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THE MURDER OF MARIA: From Red Barn to Lincoln's Inn

by Carol Hutton and Linda Turner

FOREWORD by Alan D Craxford


I never cease to be surprised by the coincidences and near misses which this study of amateur genealogy continues to turn up. I have been aware of the subject of this article since my boyhood when he appeared in the pages of a book ("Greatest Murders Of the Last Hundred Years") published in the 1920s that was housed in my parents' bookcase. Mother was always more interested in the "Green Bicycle Murder" which had taken place in the country lanes of Leicestershire close to where she grew up.

Maria Martin: A Britannia Theatre Playbill 1889

Britannia Theatre Playbill 1889: © Templeman Library, University of Kent. reproduced with permission.

Traces of this crime, which happened nearly two centuries ago in rural East Anglia, touch at least three of our colour supplements. For whatever reason, the case attracted a notoriety as gruesome and gripping as that of Dr Crippen (real life) and Sweeney Todd (fiction). Within weeks the details, trial and conclusion were firmly in the public domain, and they were to become immortalised on the Victorian stage and, later, the screen. One branch of my family was intimately associated with the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, London (See "The Britannia comes to the Craxfords") and more than once produced the titular melodrama (it is interesting to note that they were one of the few organisations which actually spelled the victim's name correctly!)

Tod Slaughter

Tod Slaughter (1)

Maria Marten on DVD

The DVD (2)

The myths were perpetuated by the North East's own Norman Carter (Tod) Slaughter (1885-1956) who played the role of villain in many stage and early film productions. His rendition of the murderer in "Maria Marten: Murder in the Red Barn" (1935) was his first screen appearence. At the age of 50, he portrayed the archetypal lecherous landowner, preying on and ultimately slaying the innocent virginal village maiden. How close is this to the truth about the man and the events?

I now have a direct interest in the story as my own tree is linked to his, albeit very tenuously, through several marriages. I have to admit one further personal brush with William Corder. In the early 1970s I was a resident for some months at the Nuffield College for Surgical Sciences, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London as I prepared for my Royal College of Surgeons fellowship examinations. I would certainly have seen the exhibits housed in the Hunterian Museum during that time.

William Corder: The contemporary history

William Corder

William Corder

Maria Martin

Maria Martin

The following section is a brief account of the circumstances of the crime, the trial and subsequent punishment as they were recorded at the time. Much of this was documented by James Curtis, a journalist who spent some time in the area reporting the trial for The Times and who published his researches in a book. (3)

Born in 1804 in the village of Polstead, Suffolk, William was the ninth of ten children born to John Corder and Mary Baalham. John farmed a large holding of some 400 acres. William grew up to be of moderate height but well-muscled, of fair complexion and was known to be very short sighted.

It is a matter of record that he was disliked and victimised by his father - a devout Christian - and his teenage years was spent seeking solace in dubious company and places of ill-repute. During this time there were several accounts of deceit, theft and fraud.

A sketch of the red barn, Polstead

The Red Barn

William's father and the three of his brothers that had lived to adulthood all died in quick succession in the early 1820s leaving William and his mother to look after the farm. In 1826 William began an affair with local girl, Maria, the daughter of mole catcher, Thomas Martin. Maria had already had two illegitimate children; the first of which (Thomas Henry) by William's older brother, Thomas. Maria became pregnant again by William, but the child was to die within a month of its birth. It is said that the body was buried surrepticiously in the local field. William agreed to marry Maria, but only if the ceremony was carried out in secret at a church in Ipswich. On May 18th 1827, Maria, then 26 years old, left her father's cottage and set out to meet William at the Red Barn - which was rented by the Corders to store grain - about half a mile away. She was not seen alive again.

PHOTO GALLERY 1: Corder and the Martin Family

William lived on at the farm for some weeks excusing Maria's absence by saying she was staying in Yarmouth 'at some distance lest his friends might discover the fact of his marriage and exhibit displeasure'. (5) By that September, he left the village on the grounds of ill-health to tour the Continent but before he left, he made sure that the Red Barn was well-filled with stock. By the end of the year, he informed his mother and the Martins that he and Maria were living together on the Isle of Wight.

Mrs Martin dreams of the murder of her daughter

Mrs Martin dreams of murder (6)

In March 1828, Ann Martin (Maria's step mother) reported a series of three nightmares in which she dreamed that Maria had been murdered and her body was buried in the Red Barn. She persuaded her husband to examine the barn, whereupon her remains were found in a shallow grave. Despite the degree of decomposition, Maria's sister identified the body from a missing tooth, hair and clothing. Mr Martin recognised a green silk handkerchief belonging to Corder which Maria had been wearing when she left the cottage. A coroner's inquest was convened and a post mortem examination deemed "death by violent means" but the actual cause of death was not determined. The handkerchief was tight around the neck and there was blood on the face and clothes. There was a wound through the orbit of the right eye which had pierced the brain, another in the neck and another between the ribs. There was conjecture that she could have been shot, stabbed, strangled or buried alive and suffocated.

William Corder, in the meantime, had married a girl "through the medium of a matrimonial advertisement at a pastrycook's shop in Fleet Street" (7) and was living in Brentford, London. He was managing a property which has been described as a dance school and a boarding house for females. He was arrested on April 23rd 1828 and was returned to Suffolk where he was remanded to the county gaol at Bury St Edmunds.

PHOTO GALLERY 2: Arrest, trial and execution

His trial was scheduled for Monday August 4th 1828. The Bill of Indictment comprised of nine counts, to cover each possible cause of death to prevent William escaping on a technicality. The trial became the subject of immense public interest and was delayed for several days. Corder pleaded not guilty. The trial lasted for two days during which time he admitted in his evidence that he had been with Maria in the Red Barn and that they had argued about marriage. He had left her in the barn but immediately heard a gunshot and, on his return, found her dead on the ground. "To my horror I discovered that the dreadful act had been committed by one of my own pistols ... and I resolved to bury the body as well as I was able" (5). He was found guilty and was condemned to be hanged and anatomised (dissected for surgical research)

Transcript of the Ninth Indictment

Sentence was scheduled to be carried out three days after the conclusion of the trial. During his time in the condemned cell he was visited by his wife and counselled by the prison governor and prison chaplain. On the Sunday evening, he finally wrote a confession in which he admitted the murder of Maria Martin.

He was hanged outside the gaol at Bury St Edmunds at noon on Monday August 11th 1828. Many thousands of people had congregated to witness the spectacle. After an hour, his body was taken down and removed to the Shire Hall where it was incised and left for public view. Subsequently death masks were made and it was handed over for formal dissection. Parts were preserved including the skeleton, a piece of scalp and one ear and a volume of the trial transcript which was bound in a portion of his tanned skin.

The involvement of the Nessworthy family

by Carol Hutton

George Robert Nessworthy
Elizabeth McKeith, his first wife
Laura Corder, his second wife

Left: George Nessworthy; Centre: Elizabeth McKeith; Right: Laura

Laura Corder Nessworthy was the only grandmother I ever knew. My real grandmother (that is my motherís mother) was the first wife (Elizabeth McKeith) of George Robert Robson Nessworthy. Together they had three children, Robert, Joan (my mother) and Elizabeth. My grandmother died shortly after giving birth to Elizabeth. Some years later George met and married Laura Corder. They also had three children, Brenda who died aged 5 months, Brian and then George who lived for 9 hours. Brian is the father of twin sons, Andrew George and Christopher Robson Nessworthy, born in 1974. They both have children who continue the maternal Corder line.

From being a child I remember my grandmother telling us never to name any of our children William, it was a bad name for the family. I was half aware that her ancestors had once been wealthy and there was a story about one of them who brought shame onto the family by courting a maid. I was also aware of the Red Barn Murder and sort of knew it had something to do with Lauraís family because of her maidename. There were other stories Laura told, like the mystery of why uncle Harry (her eldest brother) received the sum of ten shillings every birthday from a solicitor in Suffolk until the age of 14. Curiosity caused him to travel to Suffolk to investigate. The knowledge he gained there caused him to be so upset he burned all the family records including the family bible on his return.

Book of the trial transcript bound in Corder's skin

The trial transcript (8)

Robert had two children by his first marriage, Linda and Ken who unfortunately lost touch with the family until Robert died unexpectedly in 1997. I met Linda, my cousin, at Robertís funeral. She told me sheíd been researching the Nessworthy family tree. This was a coincidence as uncle Robertís daughter Maria (by his second marriage) had also been looking into the family history. They got together and discovered the familyís roots in Devon which have been described in other pages of this supplement. (See "The Nessworthy Genesis")

When Linda met her grandmother Laura for the first time since she was a child, she wanted to find out about the Corder history. However Laura was having none of it and told Linda not to pry into the family history as it was dark. This intrigued Linda but while Laura was still alive Linda respected her grandmotherís wish not to delve. When my grandmother died in 1998 Linda could not resist the challenge of being told there was a murderer in the family and decided it was time to do some serious research. She hired a genealogist to help her trace the Corder line. Laura's great grandfather and William Corder's father were half-brothers.

To cut a long story short, Linda eventually wrote a book on the subject from the perspective that William was innocent. Linda was also instrumental in negotiating the release of Williamís skeleton which, following his execution and public dissection was used for anatomy purposes before being put on public display at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. In 2004 Williams remains were released and buried. There is also a book covered in Williamís skin which Linda is now trying to obtain for burial. This is currently on show at the Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds, along with other items including his scalp and the pistols allegedly used in the murder.

Continued in column 2...

An Assessment of the Life and Trial of William Corder

by Linda Nessworthy

Linda Nessworthy's book - Murdering Maria

Murdering Maria

Much has been written about the life and trial of William Corder and the whole case has caused great distress to the Corder family both past and present. After three years of painstaking research and investigation, I came to write a book (9) in which I hoped to highlight the injustice and travesty of the case. I also found it interesting that although Maria's surname has always been spelled 'Marten' in the media and other written work, it is clearly shown as 'Martin' in public and parish records.

That he was responsible for the demise of Maria Martin is certain but he did not strike the blow which ended her young life. However William Corder was the subject of complacency by the authorities and those retained to act upon his behalf. The hurriedness of the trial was driven by the media and public outcry, issues that are still prevalent in the law today. Our criminal justice system depends on the fairness of trial by jury and a disregard of any prejudicial matters. That any adverse publicity can cause jury bias is, to me, obvious. William was judged by a group of his peers of whom I am sure were biased against him, given the tales of the "wicked" squire overcoming the poor innocent village maiden. Indeed even the Lord Chief Justice Baron remarked upon how scandalous this publicity was, both before and during the trial.

William was condemned even before his arrest and appearence in court. There was also the deliberate flaunting of the law and rules of the judicial system by Mr Wayman who acted as both Coroner and prosecuting counsel. Despite the Lord Chief Baron being informed of this state of affairs and his own admission that this indeed was unlawful, he allowed the trial to continue, knowing that this would disadvantage poor William. Perhaps he was conscious of the thousands of people who had turned up to hear and observe the trial.

Corder's pistols

Corder's pistols (8)

The facts surrounding the case seem obvious. Maria was recorded as being low in mood and weepy - some of the classic symptoms of post-natal depression. Mrs Martin (her stepmother) stated that she had three consecutive dreams that Maria had been murdered and lay buried in the Red Barn, and indeed she was found in exactly the place she predicted. However it took her several months before she begged her husband to dig up the floor. William Pryke, the bailiff, was not called the the inquest but he had been with Mr Martin when Maria's body was found. There was conflicting evidence about the significance and nature of the injuries that Maria had sustained (gun shot wounds to the face, stabbing, strangulation). Discrepancies in this evidence could have been interpreted as accidental death, death by Maria's own hand or inadvertant death during a struggle. There is also the apparent lack of motive. Other evidence surfaced much later to suggest that William and Maria were not alone in the barn, that Ann Martin also had a lover and was either present or at least knew of the murder and a guilty conscience led to her story of the dreams.

The Lord Chief Baron's summing up referred to the scandalous behaviour of the general public, ministers of the cloth and the media; in fact all those who presented, preached and advertised William as guilty even before the trial had begun.

Corder's death mask

The death mask (8)

Perhaps the greatest travesty of justice was that of William's sentence to include the dissection and anatomising of his body,after being hanged. This was not an uncommon practice that provided study material for the anatomists and pupil surgeons. In the 18th and 19th centuries bodies were not regarded as property and therefore not owned by anyone, much as it is today. The Company of Barber Surgeons which was founded in 1540 and lasted until 1745 was entitled to a number of bodies of criminals who had been sentenced "to be hanged and publicly anatomised". This right was transferred in 1745 to the Company of Surgeons, which later became known as the Royal College of Surgeons. The Anatomy Act was not passed as law until 1832. This allowed the bodies of paupers in workhouses and in hospitals to be confiscated and used for dissection by students in anatomy classes. Prior to this, the shortage of bodies led to the rise of body-snatching where bodies were stolen from graves and sold into the black market and then to medical schools.

Royal College of Surgeons. building, Lincolns Inn Fields, London.

Royal College of Surgeons of England. Home of the Hunterian Museum

I believe that the Lord Chief Baron was as biased against William as the jury. Why else would he sentence the poor man in such a way? William Corder was misguided and misjudged. I concede that he was a liar and a thief, yet, for all these negative features, there is the positiveness of the character witnesses acting for both the prosecution and the defence testified to during the trial. They described William as kind, thoughtful and pleasant in demeanour.

William's greatest desire was the need to feel wanted and loved. Unfortunately this desire attracted him towards the type of person who would be detrimental to his character. He found himself being manipulated and used, by the very people who declared their love for him. All that is except his beloved wife Mary.

His brief marriage was the best experience of his life, a life through circumstances, sometimes beyond his control, which would be cut tragically short by the gallows. Even after his death, his body and skeleton were being used for teaching purposes by the medical profession. The skeleton was used to teach anatomy to student nurses at the West Suffolk Hospital. Sadly they then used the skeleton in the reception area to encourage members of the public to donate money to the hospital.

Some time ago, the family petitioned the Hunterian Museum for the release of his skeleton. This was approved and it has now been cremated. We also approached the management of Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St Edmunds for the relics in their possession as we hoped these could all be buried with a commemoration of some description. As recently as March 2007, this request was turned down. It has been my fervent hope that it is now time to let the spirit of William Corder be laid to rest; a rest I am sure that even he deserves.

A conspiracy theory

Red Barn Mystery by Donald McCormick

The book cover

It is a matter of record that William Corder had a close-knit circle of acquaintances both in Polstead and in London. These included a half-Creole dancer and fortune teller with the unlikely name of Hannah Fandago who was probably William's earliest lover; Peter Matthews, the son of the Lady of Polstead Manor, who was also the father of Maria Martin's second child, Thomas Henry; Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, artist, critic, forger and poisoner and Samuel "Beauty" Smith, thief and conman.

In his 1967 book (10), Donald McCormick, analysed the relationships between these characters and the lack of evidence presented at Corder's trial. There do appear to have been several combinations of liaisons continuing between Corder, Fandango, Smith and Maria's stepmother, Ann Martin, up to the time of Maria's disappearence. Several ideas have been put forward as to why the fateful meeting in the Red Bard took place but it seems most likely that one or more of these other parties were also present, hiding at the time. He also looked at the possible causes of death, the apparent inconsistencies in the evidence and for an explanation for Ann Martin's dreams, coming as they did many months after Maria's disappearence.

In due time, both Wainewright and Smith were transported to Tasmania for forgery and theft and they were traced there by an earlier investigator, a Mrs Hampson. Their story was told upon condition that it was not revealed until at least twenty years after their deaths. It was confirmed that Smith, Hannah and Maria Martin had conspired to burgle Mrs Corder's house and she met up with William in the Red Barn on the pretext of going away to get married. A struggle ensued in which a pistol was discharged, Maria fell to the ground seriously wounded and William fled the barn. Smith (who had been hiding in the barn with Hannah) saw that she was still alive and in great pain. To silence her, Smith stabbed her to death and between them they put her body into a sack. When Corder returned he thought he had been the cause of Maria's death. The other two did not disillusion him and left him to bury the body.

It is thought that the trigger for the revelation of the dreams was the arrest and subsequent transportation of "Beauty" Smith. Ann Martin believed that Corder was responsible for Smith's arrest and the invention of the dreams became her method of revenge. "There can be no denying that Corder was guilty, but technically he may not have been the murderer." What was however probably the greatest irony in the whole case was summed up by "Beauty" Smith in Tasmania when he said "Corder had suffered a grave miscarriage of justice, but if he had escaped the gallows on a murder charge he would eventually gone to his doom on an indictment of forgery". In those days, forgery too was a capital offence.


The Playbill image from the Britannia Theatre is copyright and have been supplied by Special Collections, Templeman Library, University of Kent. We thank the librarian for permission to reproduce it here.


1. Tod Slaughter: Actor: Tod Slaughter at
2. Murder In The Red Barn (1935): DVD at
3. Curtis, James: "The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten". William Clowes (1828)
4. The Red Barn at Polstead: on Wikipedia Commons
5. The Newgate Calender: William Corder
6. Ghost of Maria Marten: The Red Barn story on Wikipedia Commons
7. Murder at Polstead: The Times, April 28th 1828
8. Images from The Red Barn Murder: St Edmunds Borough Council, West Suffolk
9. Nessworthy, Linda: "Murdering Maria: The Life & Trial of William Corder. The Red Barn Murderer": Malinda Publishing, Great Yarmouth (1999)
10. McCormick, Donald: "The Red Barn Mystery, Some new evidence on an old murder " John Long, London (1967)

Carol Hutton

Carol Hutton

Linda Turner

Linda Turner

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Added April 9th 2007
Last updated: March 18th 2012

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