A write-up on this subject has been on my site that deals with my work as an artist and writer, because I’ve been sporadically researching it as a potential new film project. I’m repeating and expanding it here because I think the subject is interesting in its own right. It’s another in my series of Suffolk weirdnesses; see also Ipswich smells like space and my visit to the weapons research facility at Orford Ness.
In May 1827, Maria Marten was shot to death by the father of her child, William Corder, at a farm near Polstead in Suffolk. This was and is a bucolic location whose appearance can be judged from the many paintings done of the area by the Suffolk painter John Constable, he of ‘The Hay Wain’, who focused his attention only a few miles east at Dedham and East Bergholt. The illegitimate child had already been disposed of secretly by Marten and Corder. William buried Maria in a shallow grave in a barn on his tenant farm, where she was found accidentally nearly a year later by her own father after he ”put down a mole spike into the floor… and brought up something black, which I smelt and thought it smelt like decayed flesh.” Corder had fled to London, but was eventually caught and hanged.
What makes this typically sordid and revolting murder different from others committed before it is that “The Murder in the Red Barn“ was one of the first whose details were promulgated and elaborated by sensational media reporting of the kind that subsequently became the norm throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and into the 21st, leading to public hysteria and wild overestimations of how widespread murder and violent crime actually are in Britain.*
Britain already had a long history of broadsheets and ballads about crime, strange events, politics and other ”news”, but these were essentially free-floating fictions loosely inspired by real events if they were about real events at all. It was the 19th century’s nascent mass media that really spun fact into entertainment for the masses, and initiated the “based on a true story” genre with sensationalised incidents like the Red Barn murder. The trial of Corder was an entertainment spectacle and so was his death by hanging, which was attended by about 7,000 people in the otherwise rural and uneventful market town of Bury St. Edmunds. The town museum has a display dedicated to Corder and the murder.
The barn was broken up to for mementos (what we would now call merchandising); Corder’s clothes, the rope used to hang him and even his skin were also sold off as ghoulish souvenirs. The story of Maria’s murder was spun off in fictionalised form into novels, stage melodramas, songs and- most bizarrely of all, from a contemporary perspective- puppet shows for working class children to watch in the sleazy urban “gaffs” that specialised in such things at the time. The Staffordshire pottery set, of which one piece or “episode” is shown at the top of the page, was another example of these cash-ins. Incidentally, the “Red Barn” is obviously redolent of blood and murder but in fact most barns in Suffolk were traditionally painted red, although the particular one at Polstead wasn’t. It was named for the red tile seen here on the left of the picture (erroneously painted grey, and the barn itself red). The design of the barn is accurately rendered, though:
I’m particularly interested in this story because it’s local and somewhat folkloric to where I grew up in Suffolk (in the east of England), so it’s a great opportunity to work with the aesthetics and sensibility of the early part of the 19th century, and also with the now mostly lost imagery and culture of rural East Anglia in that period. The story has continued to bounce through popular culture, with particular bizarre incarnations as a sentimental 1935 film and as a song by Tom Waits.
* NOTE: Murder by strangers, overkill violence, desecrations of victims’ bodies and serial killings play a huge part in the fictional (and tabloid… also kind of fictional) imagination, but they are extremely rare and they have been so for many centuries. The overwhelming majority of homicides, rapes, and sexual abuse in developed countries are committed within families or stable relationships by individuals very well known to the victims, and there is no question about who committed the crime or why. There are more people in the world than ever before, and so there are likely to be more psychopaths on Earth than ever before, but sex murders, serial killing, and sickening predators attacking the vulnerable are unfortunately nothing new.
Jack the Ripper is folkloric because most prostitutes aren’t slashed to pieces by their clients. Fanny Adams entered English idiom in the 1860s first as a sardonic and deeply unpleasant synonym for cheap meat precisely because most little girls are not lured away with sweets by strangers to be raped, decapitated, dismembered and strewn across so many fields that it takes several days even to find all the pieces of her. There is no prosaic reference point for it. It’s uniquely horrifying because it is vanishingly unlikely to ever happen. On a related subject, “Sweet Fanny Adams” or “sweet FA” was used and still is occasionally used in the UK to mean “nothing worth mentioning” because the letters “FA” can also be taken to mean fuck all. Hardly anybody still knows to what or to whom the phrase was originally referring. Do any non-English speakers of English use this phrase?