he put off the inquiries which were made of him; but in the month of September he declared he was in ill-health, and quitted Suffolk with the avowed object of proceeding to the Continent; and it is not a little remarkable that before he left Polstead he expressed great anxiety that the Red Barn should be well filled with stock -- a desire which he personally saw fulfilled. He took with him about four hundred pounds in money; and several letters were subsequently received by his mother, who was a widow, and also by the Martens, in which he stated that he was living at the Isle of Wight with Maria. It was remarked that, although he represented his residence to be in the Isle of Wight, his letters always bore the London postmark. At length strange surmises and suspicions began to be entertained, in consequence of no personal communication having yet been received from his supposed wife. The parents of the unhappy girl became more and more disturbed and dissatisfied; and the circumstances which eventually led to the discovery of this most atrocious crime are of so extraordinary and romantic a nature as almost to manifest an especial interposition of Providence in marking out the offender.
In the course of the month of March, 1828, Mrs Marten dreamed on three successive nights that her daughter had been murdered and buried in the Red Barn. Terrified at the repetition of the vision, an undefined suspicion, which she had always entertained, that her daughter had been unfairly dealt with, appeared fully confirmed in her own mind; and so lively were her feelings, and so convinced was she of the truth of the augury, that on Saturday, the 19th of April, she persuaded her husband to apply for permission to examine the Red Barn, with the professed object of looking for their daughter's clothes. The grain which had been deposited in the barn had by this time been removed, and, permission having been obtained, the wretched father proceeded to the accomplishment of the object he had in view. He applied himself to the spot pointed out to his wife in her dream as the place in which her daughter's remains were deposited; and there, upon digging, he turned up a piece of the shawl which he knew his daughter had worn at the time of her quitting her home. Alarmed at the discovery, he prosecuted his search still further, and when he had dug to the depth of eighteen inches, with his rake he dragged out a part of a human body. Horror-struck he staggered from the spot; but subsequent examination proved that his suspicions were well founded, and that it was indeed his murdered daughter, the place of deposit of whose remains had been so remarkably pointed out. The body, as may be supposed, was in an advanced state of decomposition; but the dress, which was perfect, and certain marks in the teeth of the deceased, afforded sufficient proofs of her identity.
As may be imagined, the whole neighbourhood was in an uproar of confusion at this most extraordinary circumstance, and information was immediately conveyed to the coroner, in order that an inquest might be held. By the time a coroner's jury had assembled, a surgical examination of the body had taken place; and Mr John Lawden, a surgeon, proved that there were appearances yet remaining sufficient to indicate that the deceased had come to her death by violent means. He said that there was a visible appearance of blood on the face and on the clothes of the deceased, and also on a handkerchief which was round the neck; that the handkerchief appeared to have been tied extremely tight, and beneath the folds a wound was visible in the throat, which had evidently been inflicted by some sharp instrument. There was also a wound in the orbit of the right eye; and it seemed as if something had been thrust in which had fractured the small bones and penetrated the brain. When the body was found it was partly enveloped in a sack, and was clothed only in a shift, flannel petticoat, stays, stockings and shoes.
No sooner had the body been discovered than all eyes turned to Corder as the murderer. Information having been dispatched to London, Lea, an officer of Lambeth Street, was forthwith sent in pursuit of the supposed offender. With a loose clue only, he traced him from place to place, until at length he found him residing at Grove House, Ealing Lane, near Brentford, where, in conjunction with his wife, whom he had married only about five months before, and to whom, it was said, he had introduced himself through the medium of a matrimonial advertisement, he was carrying on a school for young ladies. It was necessary to employ a degree of stratagem to obtain admission to the house; but at length Lea represented that he had a daughter whom he wished to put to school, and he was shown into a parlour, where he found the object of his search sitting at breakfast with four ladies. He was in his dressing-gown, and had his watch before him, with which he was minuting the boiling of some eggs. The officer called him on one side, and informed him that he had a serious charge against him; he also inquired whether he was not acquainted with a person named Maria Marten, at Polstead, but he denied that he had any knowledge of such a person even by name. He was then secured. Upon his house being searched, a brace of pistols, a powder-flask and some balls were found in a velvet bag, which, on its being subsequently seen by Mrs Marten, was immediately identified by her as having been in the possession of her daughter at the time of her quitting her house for the last time. A sharp-pointed dagger was also found, and this was identified by a person named Offord, a cutler, as being one which he had ground for the prisoner a few days before the murder was committed. The prisoner, immediately on his apprehension, was conducted to Polstead, in order that he might undergo an examination before the coroner; and the most lively interest was exhibited by the vast crowds of people who had assembled to catch a glimpse of him on his being brought into the town. On his appearance before the coroner he was dreadfully agitated; and the circumstances which we have described having been deposed to by various witnesses, a verdict of wilful murder was returned against William Corder.
Thursday, 7th of August, in the same year, was appointed for the trial of this malefactor, and the anxiety to witness the proceedings in court, or to obtain early information in reference to the case, which almost universally prevailed, was strongly manifested by the assemblage of hundreds of well-dressed persons of both sexes round the front and back entrances to the shire hall, Bury St Edmunds, as early as five o'clock in the morning of that day. The rain fell in torrents, but many persons braved the weather and remained without shelter until nine o'clock, when the Lord Chief Baron (Alexander) arrived, to try the prisoner. At the moment his Lordship gained admission to the court the scene which presented itself beggars description. The barristers who attended the circuit, amongst whom were to be observed the counsel for the prosecution and the defence, in vain struggled against the pressure of the opposing crowd, and many of them, at the moment they had almost attained their object, were carried back in an exhausted state to the extremest verge of the assembled multitude. When his Lordship had taken his seat on the bench the names of the jury who had been summoned to try the prisoner were called over; but the crowd was so great, and the sheriff's force so ineffective, that it was almost impossible to make way for them into the court. They were, after the lapse of nearly an hour, brought over the heads of the crowd into the passage leading into the hall, some with their coats torn, their shoes off, and nearly fainting.
Nor was the curiosity of the public confined to the courthouse. Hundreds had early assembled at the door of the jail and along the road leading thence to the shire hall, anxious to catch a glimpse of the accused. He left the jail at a quarter before nine o'clock, having previously attired himself with much care in a new suit of black, and combed his hair over his forehead, which he had previously worn brushed up in front. On account of the number of challenges made by the prisoner, it was some time before a jury was empanelled. At length, however, the prisoner was arraigned upon the indictment preferred against him. He pleaded not guilty. The evidence adduced differed but slightly in effect from the circumstances which we have detailed. Proof was given that at the time of the discovery of the body of the deceased marks were distinctly visible, which showed that she had received a pistol-shot or gun-shot wound; and it was also proved, by the brother of the deceased girl, that the prisoner, at the time of his quitting the house of old Marten on the day of the murder, carried a loaded gun.
The prisoner, when called upon for his defence, read a manuscript paper in a low and tremulous tone of voice. He declared that when he and the girl reached the barn, words arose, and Maria flew into a passion. "I was highly irritated, and asked her, if she was to go on in this way before marriage, what was I to expect after. She again upbraided me and, being in a passion, I told her I would not marry her, and turned from the barn; but I had scarcely reached the gate when the report of a pistol reached my ear. I returned to the barn, and with horror beheld the unfortunate girl extended on the floor, apparently dead. I was for a short time stupefied with horror, and knew not what to do. It struck me to run for a surgeon -- and well would it have been for me had I done so -- but I raised the unfortunate girl, in order, if possible, to afford her some assistance, and found her altogether lifeless; also, to my horror, I discovered that the dreadful act had been committed by one of my own pistols, and that I was the only person in existence who could tell how the fatal act had taken place. The sudden alarm which seized me suspended my faculties, and it was some time before I could perceive the awful situation in which I was placed, and the suspicions which must naturally arise from my having delayed to make the circumstance instantly known. I at length found that concealment was the only means by which I could rescue myself from the horrid imputation, and I resolved to bury the body as well as I was able."
The Lord Chief Baron summed up, and a verdict of guilty was returned. At this point the prisoner was observed to raise his handkerchief to his eyes; and during the subsequent passing of the sentence of death he seemed to be dreadfully affected. On his return to the jail, Mr Orridge, the governor, made the strongest efforts to induce him to confess. He then exclaimed, "I am a guilty man," and immediately afterwards made a written confession. He subsequently appeared much easier in his mind, and attended service in the chapel immediately before being carried out for execution. Just before he was turned off he said in a feeble tone: "I am justly sentenced, and may God forgive me." After the execution a spirited bidding took place for the rope which was used by the hangman; and as much as a guinea an inch was obtained for it. Large sums were offered for the pistols and dagger which were used in the murder, but they became the property of the sheriff of the county, who very properly refused to put them up to public competition. A piece of the skin of the wretched malefactor, which had been tanned, was exhibited for a long time afterwards at the shop of a leather-seller in Oxford Street.