Bust of William Corder

The Red Barn Murder

The Exhibits

Corder's bust

Moyse's Hall holds a copy of William Corder's death bust, now one of Bury's star attractions. It was kept for many years at the old West Suffolk Hospital. Offered to the museum, it was rejected by the then curator as "too macabre" and thrown away. A passer-by rescued it from the rubbish tip. He offered it to a later, less squeamish, curator, who gladly accepted.

People often comment on the bust's apparently negroid features. These are a side effect of the hanging. Corder's head was engorged with blood, as the prominent veins suggest and the autopsy report confirms. As far as we know, Corder was of Suffolk stock.

The bust was made by Mr. Child of Bungay, a well-known Suffolk printer who also had a talent for making death masks and busts. He sent a copy to a noted phrenologist, Dr. Spurzheim, who read its bumps in order to understand Corder's character. The report, unlike the pseudo-science of phrenology, still survives.

Dr Spurzheim's report.

" I had great pleasure in finding, on my return from Paris, the cast of the murderer Corder, which you were so kind as to send for my collection, and for which I give you my best thanks.
" Corder's cranium requires some close knowledge of the brain to be judged of with accuracy. The distance between the cerebellum and the posterior lobes of the brain (on the conical protuberance of the occiput), and the separation between the two hemispheres of the brain, are considerable; the former presenting an elevation, the latter a groove: the size of the whole head is middling. Among the animal feelings, acquisitiveness, secretiveness, and combativeness predominate; amativeness and philoprogenitiveness, destruc-tiveness and cautiousness come next; love of approbation and adhesiveness follow ; finally, inhabitiveness and self-esteem are very small. In the sincipital region, marvellousness and imitation are the largest; then comes hope, afterwards follow benevolence, veneration, and ideality: firmness and conscientiousness are very small. It is remarked, that the large organs of marvellousness and imitation may be confounded by beginners in phrenology with that of benevolence ; but the error may be avoided by reflecting that the organ of benevolence lies in the middle line, and is in the immediate line with comparison. On the other hand, the most, elevated spot on Corder's head cannot be taken for veneration, since the protuberance extends laterally and forwards, which veneration never does. The whole of the intellectual region on the forehead is very small. The organs of individuality, tune, and language, predominate; the organs of the reflective powers are very small; the natural moral character of such a head is formed by animal feelings, deprived of self-esteem, firmness, conscientiousness, and reflection, and very little assisted by benevolence, veneration, and ideality-
his internal monitor, therefore, is quite wanting. Marvellousness and hope influenced his religious opinions, while the morality of his actions is overlooked. I should like to know some particulars of Corder's private life-concerning his large tune and imitation ; whether and how they have been active for themselves, or in combination with amativeness, * * * secretiveness, and acquisitiveness. The great development of this marvellousness, too, excites my phrenological curiosity: if you can satisfy it, you will bestow a new favour

" Upon your obliged,

"To Mr Child, Bungay. "

Corders Scalp Corder's scalp

Corder's corpse was dissected at the West Suffolk Hospital. The surgeon, George Creed, kept and preserved the scalp, with the right ear attached. He also retained and tanned a part of the skin.

Stubble can still be seen on the scalp, giving rise to tales that Corder's hair grew mysteriously after his death. The truth is more prosaic. After shaving, a small length of the hair shaft remained below the skin. The scalp shrank during the tanning process, but the hair was not affected and protruded above the surface.

The Book

Click to view Creed's inscription.

Click to view anecdote.

The book bound in Corder's skin

Visitors to the museum often ask to see the bible bound in Corder's skin. We don't have one - but his skin was used to bind a book. It is a copy of Curtis's account of the murder, and once belonged to George Creed, the surgeon who conducted the dissection. Creed inscribed it thus:

"The Binding of this book is the skin of the Murderer William Corder taken from his body and tanned by myself in the year 1828. George Creed Surgeon to the Suffolk Hospital"

The book also contains a handwritten anecdote which shows the public interest in the story. It reads

' "Is execution done on Cawder (sic)?" Macbeth. / Drury Lane Theatre : Night of the Execution of W. Corder .. / When this line was repeated, a man from the Gallery exclaimed. / "Yes! - He was hung this morning at Bury" / Anecdote told to the Rev. J.M. Bellew (?) [name unclear] / by William Charles Macready / Bury - April 4 18(4?)5 (date unclear) '

Maria Marten's irons

The museum has two small flat irons thought to have belonged to Maria Marten. Did she use these very items to iron her clothes before she left home for the last time?

Mole Spud Mole spud

This is said to have belonged to Thomas Marten, Maria's father. Probing the floor of the Red Barn with the mole spud, he found the patch of loose earth where the body was buried. Only the metal parts survive.

An essential tool for a molecatcher, the molespud consisted of a wooden shaft with a metal point at one end and a small metal spade, about 3inches (8cm) wide at the other. It was used to find mole runs and dig out moles.

Snuff Box

Relic of the Red Barn

Such was the notoriety of the murder that even before the trial, sightseers were making their way to Polstead in droves. This was no mean achievement, since there were few good roads and no railways. Most visited the Red Barn. Many of them broke off pieces for souvenirs. This piece, turned into a shoe-shaped snuff box, is a rare survival.

A drawing of the Red Barn printed in the 'Essex Herald' at the time of the trial shows most of the wooden cladding missing from the lower walls.

The following extract from The Times tells of the exploits of the souvenir hunters.

THE RED BARN AT POLSTEAD. --- This place, which at the time the horrid murder was committed there was in a good state of repair, is now, from motives of curiosity, almost torn to pieces. A man has been dierected to be constantly there to see that the barn is not further injured : one side, to the height of five or six feet, is nearly gone : and the barn corn-room, &c., can be as easily entered from the holes made as by the doors. The bays are both cleared, and the "grave" is still left open to inspection. A short time before the man in question came to the barn, a person had been seen passing through Polstead with a bundle of boards from the barn, observing, it was his intention to take them to London to make a variety of articles for sale as curiosties ! The barn, though such a report had gone afloat, is not to be pulled down after the trial, as convenience renders it necessary to have a barn and cattle sheds there, and such a measure would only incur the expense of re-building one on that or nearly the same spot. - Suffolk Herald

"The Times" 31st July 1828.
The paragraph first appeared in the "Suffolk Herald".

The Pistols Pistols

For some reason Corder did not dispose of the murder weapon. Constable Lea reported that he found a pair of pistols made by Harcourt of Ipswich in Corder's house at the time of the arrest. They were in a reticule (a small bag) which had belonged to Maria. The pistols were used as exhibits at the trial. In order to prevent anyone from grabbing and using them in court, the hammers were crudely broken off.

For those interested in firearms, they are percussion boxlock pocket pistols made by Harcourt of Ipswich. They have round screw barrels 1 9/16ths inches long, Birmingham proof, .460 calibre, with plain slab butts, marked HARCOURT on the left side of the action and IPSWICH on the right. Overall length is 6 1/4 inches. One has been strongly marked by twisting in a vice and the tip of the frizzen has been chipped. This pistol has a sliding safety catch to the rear of the hammer, a feature not present on the other, though its butt has been recessed to admit one.

The pistols' 'top-hat' ignition system is of particular interest. It dates to about 1825 and is rarely found on pistols. A hinged cover descends to hold a 'top-hat' shaped cap in place on the nipple. At first glance the pistols appear to be conversions. The frizzen has been retained to make up the hinged cover, and the overall appearance is that of a flintlock. However, the nipple lies too far back to have been placed in the vent of a flinter and it is quite likely that the pistols were made with the latest ignition system but used parts originally intended for flintlock weapons.

John Harcourt of Ipswich was in business from 1792-1839. He died at the age of 79 in 1846. It is not known whether he was related to the Sudbury gunmaker Henry Harcourt.

Corder told the arresting constable that he had bought the pistols when he was ten years old. The Coroner observed that the detonating principle was a much more recent invention. Much was made about the pistols at the trial. Evidence was given by Henry Harcourt, the Sudbury gunmaker (in business from before 1825 until 1868). He related that Corder took a pair of percussion pistols to his premises in Sudbury for repair in February 1827, but was not able to say if the court exhibits were the same ones. He stated that percussion pistols had been in vogue for seven or eight years.

During the trial Corder maintained that Maria had committed suicide with one of his pistols. She knew he had them, and that he kept them loaded in his bedroom. She had been with him when he collected them from Henry Harcourt's, a fact which Harcourt's evidence helped corroborate. Maria's stepmother testified that she had seen Corder snapping his pistols into the fireplace at the Martens' cottage, and that on the day Maria left home Corder had his pistols with him and that they were loaded.

The fatal bullet was not in the body, nor could it be found in the grave or the barn. A bullet from the reticule fitted the wound. In his statement, Lawton, the surgeon who had first examined the body said "a pistol ball had entered the neck of the deceased about the jugular, and that it took an oblique direction to the eye on the opposite side of the head." He then produced Maria's head to the court's great consternation. A second surgeon, Nairn later wrote that the wound in the face would not have been sufficient to cause death, and that he was fully convinced that "more than the pistol was used in despatching the unfortunate girl." Corder was reputedly a good shot, but very short sighted. With their short barrels, the pistols would have made them low-powered and inefficient. To hit anyone with them it would have been necessary to fire point-blank. This could have happened had there been a struggle as Corder later claimed. It could also have been a deliberate act.

Corder's Death Mask Death mask

The death mask in Moyse's Hall is a copy, made in 1945, of an original in Norwich Castle Museum. The mould for the original was made by a Mr. Mazzotti of Cambridge at the same time that Child took moulds of Corder's head for the bust.

"John Bull"

"John Bull" was a popular periodical. The issue for April 27th 1828 carries two reports of Corder's arrest, and shows the depth of public interest even at this early stage in the story.

View report 1

View report 2

Copies of 'The Times'

The museum is lucky to have copies of most of the issues of the "Times" which cover the Red Barn story.

Broadsheet Broadsheets

After the trial and execution, several publishers brought out broadsheets which sold at a penny (1d) each, to cash in on the murder when public interest was at its greatest. They tell the story in varying amounts of detail. One or two even include a poem, purporting to be by Corder himself, warning others not to imitate his deed and thereby avoid his fate. Large numbers, perhaps around a million, were sold.

Staffordshire pottery model Red Barn Staffordshire pottery model

The Staffordshire potteries produced souvenirs for all occasions. The Red Barn Murder was no exception. Model Red Barns, even miniatures of Corder and Maria were eagerly bought.

"Corder's Sword" Prosecutors at the trial tried to prove that Corder had stabbed Maria. They showed that he owned a short sword, which he had had sharpened in Hadleigh shortly before the murder. Corder consistently denied that he had stabbed Maria.

For many years the museum an item labelled "William Corder's Sword" was displayed in Moyse's Hall, alongside its sheath. Stains on the blade were even claimed to be her blood. Closer examination showed that the "sword" is a carving knife and the stains are rust, not blood. The sheath, from an entirely different knife, does not even fit properly. Since its authenticity is very doubtful, the sword is no longer on show.

Go to Red Barn Homepage Return to First topic - Introduction to the Red Barn Created 9 July 2001 by St Edmundsbury Museums Staff
Last updated 27 December 2006
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