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 everyone's lips.
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 Polstead.
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 pistol.
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?