Amongst the many interesting things
contained within 'The Moyse's Hall Museum' in Bury St.
Edmunds is the death mask of the famous Victorian
Suffolk Murderer - Mr. William Corder.
At the time the story of the Red Barn Murder swept
across Victorian England, as it had all the ingredients
of what we now call a media sensation.
"Why was the victim dressed in mans clothing?"
"How did the step-mother know where to look for the
body?" and "What exactly did happen to the victims baby
and where was it buried?" - These were the questions on
William Corder was born in 1803 in the village of
Polstead the third son of a Suffolk farmer. He was a
slender but well muscled individual (as the postmortem
demonstrated) with a fair complexion and freckles. He
had a reputation as a bit of a ladies man and someone
who obtained money by fraud and deception. Even his own
father fell foul of his sons sharp practices.
Both Williams two elder brothers had passed away,
followed closely by the father which left William and
his mother (whom he adored) to run their 300 acre farm
In 1826 William took up with a local girl by the name of
Maria Marten who was aged twenty-four. Maria was the
daughter of the local mole catcher and by all accounts
was an attractive young woman and not short of admirers.
She had in fact already had a number of affairs, two of
which resulted in children, one of whom died, the other,
Thomas Henry survived.
Maria and William would meet on Williams land in a large
barn that was situated up on Barnfield Hill, about a
mile from Polstead church. The barn was a large wooden
construction with outbuildings, part of its roof was
thatched and the rest was covered in red tiles, which
accounted for the name 'Red Barn'.
Maria was keen to marry William and when she gave birth
to his child in 1827, she felt sure that wedding bells
would soon ring out, instead it was her death knell that
she was hearing. At a month old the baby sickened and
died from unknown causes. Later during the trial it was
hinted that perhaps the baby may have been done away
with. Whether this was true or not, who can say, what is
known is that Maria was definitely involved in the
disposal of the babies body. Both she and Corder put the
story about that they had taken the child's body down to
Sudbury for burial, however subsequent enquires showed
that this was not the case, and no record of the child's
burial was ever found.
Six weeks after the infants death, Corder appeared to
give into Maria pleas for a wedding ring. In the
presence of Maria's stepmother, he requested that Maria
dress herself in male attire, for the purpose of
avoiding notice, and that he would then take her to
Ipswich where a marriage ceremony would be performed. He
arranged to meet Maria in the Red Barn in her male
get-up. Maria was never to be seen alive again.
Corder also disappeared for a while but eventually
returned to Polstead, saying to Maria's family and young
son that he had left her in Ipswich for the time being.
As more and more questions were asked Corder decided to
leave his home town. He wrote to Maria's father saying
that he and Maria were now living in the Isle of Wight.
He continued to give excuses as to why Maria had not
make contact or had not sent for her son, along the
lines of she had hurt her hand, she was unwell etc.
It was Maria's stepmother who was only a year or so
older than Maria who eventually raised the alarm. She
began to dream that her stepdaughter was dead and was
buried in the Red Barn. So on 19th April 1828 she
persuaded her husband, Maria's father, to go with a
friend to the barn. There he found a suspicious looking
spot, after digging down with his mole-spud, he
discovered in the soft earth, the remains of a body
stuffed into a sack. The body was mangled, partially
dressed in male attire and in a state of decomposition
but it was clearly Maria his daughter.
The hunt for William Corder was on. The police tracked
him down on Sunday April 27th at his new home in Ealing
Road Brentford, where he was running a female boarding
house with his wife. The wife, whose maiden name was
Maria Moore, had married William Corder after answering
a matrimonial advertisement, which had been placed in a
pastry cooks shop in Fleet street.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk where an inquest was
held at the Cock Inn at Polstead. At the subsequent
trial Colder confessed his guilt, saying that he and
Maria had argued about the dead child and a scuffle had
broken out and he had accidentally shot her with a
Three days after the trial had ended, on the 11th of
August 1828, before an audience of thousands, William
Corder was hanged. His body was then removed to the
Shire Hall, where the public were allowed to view it.
The body had been cut open from throat to abdomen to
expose the muscles, but this did not stop the many who
wished to look upon the remains of the man who had
murdered Maria Marten in the Red Barn.
Afterwards his head and face were shaved and his body
was sent to the County Hospital for a thorough
dissection, which was also well attended. A death mask
was taken by Mr. Child of Bungay and parts of the body
were preserved. The scalp with one ear attached, and the
death mask reside in the museum to this day.
There was considerable speculation as to how Maria's
stepmother had known where to find the body. Her dreams
began in mid-December 1827 which was literally a few
days after Corder had married Mary Moore. Some said that
she had taken up with Corder and this was why Maria had
to be killed. Upon hearing of his marriage, she decided
to shop him by alluding to dreaming her stepdaughter had
been murdered. Could it have been the action of a woman
scorned rather than a message from beyond the grave?