At a time when there was wide spread belief in the validity of dreams, in Polstead, Suffolk, these would prove to be prophetic and deeply disturbing.

In late December Mrs. Ann Marten dreamed that her stepdaughter, Maria, had been murdered and was buried in a red barn approximately one mile from their cottage. After having the same terrifying dream for three consecutive nights, Mrs. Marten became convinced that Maria was dead and she pestered her husband, Maria's father, until he agreed to apply for permission to search the barn.

On April 19, 1828, armed with a spike, Thomas Marten, a labourer and molecatcher, and a friend entered the red barn and searched the area where Mrs. Marten had insisted that Maria was buried. They immediately noticed that the ground had been disturbed and began to dig. After some eighteen inches they uncovered a body in a sack with a silk green man's scarf protruding from it. They immediately summoned the constabulary. The coroner was also sent for and he quickly summoned a jury. The inquest was held at the Cock Inn in Polstead. The post mortem examination was performed by Dr. John Lawden. He concluded that her death had been the result of foul play. The green handkerchief had been tied tightly around the woman's neck and there was a wound in the orbit of the right eye. At that time the body was identified as that of Maria Marten by her sister.

Maria Marten was Thomas' oldest daughter. She was described as an attractive and very intelligent young woman. Unusual for a country girl at that time, Maria was able to read and write. Unfortunately in an effort to better her circumstances through a good marriage, Maria bartered with, to no avail, her most precious commodity, her virginity. At age 17 she became involved with Thomas Corder, son of wealthy farmer James Corder. Knowing that his family would disapprove, Thomas insisted on keeping their courtship a secret. When Maria became pregnant Thomas refused to marry her and provided very little in the way of financial support. The child would not live past infancy.

She next embarked on a relationship with a Mr Peter Matthews, a well-to-do gentleman who had relatives in Polstead. In time Maria would again become pregnant and Mr. Matthews also made it painfully clear that he had no intention of marrying her. However, he did provide Maria with an allowance when their son, Thomas Henry, was born.

Undeterred Maria was determined to marry well and by all accounts her wish was finally going to come to fruition. She formed an attachment with William Corder, Thomas Corder's youngest brother, he seemed to be openly courting her and frequently spoke of making her his wife. As with her previous liaisons, Maria again allowed herself to become pregnant. When the infant was barely a month old however, it mysteriously died. Corder claimed that he and Maria had taken the child to Sudbury to be buried, a fact that Maria never disputed, however when no official record of burial was ever found he refused to disclose the location where the infant had actually been interred.

William Corder was the youngest son of John Corder. He was described as being 5ft 4in in height, with a fair complexion and freckles, and extremely poor eyesight. Although he was not handsome by any means he seemed to have done quite well with the ladies. During his school years he earned the nickname Foxey because he was not adverse to stealing and lying when it suited his purposes. He was also caught several times in fraudulent and dishonest dealings which caused a rift between himself and his father and brothers. He did, however, remain extremely attached to his mother. At one point his father attempted to ship him off to sea, but his eyesight was so bad no one would employ him. So William was banished to London in disgrace. That changed when his father and eldest brothers all died within 18 months of each other and he returned to Polstead to help his widowed mother run the family farm.

With each postponement of their official union Maria grew more anxious. Perhaps she knew something about the death of their infant that would have destroyed William and used it to coerce him into committing to a firm date for the ceremony.

On Friday morning , May 18 1827, Corder came to the Martens cottage to speak with Maria. According to him a warranted had been issued for her arrest and she was about to be prosecuted for having illegitimate children. No proof of this was ever uncovered.

Maria was afraid to leave in broad daylight in case the constables were watching the cottage. William had already considered that possibility. He had brought along a suit of his clothes for her to change into and told her to meet him at the red barn. Corder left with a bag containing her clothing and personal items after promising to meet her at the barn with a carriage and from there they would travel to a church at Ipswich where they would be married by special license.

When Maria left the cottage to meet Corder it would be the last time she would be seen alive.

Several days later Corder returned to Polstead without Maria. He was confronted by Maria's family as to her whereabouts. He told them that she was staying with a friend of his near Yarmouth and that he could not bring her home yet as his wife because his relatives did not approve of her. And when asked why she had not written he claimed that she was unwell, or had hurt her hand, or that the letter had been lost. When Corder could no longer evade the probing questions of the Marten's, Corder left Polstead for reasons of poor health. He wrote letters to the Martens claiming that he and Maria were married and living on the Isle of Wight. The Martens could not help but notice however that although Corder claimed to be on the Isle of Wight all of the letters bore a London postmark.

In actuality Corder was living in London with his wife, a Miss Mary Moore, whom he had married in November. They had become acquainted when he advertised for a wife in the Morning Herald and the Sunday Times.

After the discovery of Maria's body suspicion immediately fell on William Corder. James Lea of the London police was sent to arrest him. When Lea explained to him that he was being charged with the murder of Maria Marten he denied any knowledge of her even after his house had been searched and the bag belonging to Maria had been found.

Corder was taken back to Suffolk and was tried at Shire Hall, Bury St Edmunds. The trial commenced on August 7 1828 and because of the considerable interest in the proceedings it was determined that women would not be allowed to attend and admittance to the court was by ticket only.

Since the exact cause of death could not be determined because of the level of decomposition the indictment was carefully drawn up to encompass all the possible causes of her murder, a total of nine charges.

In his defense, Corder claimed that when he met Maria at the red barn the two had argued and he retracted his promise to marry her. He left the barn and as he was walking away he heard a gun shot. He ran back to the barn and found Maria lying dead on the floor with one of his pistols next to her. According to him he panicked fearing that he would be blame and decided to bury her body.

The jury returned after 35 minutes with a verdict of guilty and Corder was sentenced to hang.

The day prior to his execution Corder confessed to killing Maria but he claimed that he had accidentally shot her in the eye while they were arguing.

Shortly before noon Corder was led to the gallows in Bury St Edmunds and hung before a crowd of thousands. When he was taken down the body was dissected and parts were preserved. The scalp with one ear attached is on display at Moyse's Hall Museum along with a copy of his death mask. A copy of the judicial proceedings was bound with Corder's skin after the surgeon had it tanned.


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