Why did William Corder murder his pregnant girlfriend?
Night after night, the same dream. Maria lying dead in the Red Barn.
And each morning, her step-mum Ann woke from these dreams more and more certain.
It was a message. Maria had been murdered, buried in the Red Barn.
It had been a year since anyone had last seen Maria Marten. She’d eloped with her lover, William.
Or so it was thought.
Maria Marten’s family was poor. Her dad, Thomas, struggled to support his family on his earnings as the village molecatcher.
But Maria, 25, had a trump card. Her beauty.
It was her dark, curly hair and her pretty face that had first caught the eye of William Corder whose family also lived nearby.
William might have had a reputation as a flirt, and he might have been caught up in a bit of forgery, profiting from a fake cheque, but he was a good catch for someone like Maria.
William’s family were farmers. But they were rich farmers, respected through the village.
And that probably explains why William was so worried when Maria fell pregnant.
William hadn’t wanted his family to know he was seeing Maria. He always arranged to meet her out of sight, in an abandoned red barn half a mile from her cottage.
So when she got pregnant, it was a problem.
Maria wasn’t married, but had already had two children, who were being brought up by her parents.
A third child would be more difficult to hide and Maria could be prosecuted. Back then, it was illegal for unmarried women to have children.
The father’s identity wouldn’t stay hidden for long, and the Corder family would be shamed.
In 1827, Maria gave birth to the baby in secret. She was desperate for William to marry her. It’d mean she wouldn’t be taken to court and she could live a comfortable life supported by the Corders.
And then, days after it had been born, the baby died.
A tragedy. But it may have been a relief, too.
Still, the storm clouds were gathering.
One afternoon in the months after the death of their baby, William came to see Maria at home. There, in front of her stepmum Ann, William told Maria he’d heard a rumour that Maria was still going to be prosecuted for having children outside of marriage.
There was one thing for it – the couple had to elope.
Then, when they were faraway from the disapproval of his family, William said he’d marry Maria.
Friday, 18 May 1827, the plan was set in motion. Under the cover of night, Maria went to meet William at the Red Barn. From there, they’d run away.
A new life together.
Over the next months, William wrote to Maria’s dad and stepmum, telling them the couple had run away to the Isle of Wight and that Maria was well and happy.
For Thomas and Ann Marten, something didn’t seem right. Unlike many young women at the time, Maria could read and write.
So why did the letters always come from William?
When they challenged William by lettter, he said Maria had written to them, but that her letters must have got lost in the post.
That’s when Ann Marten started getting those terrifying dreams. She knew Maria and William had met at the Red Barn. She knew about the couple’s problems. And deep down, she knew that something dreadful had happened.
And so it was that on 19 April, 1827, close to a year after Maria had vanished, Ann persuaded her husband to dig up around the Red Barn, in the place where Maria was lying dead in her dreams.
There, buried in a cloth sack under a grain storage bin, Thomas Marten found the remains of his daughter, Maria.
Murdered. Left to rot in a shallow grave.
It didn’t take investigators long to find William Corder. He was living in London. And even though he’d insisted in his letters to Ann and Thomas that Maria was alive and well, he’d married someone else.
On 7 August 1828, William Corder pleaded not guilty to the murder of Maria Marten at Shire Hall, Bury St. Edmonds.
Her body was badly decomposed, but Maria’s wounds suggested strangulation, shooting and stabbing.
It took the jury only half an hour to find William guilty. To the world, it seemed that William had murdered Maria to avoid marrying her.
He was sentenced to death and told that his body would be dissected by medical students.
The day before he was hanged, William Corder confessed to killing Maria, saying the couple had quarrelled and her death had been an accident.
At midday, 11 August 1828, William Corder was led from his cell to the green behind Bury prison.
7,000 people had turned up to watch the hangman’s noose tighten around his neck.
His body was cut up by student doctors and his skeleton put on display at the Royal College of Surgeons.
There it stayed until 2004 when it was taken down and cremated. At last, the murderer in the Red Barn was no more.
A unique book about the murder…
After his body was dissected, William Corder’s skin was peeled off made into leather, which was used to bind a book about the murder. The book is still on display at Moyse’s Hall Museum, Bury St. Edmunds
Was Ann in on it?
Ann Marten was only a year older than her stepdaughter, Maria. In the years since Maria’s murder it’s been suggested that Ann herself was also having an affair with William. Ann and William plotted the murder of Maria together, so they could carry on their romance. But when William took off and married another woman, Ann saw red and revealed Maria’s final resting place. If this is true, we’ll never know…