Foxy Corder was a born philanderer and a petty criminal; always running after the ladies in the village and selling pigs that weren’t even his. This is his story, a true crime, set in the village of Polstead, England. The year of misadventure; 1827.
Little Maria Marten, daughter of the local mole catcher, was with child and all thanks to Foxy, or give him his proper name, William Corder. Maria wasn’t too worried as she had a few things on Foxy that she could use and make him marry her. Things that the constable would like to know. Such as him stealing her money that she got every quarter from the conscientious father of her only surviving illegitimate child. She’d had three so far, one from Foxy’s older brother, and another one from Foxy himself. Both babies had died.
“I’m not getting married, Maria! I’m too young and carefree. And anyway, I’m the son of a farmer of 400 acres. What am I doing marrying the mole catcher’s daughter? Don’t make me laugh!”
“My step mother says I am an elegant young lady and I can read and write!”
Maria informed Foxy that they were getting married or else he might find himself on a convict ship bound for the antipodes. “That’s what happens to thieves!”
“Well, you'll be in a pickle yourself, two dead children and one at school and no husband in sight. And how are we going to explain about where we buried the baby?”
Maria went pale and said not a word.
“You remember. The baby that “died” and we took her to Ipswich to bury her, but she ended up in a field on the way.”
Maria’s hands shook. “She was very sickly.”
Foxy Corder was in a bind. Too many secrets and too much trouble. But he wasn’t called Foxy for nothing. He had quite the foxy little plan. He flung himself onto his knees before Maria (in front of her stepmother) and proclaimed his love.
“Come with me to Ipswich! We'll marry and live a long and merry life! Make haste my love for the church constable is looking for me. He says I have led you astray. And he's also coming to get you too, because you are an immoral woman! Come to my old red barn tonight. We'll meet up there and we’ll drive up to Ipswich in my chaise, as fast as I can crack the whip.”
“So romantic,” chuckled Maria’s stepmother. Nice catch for Maria, she thought, and after all, good to get rid of her. The girl was quite a bit of trouble sleeping her way around the village. Not like her nice sister Ann. Stepmother never had a good feeling about Maria. Something always felt a bit ‘off’.
That evening, it was Friday, May 18th, 1827, Maria, disguised as a man to escape notice, flitted down the country lane by the light of the waning moon. Just like a ghost. She would never been seen alive again.
A time went by and Corder was back in Polstead.
“Where’s Maria?” everyone wanted to know.
“We got married and she’s in Ipswich."
“But why didn’t she come with you? And why doesn’t she write.”
“Poor girl’s hurt her hand. Don’t worry yourselves. We’re nicely married and moving to the Isle of Wight. It’s a long way I know, and I don’t think we’ll see any of you for a longish time.”
Foxy left the village for good, he said. Still no word from Maria. Now the family were worried. One night, Maria’s stepmother fell into a fitful sleep. In her dream she saw an apparition beside the bed. It was Maria. The ghost beckoned to her and stepmother followed. She found herself in the old red barn. There the ghost pointed to the ground and to bullet holes in the wall.
The next morning stepmother insisted Maria’s father, Thomas, take his shovel and find out what was buried in the barn. But he dismissed her request, called her fanciful. It took three nights of the same dream before Thomas gave in, grabbed his shovel, and away he went to the barn. On the very spot, indicated by the ghost, no more than a foot down, he found his daughter's body. She was dressed in her own clothes, except for her gown.
A postmortem was held at the Cock Inn and Maria’s sister Ann was brave enough to provide identification. The corpse was still wearing her lover Foxy’s green kerchief tied around her neck. She had been murdered.
Too bad for Corder, but he’d left an easy trail to London and two constables were soon able to sniff him out. He was running a young ladies’ “boarding house” with his new wife Mary Moore. He’d met Miss Moore through a personal ad in the paper, advertising for a wife. He’d really landed on his feet with her.
When he was arrested, he was in the middle of boiling eggs for breakfast for several young ladies who were still wearing their nighties. They had just got out of their beds.
Corder was put on trial in August 1828. The court room was crammed with visitors who’d come to town for the entertainment, to check out the crime scene, and be thrilled see the brute who had done it.
It was no surprise that Corder was found guilty even though he swore up and down he hadn’t done it. One moment he insisted Maria had committed suicide, the next it was an accident. Though obviously a pre-meditated one.
The sentenced was passed, “..go to a place of execution and there you be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized. And may the Lord God have mercy on your soul.”
Just before his hanging, Corder did confess to shooting Maria in the eye. By accident. He was a wreck, weeping and barely able to stand.
On August 11th, 1828, Corder was taken to the public gallows in Bury St Edmonds to be hanged in front of literally thousands of people. A hood was placed over his head, the noose came next, and then the drop opened. Corder swung. John Foxton, the hangman, yanked hard on Corder’s legs and it was over. It was the law that a body must hang for an hour before being cut down. John Foxton claimed Corder's trousers and stockings which was his perk on his job.
Corder's body was then slit open and the huge crowds eagerly filed past to view his insides.
The following day the body was dissected by doctors in front of students from Cambridge University. They experimented by attaching batteries to his limbs to enliven them and show how muscles contracted. After close examination of the skull, the doctors could easily tell that the shapes and bumps showed that Corder’s character traits were secretiveness, acquisitiveness, and destructiveness. As a hanged murderer, Corder had forfeited the right to be buried so interesting arrangements were made to deal with what was left of him.
Several death masks were made of him for display and his skin was tanned to use as the leather cover for a bound manuscript of the whole sorry tale. The skeleton was used as a teaching aid at the local hospital though the skull was eventually buried as it was believed to be cursed. It was apparently causing as much trouble as the later curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb caused over a century later.
And yet, what a money maker the crime became! Expensive tickets to attend the trial; souvenirs of the day such as pieces of the rope used to hang Corder were selling at a guinea a foot (about five dollars); his body parts were sold; as were bits of the gallows; and donations were accepted for viewing his skeleton. Even Mary Martin’s gravestone was chipped away by souvenir hunters until there was nothing left of it at all. And as for the old red barn, it fell down as a result of the macabre helping themselves to the planking and supports.
Maria and The Red Barn and the Trial of William Corder was a story that gripped the imagination of the country and inspired plays, novels, ballads and figurines for years. Five movies have been made, the last one by the BBC just in 1980. This story has every ingredient; romance, horror, tragedy, black humour, mystery, suspense - you name it. Netflix couldn't make it up.
I'll leave you with this ditty from a folk song in the 1820s.
“If you'll meet me at the Red Barn
As sure as I have life
I will take you to Ipswich Town
And there make you my wife.”
This lad went home and fetched his gun,
His pick-axe and his spade.
He went unto the Red Barn
And there he dug her grave.