Murder in the Red Barn: The Crime Solved by a Dream

William Corder
William Corder
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ann Marten was tired of the awful dream. Twice now she’d woken after terrible visions of her stepdaughter, Maria, dead and buried under the dusty floor of a barn a half-mile from the cottage Ann shared with her husband, Thomas, in Polstead, England. At first, Ann believed that it was just a bad nightmare—to interpret it otherwise was irrational claptrap—but when the dream returned, she started to have second thoughts.

One day, she approached Thomas and asked him to bring her some peace of mind. “I think, were I in your place, I would go and examine the Red Barn,” she suggested.

Bewildered, Thomas asked why.

“I have very frequently dreamed about Maria,” Ann said, “and twice before Christmas, I dreamed that Maria was murdered, and buried in the Red Barn.” She would have told him sooner, Ann explained, but was afraid he’d think she was superstitious.

The Red Barn was a prominent landmark in Polstead, a quaint corner of England’s Suffolk County countryside. Named for a unique red brick roof, the building on Barnfield Hill was the last known meeting place between Maria Marten and her lover, William Corder. The pair had used the barn as a rendezvous point before apparently eloping to Ipswich on May 18, 1827.

Maria’s family hadn’t heard from her in the 11 months since. The Martens often wrote letters to the couple, but Maria never responded. Whenever Corder returned to Polstead, he always offered a slew of excuses explaining why Maria wasn’t writing: She was busy, her mail must have gotten lost, she had injured her hand and couldn’t write back. He reassured them, however, that Maria was happy and basically fine.

But when his wife began having bad dreams, Thomas Marten decided to dutifully check the Red Barn for any indication of foul play. He puttered around the structure and carefully removed litter from the floor—and then noticed an unusual slump in the dirt. According to one account, Thomas, a mole-catcher by trade, began loosening the ground with a mole-catching spike and, upon lifting the tool, dredged up a chunk of rotting human flesh.

Thomas didn’t have to dig more than two feet to discover that his wife’s prophecy might be true: In a shallow hole lay a decomposed human skeleton wrapped in a sack. It had long hair and a green handkerchief around its neck.

Upon seeing the body, Thomas refused to dig any further. He started for home.

When he found his wife, Thomas asked if she recalled Maria wearing a handkerchief the day she ran off to elope—and, if so, what color it was.

Ann searched her memories and nodded. Maria had been wearing a bandana that William Corder had given her. “A green one,” she said.

 

William Corder was a troublemaker. The son of a wealthy farmer, the sly lady’s man (who went by the nickname Foxey) was known to forge checks and steal animals from neighboring farms. On one occasion, he kidnapped his father’s pigs and pocketed the money from the sale.

By some accounts, that was not the life the young man aspired to: Corder purportedly wanted to become a teacher or journalist, but when his father refused to financially support those endeavors, Corder instead sustained his bank account with the fruits of petty crime.

Whatever Corder’s motivations, none of that mattered to his paramour Maria Marten, a 24-year-old single mother. Her first child (whose father was Corder’s older brother) had died early, but her second child (born to a member of the gentry who had no interest in marrying the daughter of a lowly mole-catcher) was still alive. This second father regularly sent money to help the child, but was otherwise absent from Maria’s life. So when William Corder returned to Polstead to help his family’s farm in 1825, Maria quickly fell for the wily smooth-talker.

After all, Corder showed that he could handle some responsibility. The same year he came back to town, his father died and two of his brothers became permanently hobbled by tuberculosis, leaving young Corder as one of the last able-bodied men in the family capable of running the farm. Around the time he assumed these duties, a romance between him and Maria began to blossom.

William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
William Corder, his lover Maria Marten, and Marten's son Thomas Henry Marten, circa 1827
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

At first, the couple tried to keep their relationship secret, but life had other plans. In 1826, Maria became pregnant for a third time. Corder proposed that they marry shortly after the infant was born.

Tragically, only two weeks after its birth, the baby died in Maria’s arms. Maria’s father and stepmother carefully placed the lifeless infant in a box and wrapped it in a napkin. Corder promised to bury it somewhere safe.

Corder also promised that he still wanted to marry Maria, child or not. There was just one stipulation, he said: It had to happen soon. According to Corder, rumors were floating that the constable was going to punish Maria for having a third child out of wedlock. Called bastardy, the crime was punishable by public whipping.

In other words, they had to elope.

Around noon on May 18, 1827, Corder ran to the Marten cottage and told Maria that it was time to go. The constable, he said, was prepared to arrest her at any moment. Maria began to sob. Meanwhile, Maria’s sister, Ann, noticed that the young man was carrying a gun. “[He] told me not to meddle with it, as it was loaded,” she’d recall.

To avoid capture, Corder told Maria to dress in disguise and handed her a men’s waistcoat, a hat, a pair of trousers, and a green bandana. He placed the rest of her clothes in a bag and told her to meet him at the Red Barn down the road, where she could get dressed in her own clothing. Afterward, they’d flee to Ipswich and get married.

Corder then slipped out the front door, and Maria—in male costume—left out the back. She was never seen again.

Eleven months after she left, the police found William Corder married to a different woman and running a boarding school for girls in west London. When the police accosted him, they asked if he had ever known a woman by the name of Maria Marten.

“I never knew any such person even by name,” he responded.

 

Immediately, the crime captured people’s attention and imaginations: Here was the story of a poor country girl, a single mother no less, who was seduced and fooled by a wealthy cad who lured her to her death with the promise of marriage. No less amazing was the fact that the poor woman’s body was purportedly discovered thanks to a dream. For newspapers, the story was pure catnip.

“I never knew or heard of a case in my life which abounded with so many extraordinary incidents as the present,” M. Wyatt, a magistrate, explained at the time. “It really appears more like a romance than a tale of common life.”

Within days of the body’s discovery, Polstead became a bustling place “literally crowded with strangers from all parts of the adjacent country, for the news of this appalling discovery had ere this reached the remotest parts of the kingdom,” the journalist J. Curtis reported in his contemporaneous book, An Authentic And Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten.

In fact, as Corder sat in jail, Polstead would hold its most well-attended summer fair in ages, with amusements that included roving ballad singers and theatrical productions, all telling sensationalized versions of the Red Barn murder story.

By the start of Corder’s trial in early August, the whole country was familiar with the twisted story. Thousands of people flocked to Polstead to witness the proceedings, and nearly all of the inns and public houses in the county ran out of rooms. (The day before the trial, many visitors had no beds to sleep in at all.) Demand to watch the proceedings was high enough that tickets were required.

A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
A circa 1828 pamphlet containing details of the "horrid murder" of Maria Marten committed by William Corder in the ‘Red Barn’ at Polsted, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The crowd outside the courthouse numbered in the thousands. The scene was so jammed that the ticket-taker—even members of the court—had trouble reaching the front door. When the sheriff’s carriage arrived, it couldn’t squeeze through the crowd. The Lord Chief Baron had to be “carried off his legs on his way from his carriage to the bench,” Curtis writes. It was mayhem.

“Counsellors, magistrates, jurors, &c. &c. were wedged together, and two of the former gentlemen had their forensic wigs hooked off, and one was actually ungowned. Some lost their hats, some their pocket-books, and others their money—and not a few the lappets of their coats," according to Curtis.

Once everybody who could fit in the courthouse was settled, the counts against William Corder—all 10 of them, which included shooting, stabbing, and strangulation—were read. A model of the Red Barn was placed on a table in the courtroom and the Counsel for the Crown began to make its case against the young farmer.

The evidence certainly seemed damning. Maria’s stepmother was in the room when Corder and Maria had made plans to meet at the Red Barn. At the coroner’s inquest held shortly after the body was discovered, the constable denied ever telling Corder he had a warrant out for Maria’s arrest. Corder had waffled constantly whenever asked about Maria’s whereabouts. And in Corder’s London residence, police had found a French passport—a suspicious indication that he might have been planning to flee the country.

In a trembling voice, Corder defended his name and blamed the press for slandering his reputation and sealing his fate. Reading from a written statement, he declared: “By that powerful engine, the press, which regulates the opinion of so many persons in this country, and which is too often, I fear, though unintentionally, the slanderer and destroyer of innocence, I have had the misfortune to be depicted in the most humiliated and revolting characters! I have been described by that press as the most depraved of human monsters.”

Corder went on to claim that he had indeed argued with Maria in the Red Barn, but he did not kill her—rather, she had shot and killed herself. The young man claimed he had panicked and had “buried Maria as well as I was able.”

The jury deliberated for just 35 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty. Corder nearly wilted to the floor as the judge read his sentence.

The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
The execution of William Corder at the gallows in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“My advice to you is, not to flatter yourself with the slightest hope of mercy on earth …” the judge said. “That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be Hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!”

Days later, on August 11, 1828, a crowd of at least 7000 people gathered around the gallows and watched a visibly weak Corder step upon the scaffold. Earlier that week, he had confessed to a prison chaplain, claiming that he and Maria had gotten into an argument—possibly about their dead baby, who had never received a proper Christian burial—and had accidentally shot her in the face during a scuffle.

As Corder stared out at the crowd, the air fell still. “I am guilty—” he said, quivering. “My sentence is just—I deserve my fate—and may God have mercy upon me!”

A cap was then draped over his face, a rope was tied around his neck, and gravity did the rest.

 

William Corder’s corpse swung gently in the wind for an hour before being taken down and placed in a nearby hall, where the county surgeon sliced into the chest and folded back the skin to display the muscles of the chest. Then the doors were opened to the public. Thousands of spectators marched single-file to gawk at Corder’s remains.

The following day, the body became the centerpiece of an autopsy attended by doctors and medical students from across the county. Corder’s organs were removed and inspected and his body stripped of its skin, which was tanned and wrapped around the cover of a book chronicling his misdeeds.

In 1846, Punch magazine would cynically joke that “Murder is, doubtless, a very shocking offence; nevertheless, as what is done is not to be undone, let us make our money out of it.” Indeed, over the next century, the Red Barn murder continued to fascinate the public, becoming a profitable cottage industry for artists and entertainers, who wrote songs, poems, plays, and cheap penny-dreadfuls about the incident. One particular broadside, published by the printer James Catnach, sold more than a million copies.

A bust of William Corder
A bust of William Corder
St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, Moyse's Hall

Polstead would become a macabre pilgrimage site, where tourists—some 200,000 people are said to have visited the town in 1828 alone—eventually stripped the Red Barn bare. (The wood was reportedly sold as toothpicks.) Even poor Maria Marten’s Polstead resting place suffered from the grubby hands of souvenir-hunters, who mercilessly chipped away at her gravestone until it was little more than a stump.

Interest in the murder was so great that little physical evidence of the grisly happening remains. The book bound in Corder’s skin, however, is still stored at Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. And the Cock Inn, where Polstead’s coroner carried out his inquest to identify the skeleton of Maria Marten, is still in operation. If you visit and grab a pint, you just may hear people singing an eerie ballad that is now canon.

Come all you bold young thoughtless men, a warning take by me;
And think of my unhappy fate, to be hanged upon the tree.
My name is William Corder, to you I do declare
I courted Maria Marten, most beautiful and fair.
I promised I would marry her upon a certain day,
Instead of that, I was resolved to take her life away.
I went into her father’s house the 18th of May,
Saying, my dear Maria, we will fix the wedding day.
If you will 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;
I then went home and fetched my gun, my pickaxe and my spade,
I went into the Red Barn, and there I dug her grave.

The Medieval Woman Who Made a Living Pretending to be Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Joan of Arc as painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It didn’t take long after Joan of Arc was executed in May 1431 for the rumors to start. Although plenty of witnesses watched as she was burned at the stake in the marketplace in Rouen, France, Joan’s status as a revered military and religious figure seemingly encouraged people to believe that she hadn’t actually died.

Joan’s executioners anticipated this. After her body was burned, they raked back the coals to prove that she was dead, then set her remains aflame twice more. Finally, they threw the charred results in the Seine to prevent relics from being collected.

But in a country grieving a national heroine, the idea that Joan had escaped death persisted.

At first, a story circulated among the populace that someone else had been burned in her place and that the real Joan had fled. Others said it was Joan in the flames, but she’d been spared by God and escaped. Within a few years, women began to appear around France pretending to be Joan, or at the very least acting as if they were "inspired" by her. They claimed prophecies and visions, and collected gifts and attention, though in most cases their ruse didn't last long.

By far the most famous, and successful, was a woman whose real name was Claude des Armoises. Her ploy would last four years. It earned her a great deal of cash—and almost ensnared the King of France himself.

The False Maid

Claude is said to have begun her career in deception by posing as a male solider in Pope Eugene IV’s army, where she killed two men in fighting around 1435 during a rebellion in Rome. The next year, she started laying the groundwork for her Joan of Arc scheme.

She began with the real Joan’s family: In May 1436, she met Joan’s brothers, Pierre and Jean, and convinced them that she was their departed sister—or at least, got them to publicly agree to the idea. Claude is said to have strongly resembled Joan, and it's possible the men were blinded enough by grief to think that Claude was really their kin. As the 19th-century French writer Anatole France described the scenario, "They believed, because they wished to believe." But other scholars note the brothers may also have agreed to the deceit because they knew there was money to be made.

Claude did her research: She cut her hair short and frequently wore men’s clothes, like the real Joan. She almost always spoke in Christian parables, which lent a mystical, legendary quality to her image—and also effectively clouded facts. After all, you wouldn’t want to disturb a poetic, holy anecdote by asking for clarification.

All of this worked. When the brothers d’Arc brought their so-called sister to meet some noblemen, the men were so impressed they provided her with a horse, a hooded cloak, and a sword. The 19th-century French historian Jules Quicherat noted that she rode the horse expertly, lending even more credence to her story (not just any peasant girl could ride a horse, while Joan had relied on hers during battle). The group then visited towns across the northeast of France, collecting horses and jewels along the way. Upon arriving in Arlon, the party was deluged with more gifts by the Duchess of Luxembourg, and the group set up camp there.

In this way, Claude and her supposed siblings traveled around the continent living the good life at other people’s expense during the summer of 1436. Princess Elizabeth de Luxembourg and Duchess Elisabeth von Görlitz in particular were great benefactors of the three, while the Comte de Virnenbourg was said to have fallen in love with Claude (as Joan). He even made her the head of a military unit he sent to Cologne to provide support for a candidate for the bishopric of Trier.

But in Cologne, things turned sour. The 15th-century Dominican friar Johannes Nider described her activities: "There was a young woman, who from time to time took on the behavior of a male, and who was running around armed and with wildly flowing clothes, as soldiers in the pay of a nobleman do." What's worse, Nider said, "She also let herself be seen dancing with men. And she used to drink and to carouse."

In other words, her behavior was beginning to attract the wrong kind of attention.

It didn't help that Claude sometimes performed minor feats of magic: tearing a large cloth and then making it whole again, or smashing a glass against the wall and somehow restoring it to one piece. An inquisitor in Cologne, suspecting witchcraft, began an investigation and sent men to fetch her, but she escaped with help from the Comte de Virnenbourg. The inquisitor responded by excommunicating her—for witchcraft, wearing men's clothes, and supporting the wrong candidate for the bishopric.

But Claude, or Joan, was relatively safe in France—at least for the time being. She married a knight, Robert des Armoises, and is said to have born him two sons. In 1439 she turned up in Orléans, the site of Joan’s renowned siege, where she was celebrated with a series of lavish suppers and a gift of cash, in honor of "the good she had done for the city during the siege," according to the town's records.

But by then, Claude must have been getting nervous. She left early from a dinner in Orléans, one source notes, "As the wine drawn for her was drunk, in her absence, by Jean Luilier, the very tailor who had made clothes for the true Maid [Joan of Arc] in 1429. Possibly the false Maid fled from a misgiving as to an encounter with her tailor, who of all men would have been able to detect an imposture."

The net was starting to close in. A few months after her lavish dinner in Orléans, Claude was finally called to meet King Charles VII himself.

The Secret Sign

The French king had heard about this alleged Joan, but he was suspicious. So he decided to set up a test for her.

At the palace, Claude was met by a man claiming to be the king, while the real Charles watched from afar. But Claude knew—perhaps from royal gossip—that the real king wore a soft boot on his ulcerated leg, which this man did not. She called his bluff, going to the true king instead.

Charles was astounded. Saluting her, he said, “You are welcome back, in the name of God, who knows the secret that is between us.”

At this, Claude fell to her knees. She knew that she didn't know the king's secret, and confessed to being an imposter.

We don’t know what the secret was either, except that it was a reference to a clandestine sign that Joan of Arc and Charles shared when they first met in 1429, and which had to do with his legitimacy to the throne. Historians have long debated what this sign may have been; little seems clear except that whatever it was, it helped the real Joan earn the king's trust.

Claude was exposed at last. But she and Joan's brothers weren't punished for their lies; instead, Claude was sent back to her husband in Jaulny to live out the rest of her life.

Afterlives

Claude was not the first false Joan, and she wouldn't be the last. Years after Claude confessed, a woman named Jeanne la Féronne appeared and began claiming to be the Maid of Orléans. She didn't last long as long as Claude, and was soon sent to the pillory for false revelations.

As for how all these women managed to pull the wool over a gullible public's eyes, the scholar Dick Berents writes, "it was apparently extremely difficult to obtain certainty about anything in 15th-century society, even about a person's death." Furthermore, he theorizes, when a popular figure dies violently, it can be hard for their followers to adjust. "People would rather believe that a person continues to live," he notes.

About 15 years later, in July 1456—a few years after the Hundred Years’ War finally ended—a retrial declared the real Joan of Arc innocent and annulled her sentence. She would be made a saint in 1920, and remains the only person in history to be both condemned and canonized by the Catholic Church.

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

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