The Red Barn Murder and William Corder

In 1827, the same year that François-Louis Dejuinne painted the French socialite, Juliette Récamier, in her apartment at the Abbey-aux-Bois in Paris, 24-year-old William Corder committed a notorious murder in England. He shot his lover, the daughter of a mole-catcher, 26-year-old Maria Marten. The murder came to be known as the “Red Barn Murder” because it happened after Corder arranged to meet Marten at a local landmark in Polstead, Suffolk, called the red barn. Corder pretended that he was going to elope with Marten and go to Ipswich to marry her.

Red Barn Murder - William Corder

William Corder. Author’s collection.

Corder and Marten began a relationship in March of 1826. At the time Corder was well-known for being a ladies’ man and for being a fraudster. One fraud he committed was against his own father when he sold his father’s pigs, and another fraud occurred when he helped a local thief named Samuel “Beauty” Smith steal a pig. There was also a third incident where Corder passed some fraudulent checks. Nonetheless, no sort of punishment by his father or anyone else seemed to induce Corder to behave, and, so, his father finally shipped him off to London.

Red Barn Murder - Maria Marten

Maria Marten. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shortly after Corder arrived in London, one of his brothers drowned. Corder’s father then recalled his son so he could help on the farm. However, misfortune again occurred because within 18 months of his return, Corder’s father and three other brothers died. This left Corder and his mother to run the farm.

After Corder began a relationship with Marten, he did not want anyone to know. This was even more true after Marten gave birth in 1827 to their son, who then died (or was murdered). Marten, however, wanted to legitimize their relationship and marry Corder, and, apparently, at some point, Corder agreed to marry her. That is when he proposed that they meet at the red barn and elope. In addition, Corder told Marten that because authorities were going to prosecute her for having giving birth to a bastard child, she needed to avoid suspicion and convinced her to dress in men’s clothing. The last Marten was seen was wearing men’s clothes and heading to the red barn.

Soon after Marten disappeared, so did Corder. When he reappeared, he claimed that Marten was living nearby in either Ipswich, Great Yarmouth, or somewhere else. Corder also claimed that they had married, but he insisted that he could not bring her back because his relatives would be upset about the marriage. As no one heard anything from her, pressure began to build and people began requesting that Corder produce Marten or that she write to relatives, but Corder then claimed, “A sore on the back of her hand prevents her holding a pen.”[1]

As Corder continually had an excuse and refused to produce his wife, Marten’s stepmother became suspicious. In the meantime, Corder fled to London where he advertised for a wife and met and married Mary Moore. He and Moore then began running a boarding house.

Red Barn Drawing. Author’s collection.

While Corder was busy in London, Marten’s stepmother had a dream that Corder had killed Marten. She then encouraged her husband to search the red barn. A search occurred on 19 April 1828 by Marten’s father and two other men, and a report on the search was given at trial:

“They began to poke down in the straw to see if they could find any thing. The straw was thick … At the second or third time of rolling it off, they found some large loose stones … [and] the earth seemed to have been disturbed. [He] poked down with the handle of a rake and mole-spike … and something that appeared to be flesh stuck to the spike. … They cleared the earth away till they came to the body. They then cleared towards the head part, and found a handkerchief that appeared to be tied round her neck. The outside of it seemed of one colour, but on undoing the folds, they could see the colour. They then cleared towards the feet. The body was lying down, but not stretched out. It occupied about three feet and a half. The legs were drawn up, and the head was bent down a little into the earth. … They body was then taken from the hole.”[2]

Maria’s father then reported, “When they turned the mouth up … it looked like my daughter’s Maria Martin.”[3] Marten’s badly decomposed body had been found. Authorities were notified of Marten’s death and thus began the investigation. A search was also conducted by officer James Lee of Lambeth who tracked Corder to his house in London. He arrested him in his drawing room for the Red Barn Murder and took him back to Suffolk to stand trial. One newspaper reported on Corder’s capture:

“In company with a local officer, Lee, the police-officer, apprehended the prisoner at Ealing, who, on his apprehension, denied having known Maria Martin. He thrice denied having known her. Lee searched the house … Pistols were also found in the house by Lee, and a sword, which had been compared with the hole in the stays, and the hole in the left side of the body. It had been sharpened for the prisoner before he left Polstead, and seen in his possession there.”[4]

Red Barn murder - Corder at trial.

Corder at Trial. Author’s collection.

At trial, Marten’s stepmother related her prophetic dream of the Red Barn Murder and Marten’s father told about discovering his daughter’s body in the barn. Marten’s 10-year-old brother also testified that he saw Corder before the murder near the barn and carrying a loaded pistol. In addition, the brother testified that later he saw Corder leaving the barn carrying a pickaxe, as did a neighbor. The Polstead constable, John Baalam, also testified. He denied that he ever wrote a letter or threatened to arrest Marten for having a bastard child.

Illustration from the Dispatch of William Corder and the Red Barn. Courtesy of the British Museum.

With so much evidence against him, Corder began to lose confidence and finally did admit being at the barn. However, he refused to claim he was responsible for the Red Barn Murder and instead alleged that Marten had committed suicide. He also maintained that after he left the barn, he heard a shot and ran back, only to discover Marten dead with one of his pistols lying next to her. When the jury adjourned to determine the verdict, they did not believe Corder or that Marten had committed suicide. In fact, the jury found Corder guilty of murder, which came as no surprise to one newspaper:

“Any one who has read the trial, the summing up of the Judge, and above all, the defence of the prisoner, must be convinced that there never was a case so clearly proved by circumstantial evidence. … Since his conviction Corder has remained in a state of the utmost despair. There does not appear, indeed, to be one circumstance attending his committal, trial, and conviction, that can afford him the smallest consolation. He committed the murder without any ostensible object, he has denied the deed all along, and, in order to save appearances, has been driven to the utmost falsehood and deceit, which have only the more confirmed everyone of the certainty of his guilt. His very friends seem to have deserted him. His mother has not visited him since his conviction … His wife has seen him occasionally, and took her last farewell yesterday.”[5]

Corder’s Execution. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Corder sat in jail, the clergy pressed him to confess his involvement in the Red Barn Murder. Corder agonized over doing so but finally did. Nonetheless, in his confession, he claimed Marten’s murder was an accident that began with an argument and that he accidentally shot her in the right eye while she was changing out of her manly disguise.

The Red Barn Murder case was well publicized and Corder went to his execution on 11 August 1828 attended by ten thousand spectators. One paper reported that the crowd poured in from all quarters arriving in gigs, chaises, carts, and wagons, and that some vehicles were some stuffed with as many as fourteen spectators.

After being taken to the scaffolding, Corder’s arms were fastened and he appeared faint. He might have fallen to the ground, if he had not been supported by the constables. Before he was hanged, he kept repeating under his breath, “May God forgive me! Lord receive my soul!”[6] Corder was indeed sorrowful for the murder because his last words were, “I deserve my fate – I have offended my God – may he have mercy on me.”[7]


  • [1] London Evening Standard, “Trial of William Corder,” August 8, 1828, p. 1.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Sussex Advertiser, “Conduct Since Condemnation and Execution of William Corder,” August 18, 1828, p. 4.
  • [6] Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette, “Corder, the Murderer,” August 16, 1828, p. 4.
  • [7] Sussex Advertiser, p. 4.

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