The year of 2004. The Place? at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. A skeleton, reassembled so many times and exhibited, used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. It is almost possible to forget that the people hanging there, next to the teacher, used to be a living human. What cruel fate it is, to always be on display. But then we can wonder, why? Why do you hang there? Is this your punishment? Did you do something? And who hangs beside you? The question is always asked.

“Who is that skeleton?”

Beside you is someone infamous. Jonathan Wild, the notorious gang leader, known as the great corrupter. The students might know his name, his crime. But who are you? Does anyone remember your name?

William Corder

The skeleton actually belongs to William Corder. He was a boy like any other, born in 1804 to a prosperous tenant farmer in Suffolk, England. He was nick named Foxey at school and was a bright kid. He had his whole life in front of him and he had some dreams of becoming a journalist or a teacher as he had some talent for writing. But there was a darkness in Corder. His father liked his brothers much better, and he was sent to London to find work, not wanting to fund his sons dreams. He was said to be a liar and a cheater, thereof the name Foxey most likely. He was also known for theft, like when he sold his fathers pig. Yes, his father’s pig.

File:MariaMarten.jpg Maria Marten, victim in the Red Barn Murder/Wikimedia
Maria Marten, victim in the Red Barn Murder/Wikimedia

In London, he fell into bad company and the money his father gave him, he spent it all. He was a well known ladies man. But his biggest crime, was the Red Barn Murder and being found out by the ghost of Maria Marten.

After a while, William was called back to the farm from his wild time in London. There he met Maria, daughter of a mole catcher in the same small village, two years older than him. 17 years old with a curse on her head. There is the story that told that she wouldn’t reach old age, but would have many lovers and riches.

She was actually seeing Williams older brother, Thomas. He was the oldest and also the fathers favorite. He wanted to keep the relationship secret as she wasn’t regarded of the same status as himself, being poorer and of a family with a “low” status. Maria fell pregnant with Thomas child nonetheless. Thomas left her when she told him. She gave birth to his child, but it died a couple of weeks later. Maria then got into a relationship with a Peter Mathews, a middle age man who also dropped her after giving him a son called, Thomas Henry in 1824. Indeed she had some lovers.

The Red Barn

When William came home, bad luck struck his family. His father died and his brothers got very ill, leaving him to manage the farm together with his mother. And this is were he got to know Maria. But it wasn’t a happy match from either of their families stands. She on her side was already left with a ruined reputation by a Corder. And from the Corder’s perspective, she was a fallen woman and not from a prosperous family like theirs.

File:RedBarn.jpg The Red Barn, scene of the Red Barn Murder/Wikimedia
The Red Barn, scene of the Red Barn Murder/Wikimedia

But they met in secret. Often at a red barn right by Marias house. It was called that because of the red tiles on the roof. But the secret was not to last for long, as Maria became pregnant again. Maria wanted William to marry her, and according to him, he said yes.

At the same time that winter his brother and Maria’s ex-lover, Thomas was walking over a frozen lake. The ice cracked and Thomas went under, drowning. William was now the owner of the farm. Between Maria being pregnant, the farm being in financial troubles and his brother dying, it seems that it put a toll on him. He put Maria in a lodging at Sudbury, a couple of miles away from home to have the baby. But this too should not live and died soon after. William buried the child in a field and there have been speculations that this was not a natural death. And these day, who could really tell?

In any case, this took the relationship to unhealthy heights. They argued about some money that may have been stolen, they argued about the burial of the child and William not marrying her after all. At one point they made a plan, when William said they should elope to Ipswich. She would come dressed as a boy and they would meet in the Red Barn. It wasn’t necessarily unlikely or weird that they would like to run away, as Maria had several charges on her for bearing illegitimate children.

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This was the last time Maria Marten was seen alive. William began acting odd and a lot of questions were asked. Where was Maria? Wasn’t he going to Ipswich? He told them she had gone ahead to Ipswich, but then he changed the story, and told she had gone to Great Yarmouth and wouldn’t be able to return yet. Then he changed the story again, and he said he was meeting Maria and that they were going to marry. He said he felt unwell and traveled to Isle of Wight, writing back home that they were married and happy. He said he was sorry that Maria couldn’t write herself as she had hurt her hand and wondered why some of her letters hadn’t made its way back home.

The Dreams

This didn’t sit well with her family though. The Marten family did not believe him. Maria had a young stepmother back in Polstead, Ann Marten. She was troubled by strange and scary dreams. Twice she had woken from a terrible dream. When she shared them with her husband they looked for Maria and, they found her. The dreams told her that Maria was murdered in the Red Barn buried under the floor. Her husband, Maria’s father was sent to the barn and looked for his daughter, prodding the ground with a mole-spike. There he discovered the remains of his daughter.

She was shot as well as stabbed multiple times. They brought her to The Cock Inn and, decomposed as she was, her sister identified her from the clothes, the hair and a gap in her teeth. And around her neck, a green handkerchief. It belonged to William Corder. Was she also strangled? Was she even dead before he buried her in the grain storage bin her father found her in?

His Trial

Back in Ealing, William knew nothing of dreams and the discovery of Maria. Time went by, but William needed a wife. He put an ad in The Times and asked for a wife. He picked Mary Moore and they set up a young ladies school in Ealing, West London. He was moving forward in his life. But Maria wasn’t forgotten yet.

He was standing boiling some eggs when the police apprehended him. First he denied that he knew of this Maria Marten, but the evidence was there and he was brought back to Suffolk. And the press was on this. It even got a play on stage before Corder even came to trial, which they actually sold tickets to.

File:WilliamCorder-hanging.jpg The execution of William Corder, the Red Barn Murderer/Wikimedia
The execution of William Corder, the Red Barn Murderer/Wikimedia

Forensic pathology was not as advanced yet and it was impossible to determined what of the things that killed Maria. That is why he was charged with nine different murder charges, where shooting, strangling, stabbing and burying alive was a couple of them.

By that powerful engine of the press,” he said, “I have been described…as the most depraved of human monsters,” he said of the media coverage. His defense was articulate, but improbable, claiming Maria herself had taken her own life, but he was found guilty on the circumstantial and medical evidence, and sentenced to hang. It was the Chief Baron Alexander that was the judged, and he added that his dead body was to be dissected and anatomized.

The execution was a great play of itself, and several thousands of spectators had tickets to the show. During his last days the prison chaplain had tried to get a confession from William. He finally admitted to killing her by accident during a quarrel. he denied stabbing her. Perhaps it was the mole-spike that made those wounds?

His last words were:  “I am guilty; my sentence is just; I deserve my fate; and, may God have mercy on my soul.” He was left hanging for an hour, most likely in agony. Then he was transported to Shire Hall were he was left for science. Among other things. His skin was removed, tanned and used as a book cover that described his crimes.

What happened that day? Was Maria’s mother psychic? She was only around a year older than Maria, and had not exhibited similar dreams before. Perhaps it’s a bit odd that her dreams started just after news of Williams marriage to Mary Moore. And there were also some rumors that linked her as a lover with William.

What happened skeleton hanging in the lecture hall? Truth be told, it isn’t even William. At least, not all of it. After his hanging, he was chopped up, his ear was sold, his skull was stolen and fell into the hands of a Red Barn Murder collector. After 2004, he was removed and finally put to rest. But the rumors still lingers. But maybe it is time William got some peace, having served over 200 years for his crimes.

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sources:

https://www.suffolkmag.co.uk/people/murder-at-red-barn-polstead-1-6342086
https://owlcation.com/humanities/Murder-in-the-Red-Barn https://www.headstuff.org/culture/history/william-corder-red-barn-killer/
https://norfolktalesmyths.com/2019/04/09/the-red-barn-murder-revisited/

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