PAUL COLLINS

THE MOLECATCHER’S DAUGHTER

IN 1828 AN ECCENTRIC LONDON JOURNALIST CREATED MODERN CRIME REPORTING BY GETTING INSIDE A MURDERER’S SKIN… LITERALLY.

DISCUSSED: Mole-Spikes, The Crime Beat, The Edification of the Royal College of Surgeons, Encyclopedic Intimacy with London Streets, Puppet Reenactments of Grisly Murders, The Wondrous Sagacity of Dreams, Dressing in the Clothes of Your Dead Lover, Private Mail Shamelessly Plundered, Medical Dissection, The Black Coif Cap, Murder as Entertainment, Regency-Era Life, Anthropodermic Bindings, Braces of Pistols

The letters arrived in the winter of 1827 at Mr. Foster’s shop on Leadenhall Street, dozens of them written in the careful quill-scratches of women from across London. Outside the wax seals bore the usual array of signets and intricate floral patterns; inside they concealed the usual bouquet of lavender fragrance, of banal sentiment, of coy subterfuge, of naked honesty.

There were those that immediately cut to the matter at hand: “I propose meeting you tomorrow at twelve o’clock,” summoned one, “I shall be… distinguished by wearing a black gown, with a scarlet shawl, white handkerchief in my hand.” In another, a twenty-two-year-old orphan wasted no time. “You will favor me by calling to-morrow November 30th, between the hours of four and five,” she commanded. “Be punctual…”

But he was not punctual.

There were those, as always, who insisted they’d never done this before: “Now, I am not generally disposed to view advertisements of this description in a very favourable light, but…” one started. Some refused to describe themselves at all—“I say nothing of my personal appearance, as I propose ocular demonstration”—while others trustingly revealed themselves to him. “I am considered a pretty little figure,” wrote one. “Hair nut-brown, blue eyes, not generally considered plain, my age nearly twenty-five.”

But he did not care how they looked.

Others tried banter. “Although your advertisement reads very fair,” one teased, “there may be some little trick on your side.” Another poked at him that “I beg to answer your advertisement of last Sunday, but really think it nothing but a frolic…” Others, less confident, fumbled through misspellings and plainly bared their own desperation to him. “I think Providence as ordained that you and I shood come together,” an eighteen-year-old wrote hopefully, “for I am not very pleacntury situated myself…”

Words, words, words. It didn’t matter. They’d wait for him, he wouldn’t show up, and they’d walk home through the streets of London alone and disappointed—How? How could I be so stupid?—seared by having foolishly trusted their hopes to an unknown man.

The letters made for piteous reading, if only someone would read them. But Mr. Foster didn’t care: it wasn’t his job to care. They weren’t his letters. The missives arriving in his stationer’s shop were for a boarder who lived down the street, a supercilious young man who had advertised for matrimony in the Times under no name at all, save for two initials: A.Z. A day passed, then a week, then months, and soon Foster hardly noticed A.Z.’s pile of unopened letters. He was too busy selling his wares to Londoners, in any case: fine inlaid papers, linen envelopes, leather blotting cases, and weighty pewter inkstands. Some of the paper he sold might well have come right back into his shop, scribbled out into these hopeless missives. And, well—that was just good business, wasn’t it?

*

I’ve been having bad dreams, Thomas Marten’s wife said. Yes, yes.

Nightmares.

Very well.

I keep seeing her…

He was used to her complaining, of course. But lately she’d had stranger complaints than usual: grim and fantastical bad dreams. And that was a shame, but he had his own work to be doing. He went out to prepare for a day of his fated vocation in the little village of Polstead—for Thomas was the local molecatcher, no small job in a farming area of Suffolk—and he humored his wife’s premonition that he would find something in the barn across the field from their cottage. He cleared some old hay and debris from a floor in one corner: nothing there.

Or rather, something was not there: one patch lacked the tamped-down hardness of the rest of the floor. The soil felt a little loose. That seemed odd. Hefting up his mole-spike, he plunged it down into the dirt floor of his barn. It was… it was stuck. He pulled it back up, and a foul smell filled his nose. A dirty lump was impaled on the tip of his mole-spike, but it was not a mole. No, it was—something else. Flesh.

Thomas began to dig. The smell grew sharp and choking, and soil moist and foul below his digging hands. A form began to emerge: a rotting buried sack, a ridge of bone exposed in the dirt. A flap of rotted flesh. Teeth. A green scarf…. It didn’t make sense. How could it?

She was supposed to be in London….

*

The Sunday inquest was held in Polstead’s local pub, hardly an unusual choice for a small village in those days. This snug old building, where so many men and women of the village had contemplated their hard lives, would now serve for contemplating an even harder death. The inquest jury came in, sobered by what they’d just seen down in the barn—the body, stuffed head first into a sack, was all too easy to identify. The jury waited patiently as Thomas Marten, sitting in the bar and looking utterly stricken, recounted his story to coroner John Wayman.

“I am the father of Maria Marten,” he began, “who has had three illegitimate children, the last of which was by William Corder. I was not at home when she went away. I frequently saw Corder afterwards, and inquired about my daughter who he said was very well.”

The father labored under his grief in the dimly lit pub. Yes, the children were all accounted for, if you could call it that: one had miscarried, two had died in infancy, and another lived with a grandfather. So there was nobody watching out for Maria, exactly—nobody who relied upon her. But hadn’t he wondered why he never heard from his wayward girl in ten months, then?

“I asked him why she did not write,” the father admitted. “He accounted for it by saying that she had a sore hand. Another time he said, ‘She is so busy when I am with her that she has no time to write.’”

Busy? Oh yes—for Corder had told him that they’d gotten married.

There were already some newspaper reporters on hand, and their transcriptions in the pub continued undeterred by the father’s grief. Now here was a story: a local girl with a tarnished reputation—an offer of honorable marriage—then the family living unaware for nearly a year with her body underfoot, thinking all along she was living in London, and… The girl hadn’t even made it past the property line.

Everyone knew who’d done it. Corder used to drink in this very pub. In fact, come to think of it, when the fellow’s brother died last year under the ice of a local pond, that inquest was held in this very room. The suspect had sat here contemplating death before, and if the constable had anything to do with it he’d surely back here again. So the only real question left for reporters to wonder was: when would their colleague Jimmy show up?

*

James Curtis was part of the first generation of reporters to work what we now think of as the crime beat. Of course, criminal proceedings had always held a fascination for readers: ever since the 1600s there’d been a roaring market in broadsheets that relished the details of a crime and a malefactor’s bloody end, usually with a crude accompanying woodcut showing them dangling from a gallows. By 1774, these were gathered together in the immensely popular Newgate Calendar, which alternately moralized and tantalized with such tales as the Reverend James Hackman, who committed murder in 1779 out of his jealousy for a woman twice his age, and Elizabeth Brownrigg, a mother of sixteen children who slowly tortured a female apprentice to death and cut the girl’s tongue in half with scissors. Not only was Brownrigg executed in 1767, her flesh was cleaned right off her skeleton so that she might be exhibited for edification of the Royal College of Surgeons.

But one rarely gets a sense of visceral depravity from these writings: they are, in their way, as formulaic and preachy as a church hymn. The actual transcripts of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey are the closest to the reality of day-to-day crime. Take, for instance, this testimony in the January 11, 1753, murder of Matthew Macure:

Testimony of Matthew Macure, the namesake nephew of deceased.

Near eleven o’clock that night Mr. Meadows came into the yard very much in liquor as I thought, and said every stick and stone of this place is mine, and that son of a b—h, G—d d—n him, I’ll make him piss vinegar, and clapped himself by me on a bench at my door; by and by came the deceased up the yard; said Meadows, you little animal, you son of a b—h, what do you want here? said the deceased, I’ll let you know I have as much business here as you have, I am going to my brother’s. Meadows said he would send for a boy nine years old that shall kick your a—e.

Drunken carpenters, a dispute over property, some testifying neighbors sitting around in front of a shoemaker’s shop on Rosemary Lane: somewhere there seems to be an old disagreement over ten shillings involved. I will not even try to explain this particular case, not least because I suspect that every defendant, victim, and witness involved was smashed out of his mind on gin. At the time there was a 1:5 ratio of gin houses to residences in neighborhoods like Holborn, so it’s a fair chance that any dialogue from 1753 includes someone slurring. In any case, the accused was let off as not guilty, largely because the old lush’s death of internal bleeding three months later probably had nothing to do with his courtyard beating by the equally drunk Mr. Meadows. “I believe he vomited the quantity of a gallon,” one neighbor helpfully testified of the doomed Macure; and though Macure’s family denied he drank at all, the coroner’s testimony indicates that embalming fluid for the late Mr. Macure would be, shall we say, superfluous.

But the fly-by-night pamphleteers and court transcript anthologies found themselves up against a tide of cheap penny newspapers in Britain in the 1820s. What these papers needed was a new class of writers to straddle the simplistic crime narratives of old with the often confusing and undigested testimony of court records. What was needed, in short, was modern crime reporting. Competition became intense, as when the editor of a Saturday newspaper stumbled one Thursday night upon a fresh suicide dangling from a tree; he was so mortified that a Friday paper would scoop him that he cut down the victim and hid him overnight in his own cellar, reasoning that he could then “find” him the following night in time for the Saturday edition. The plan went awry when a servant found the strangled body; the arrested editor only escaped a capital charge of murder when a suicide note was rather fortuitously discovered in the deceased’s coat.

In London, two morning papers—the Morning Herald and the Morning Chronicle—became particular rivals in court reportage. The Herald can lay claim to one innovation that survives to this day: the “funny criminal” report. Its 1824 compilation volume by reporter John Wight, Mornings at Bow Street, includes such immortal cases as a man discovered “frightening ladies out of their wits” by walking through St. James’s Park “with his breeches on a stick over his shoulder, instead of in their natural and proper place.” When a kindly judge asked him, “Why do you walk without your breeches, my honest friend?” the old man patiently explained: “Because I was hot.”

But of all the court reporters plying their trade in London those days, none was quite so singular a character as James Curtis. A writer for the Times, Curtis was famed for not having missed an Old Bailey session or an execution in London in decades: he was, in short, quite possibly the most knowledgeable crime reporter that had ever lived. How did he do it? To begin with, the man had the decided advantage of being an insomniac. Curtis typically stayed up far past midnight, only to rise again before 4 a.m.—if he rose much at all, as the fellow was quite fond of sleeping fully dressed in his chair. One year he positively outdid himself by going 100 days straight without once lying flat on a bed.

Curtis was the original shoe-leather reporter, with an encyclopedic intimacy with the streets of London and its denizens that came from an absolute horror of any form of locomotion save walking; he utterly refused to use a horse or coach. Once up from his armchair in his rumpled clothes, he invariably set out from his apartment to walk upward of eight miles in the predawn hours, starting out near his house at Farringdon Market, and making a peculiarly coiled loop—often retracing his steps several times over—through the vegetable sellers at Covent Garden Market, down through Hungerford Market, and milling with the famously foul-mouthed fishmongers at Billingsgate as they laid out Thames oysters, Scottish salmon, and Norwegian lobsters upon the stroke of their market’s 5 a.m. opening.

By the time he reached the opening of the Old Bailey, the sun was up and he was ready to write. The other reporters were only just now rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and stumbling in; none could hope to compete with Curtis, and they didn’t really try. Curtis alone recorded every trial, regardless of whether it had any news interest, quite simply because he liked to keep his own record of the court. Such a monumental task would have crippled the hand of any other journalist. But Curtis was known to have a fearsome ability at shorthand—he was so fast, in fact, that he published his own guide, titled Shorthand Made Shorter.

He was at the court before they arrived, and he would stay after they left. Impervious to any need for sleep, he’d stay up all night with men condemned to die in the morning. Forsaken by the rest of the world in their final hours, they would pour their souls out to him. And then, when taken to the scaffold, his kindly face would be one of the last countenances they would see before the stifling hood, and the final fitting of the rope around their neck. And so it was that nobody wondered at Curtis being the one who invariably got the story. In this strange, rumpled man there was the most perfect combination of talents ever known for crime reporting: they only awaited the perfect criminal to set them into motion.

*

Tick, tick, tick…. The young London schoolmaster waited for the eggs to boil while his wife and her friend chatted. Just a few minutes and his eggs would be done boiling. His watch read ten o’clock when a servant came to fetch him. There’s a man at the door who wants to see you—he wants to entrust his daughter to your tuition. That was a bother. What about the eggs? But the schoolmaster bustled into the hallway, where a stranger awaited.

“Sir, walk into the drawing room,” the schoolmaster invited.

There they settled in: ah, but there was no daughter, and there was no tuition forthcoming. I am here to arrest you, the stranger said—for I am a constable.

“Very well,” the young man replied blandly.

It’s about Maria Marten, the officer continued.

Who?

“She has been missing a very long time, and strong suspicions are attached to you.” A pause. “I believe you know such a person—a young woman you formerly kept company with in Suffolk?”

“No, I do not know such a person,” the schoolmaster insisted. “You have made a mistake.”

“No,” the constable replied, “I have not made a mistake. Your name is Corder, and I am certain you are the person I want.”

No, no, it was a mistake.

“Did you not know such a person as Maria Marten?”

“No. I never did.”

The constable was unconvinced. He restrained him, searched him, and snatched away a pair of keys. Where?—he asked the stunned wife—what do these keys unlock? She led him upstairs to a pair of writing desks. Inside, he found a brace of pistols, powder, and bullets. She was dizzied by it all. He was just a London schoolmaster—a kind man around children! And it hadn’t even begun for her. The newspapers were about to descend upon the confused new wife. It would prove a cruel irony indeed.

*

By the time the Polstead inquest resumed to take account of Corder’s arrest, some fifteen competing reporters were crowding and bustling into the little room: nobody had ever seen anything quite like it, and the small-town officials were irked by their big-city visitors. No notes, the Coroner ordered. Put your paper away. The reporters were dumbfounded. No notes? Just who did the learned gentleman think he was? One of the London reporters, another tartly noted, “said that he had been fifteen years in the habit of attending similar inquiries, and this was the first time he was prevented from performing his duty.” The murder, the inquest, the media themselves: the whole affair was metastasizing into something unaccountably strange and new.

As for Curtis, he’d taken his time to get up to Polstead: as always, he was traveling on foot. He set out on St. Swithin’s Day, July 15 of 1828, to trudge over fifty miles from central London to the quiet little village in Suffolk. Along the way he had plenty of time to reflect on the facts of the case as they were now known. Maria Marten, twenty years old at the time she departed from home: she was said to have been very pretty and fond of fine clothing, which was a dangerous combination for a small-town servant girl. One lover had been a member of the visiting gentry who flattered her with gifts, but proved less interested after she became pregnant. To the squire’s credit, though, he did regularly send her a £5 check to support his offspring.

Then there was Thomas Corder, the strapping son of a wealthy local farmer. She bore a child by him as well, but this one died in infancy. The father followed soon after, plunging through the ice of a pond whose thickness he’d misjudged. And then there was William. He was Tom’s younger brother, which was awkward enough, and it grew even more awkward in short order: she now became pregnant by her late lover’s brother. This child also quickly perished.

Three children by three different men, and all illegitimate. By now Maria had a stepmother only a few years older than her, and perhaps the new Mrs. Marten wanted her out of the house. Though Maria’s exasperated family pressed William to propose, he was diffident. But then… curiously enough… something changed. Yes, he decided, they would get married! They could elope. But he insisted they leave in secret, claiming that he’d heard Maria was about to be arrested for loose morals. He helpfully dressed her in a disguise of boy’s clothing—the old clothes of his late brother and her old lover Thomas, in fact. And so, hopeful for a settled life at last, she said her goodbyes to her stepmother and sister and slipped away with her beau. They were last seen heading towards the Red Barn on May 18, 1827; far beyond that lay their final destination of Ipswich. Dressed in the clothes of her dead lover, Maria walked alongside her new fiancé and off into oblivion.

*

Curtis paused on a busy road by a group of outbuildings near the village, gazing searchingly at them. None were painted red. “The Red Barn,” he muttered to himself, slinging his heavy bag of books and linens, “must be on the other side of the village.”

A busking fiddler passing by heard him and stopped in his tracks.

“You be looking for Corder’s barn, be’ant you, measter?”

The bemused reporter carefully set the busker’s rustic accent to memory so that he might write it down later. Yes, he told the musician—I am looking for it.

“That’s it over yon,” he indicated, “that’s the place where they say he did for her. I knew them both—but that’s neither here nor there.”

The musician walked alongside as they made their way, the fellow gazing thoughtfully and a little wistfully at Curtis’s bag. He was headed to the Cherry fair, himself—ah yes, the fair! The one great yearly event in Polstead, of course, and happening this of all weeks.

“They say,” he sighed, “Polstead Fair will be very large to-day, but I doubt there will be more cats than mice.

The reporter looked at him blankly.

“I mean,” the musician continued, “there will be more fiddlers and fifers than fees.”

Curtis finally realized why his road companion was so worried about him: the fellow, seeing the reporter’s bag, had taken him for a fellow musician. You could hardly blame him. Who ever heard of a London reporter walking all the way to a Suffolk village, and loitering about on the roads? Instead of taking a coach into Bury St. Edmunds and lingering at the courthouse, Curtis’s instincts led him somewhere altogether different: he went to the Polstead Fair.

He left his companionable fiddler and wandered around its rustic entertainments, quietly making notes. Yes, of course they knew young Mr. Corder. Who didn’t? Polstead only had about twenty households: virtually the entire population was certain to come to the fair, murder or no murder. People die all the time, after all, but the cherry fair comes but once a year. And so they were pouring in from the surrounding villages, going to the fair and getting outrageously soused. Yes, they knew the deceased—they could take a minute to talk about it. And a lot of people did want to talk about it.

Two weeks—yes, he’d spend two weeks here.

Living inside the very place where a crime happened was an unheard of thing for a reporter, but something told him it was the only way to really get the story. And it was going to be a story. By going to the Polstead Fair, Curtis had learned something: the murder of Maria Marten was turning into something much, much bigger than anyone could have imagined. People were crowding in from the outlying villages, and even now—her body still scarcely buried—at the fair there were puppet shows re-enacting Maria’s grisly murder. The trial hadn’t even started yet, and the case was entering the realm of myth. Drinking cider under the hot sun and eating handfuls of the fair’s famed cherries, the swelling audiences milled about to watch Maria die and die again.

*

Like waves, the crowds came crashing in. That next morning they were everywhere, driven by the breathless news accounts appearing back in their hometown papers. The news out of Polstead was literally changing the media itself: the infamous Red Barn, that place of sex and death, was now termed The Polstead Golgotha, while other headlines screamed the Polstead horror. The story was so big that the Weekly Dispatch earned the dubious typographic honor of inventing the device of all-cap headlines with tantalizing subheads to hype the story. Readers poured into the town uncontrollably on horse and by foot, hundreds of them, thousands of them. Men, women, their children—who were they? Why were they here? Didn’t they have anything better to do?

“He’s coming! He’s coming!” the cry arose from outside the courthouse in Bury St. Edmunds.

What?—the magistrates and counsels had scarcely a moment to wonder as they stepped down from their carriages. The crowd surged towards the door, and court officials held on for dear life: two lost their wigs, another his court robes, and one was lifted right off his feet by the tide. Hands grabbed at them and wallets and hats went missing. The crowds were such that press-only tickets had been issued for the courtroom, and constables pushed the crowd back, bickering with the populace—“No preference,” indignant citizens yelled; “a court of justice is free and open to all!” It took an hour just for the bewildered reporters to get inside and proceedings to start.

The courtroom groaned with bodies and July heat: pails of water and dippers were rushed in to distribute among the sweltering spectators and jurors. But in that stifling room a wonder awaited: the coroner, after his small-town fumbling of reporters at the inquest, was now determined to show the watching world a real trial. The courtroom was packed with family members of the deceased and the accused, with lovers, her neighbors, the murderer’s old coworkers, the arresting constable—all witnesses in a chronology leading to the murder. There was a doctor ready to testify about the corpse’s wounds. And on a table lay beautifully detailed wooden models of the Red Barn and the surrounding cottages, especially created by a local craftsman so that the witnesses could point out where each event had occurred. It was, in short, a modern murder trial, the like of which no one had ever seen before.

But in the hands of Mr. Aspell, the clerk of assize, was an even more extraordinary piece of work: the indictment. He began to read it aloud to the courtroom, and kept reading it, and it went on and on. For pages. The reporters couldn’t believe their ears—the indictment was exponentially longer and more detailed than anything they’d heard before. It was a whole new kind of indictment. “[It] will,” Curtis marveled to his readers, “no doubt become a standard for future reference.” Just why one was needed became apparent to the incredulous spectators. The accused was charged with shooting Maria Marten… and stabbing her.

And strangling her.

And burying her.

And…

What the hell was going on outside?

The reporters looked out the window: desperate women spectators, barred from the courtroom so as not to harm their delicate sensibilities, were throwing up ladders against the sides of neighboring buildings. They were—good Lord—the ladies were climbing onto the rooftops to get a view into the courtroom. The defense attorney, Mr. Broderick, had already seen enough—What kind of trial was this? Did his Lordship know that, among the rabble outside, a preacher had come up from London and preached at the Red Barn to a crowd of ten thousand? “This is not all, my Lord,” Broderick continued, “—for, in the very neighbourhood, and indeed, in all parts of the country, there have been puppet-shows representing this catastrophe…. Is there not a camera obscura near this very hall at this moment, exhibiting him as the murderer?” What fair trial could there be now?

And yet a trial there would be. The family was brought forward to identify the effects of the deceased. Marten’s lover Peter Matthews was called forward: the father of her first child, he’d been quietly sending £5 remittances for the upkeep of his son Henry, and it had become obvious that last spring Corder had stolen one of these checks. Theft of the mails, theft of a poor mother’s child support, forging checks at the bank; these were the sort of things that got a man sent to Botany Bay. When Matthews figured out what had happened, Corder had been absolutely terrified in his letters to him, beseeching him to “forgive the enormous crime.” Which he did—not knowing that, in Corder’s desperation to rid himself of the single mother who could now throw him in jail if he didn’t marry her, his correspondent might have committed an even more appalling offense.

The young wife of the grieving Thomas Marten was called. It was Ann Marten who had the bad dreams fearing for Maria’s safety, and Ann who had a weirdly prophetic dream that specifically instructed her husband to dig in the Red Barn. Accounts of the trial marveled at the wondrous sagacity of dreams, how murder will out, and so forth. Even James Curtis had no problem with this explanation. “Some of the public journals have been rather severe in regard to the part this woman took on the day of the awful tragedy,” he admitted—but Curtis himself simply didn’t see the point in her lying. “If she had been directly or indirectly particeps criminis, she would never have urged her husband daily to go to the Red Barn and make search for the absent Maria,” he reasoned. But a cynic might notice that, though they were unrelated and almost the same age, portraits of Maria Marten and Ann Marten show them to be strikingly similar. One might wonder whether a man attracted to the one might have fancied the other—or why it was that she was the sole witness to Maria’s departure, and indeed had helped her get dressed in a disguise of boy’s clothing—or why it was that her dreams started only after Corder’s letters and visits from London had stopped.

Yes, a cynic might wonder about that—but the prosecutor did not. And so he next called upon Thomas Marten to produce the mundane letters, now heartbreaking in their double meaning, that Maria’s supposed husband had later sent him: “She is now mine,” he assured the father, “and I should wish to study for her comfort, as well as my own.” And she sent her love to her sister, and her little boy Henry—was he well?—and… Curtis watched in disbelief as the crowd outside, jockeying for position at the courtroom windows, pressed so hard that the panes of glass started shattering from the pressure. They had to see him. They had to see the murderer’s face.

“I am a surgeon, and I live at Boxford,” stated a new witness who identified himself as John Lawton. He’d seen the body right after it was uncovered. In fact, he’d brought something with him today: numerous pieces of clothing so rotted with time and viscera as to be almost utterly formless. Among them were two handkerchiefs. “This I found under the hips,” he rummaged, “and this I took off her neck…. It was drawn extremely tight, so as to form a complete groove around the neck. It was apparently done for the purpose, as if pulled by some person. It was drawn sufficiently tight to have killed anyone—I mean to have produced strangulation…. There was [also] an appearance of an injury having been done to the right eye, and the right side of the face, apparently. It appeared as if something had passed deep into the eye, deep into the orbit, injuring the bone on the right side of the nose.”

But he was not done yet—far from it.

“It appeared as if it had been done by something having passed through the left cheek, and then passing out at the right orbit; and there was also a stab in the right eye. It appeared to me as if a ball had passed through the left cheek, removing the last two grinders…. The bone which divides the nostril was completely removed out of its place and broken to pieces, apparently by a ball having passed through…. Upon my subsequent inspection, I [also] found something had penetrated between the fifth and sixth ribs, and there was a stab in the heart which exactly corresponded with the wound in the ribs.”

Strangled—shot in the face—stabbed in the right eye—stabbed in the heart. Oh, and in the neck. But hadn’t there also been decomposition of the body? Indeed there had been—“While I was observing the shoe, one of the feet came off at the ankle,” the surgeon admitted—but he could demonstrate to the court just exactly what happened to Maria Marten’s face, because….

I have the head here,” he announced, “and produce it.

The courtroom gaped in disbelief as Lawton pulled out the decapitated head.

“This is the jaw,” he apologized for it falling into two pieces, “and there are two teeth gone. I think, but am not positive, that one of the teeth fell out after death—the other one has been out much longer.”

He rambled on. But in the courtroom, all eyes now locked upon one man. For there, in the docket, his face betraying no emotion as he gazed upon the skull, stood the cause of it all: a slender man, fashionably dressed, his youthful face freckled and his slight squint hidden behind studious glasses. For all his life, he’d been known in Polstead as little Bill Corder. But the women of London knew him by a different name: the marriage-minded Mr. A.Z.

*

James Curtis would get hold of the Leadenhall Street letters: anyone could, because Corder’s opportunistic stationer had dug through the dead letters in his shop and published them as Advertisement for Wives. It wasn’t even the first time that Corder’s private mail had been shamelessly plundered to make a quick buck: on the night of his arrest he’d written an anguished letter to his mother, which almost immediately appeared in all the papers. That his letters were getting opened was appalling but hardly surprising; it was well-known that postal inspectors and even nosy village postmistresses kept their own supply of duplicate wax stamps in order to open and reseal letters. Everyone could know Corder’s inner thoughts now. But to contemplate the places and the people behind them—all of them, hundreds of them—there was only one person who could do that.

And so Curtis stared out from his chamber at the Cock Inn in the dead of night. Maria’s house and the Red Barn were within sight of his window. Guards had been posted at the latter, as men had been tearing entire planks off the building as souvenirs; one had even offered to buy the building in order to turn its lumber into commemorative snuffboxes. God, the sheer madness of it all. The reporter’s gaze shifted back and forth: “There, in yon once peaceful abode, Maria’s infant prattle greeted the ears of her doting parents…” and turning his gaze, “There is the fatal building.” He’d been to both, and even personally tested whether anyone in the nearest cottage could hear someone screaming in the barn. They couldn’t.

What had happened in there that terrible day?

“Such were my frequent reflections, when the villagers of Polstead were wrapt in midnight slumbers,” Curtis wrote, “and there was nothing to disturb my reverie, or divert my attention, save the beautiful warblings of the feathered songster, the distant hooting of the gloomy night-bird, and the twittering of the swallows who reposed in their clay-built nests close to my window.”

Turning away from the window hardly lessened the pensive reflection: Curtis had hired out the very inn room that William Corder had been kept in overnight after his arrest. “I had only to withdraw the milk-white curtains of my bed of down, to behold the canopy which lately surmounted the head of that guilty man on the last night he ever saw his natal village. I had heard of his groanings and tossings to and fro, and in imagination I heard them re-echoed, and the chain which fastened his murderous arm to the bedpost seemed to clank in my ear.” He could hear Corder’s voice in his ear because he really had been hearing Corder’s voice. Along with interviewing local families and witnesses, Curtis had befriended the accused himself. Slowly, as Corder sat in his wretched cell and began to trust the reporter, his story began to emerge.

Corder had always been considered a fairly clever fellow in his village, if not entirely trustworthy: in school he’d been nicknamed Foxey. He came from a family able to send him to a few years of private school, though not college. But there wasn’t much for a clever young man to do in a village like Polstead. There was the family farm, but as he came to adulthood he knew better than anyone that his talents were going to waste there. He got bored—he dabbled in stolen property, and when that didn’t work he went to London to join the Merchant Marine. They didn’t want him because of his squint. But going back home was an unbearable thought.

He wanted… he wanted to become a writer.

“He was proverbial for his sobriety,” Curtis noted, but the new friends he’d fallen among were not. A prostitute bearing the suitable name of Hannah Fandango introduced him to her friend Samuel “Beauty” Smith; he’d been a dealer in stolen goods up around Polstead, it so happened, and the two became fast friends. Smith knew how to pimp, how to cardsharp and steal. Fandango also had a connection to a writer friend—an unscrupulous rising star named William Wainewright. Together, the four spent their days in the brothels and pubs of London.

“He came to me from the Suffolk countryside,” Wainewright would recall, “a stooping youth with Napoleonic gestures and a sense of drama. I think he wanted to dramatise himself. He wanted to write, but he was, shall we say, more a Satyr than a satirist, fonder of words than they were of him.”

The money ran out: so did the friends. Flung back to his family farm in his hometown, Corder found himself with a pregnant local girl—with no prospects—with no way out. If he tried to leave without her, Maria had something on him. Those fields out Curtis’s window had once filled the accused with despair. “I’ll give you a pound note to cut my throat,” Corder suddenly told a farmhand one day. The fellow had laughed it off, thinking it a rather strange joke.

The reporter left the window, lay down in the murderer’s bed, and—for once—slept soundly.

*

Scritch, scritch—the chorus of steel-nib pens moved in counterpoint as the hours passed. Only some of them were held by writers: the others were sketch artists. Their subject fidgeted uncomfortably in the sweltering courtroom on the trial’s second day: he wouldn’t stay still. “He put on his spectacles,” Curtis wrote, “and leaned his back against the pillar behind him, at the same time displaying an oscillating and swinging motion of his body.”

Outside, the crowd boiled over again: some had been waiting since dawn, jockeying for position to get one of the few public seats. They were duly rewarded for their curiosity: the surgeon Lawton pulled out Maria’s skull again, and this time also produced a sword found in the accused’s house. “The witness walked across [the side of] the table to the Jury with the skull,” Curtis wrote, “and with the sword in one hand explained to them the nature of the sphenoidal sinus, and stated his reason why supposed it to have been inflicted by a sword”—a point he drove home when he slid the blade through the skull, the sword slipping cleanly into the entry wound like a key into a lock, impaling the victim’s head once again in plain view of her family and her accused murderer.

The demonstration left Corder strangely unperturbed. It was Ann Marten who broke down instead, when next confronted by the task of enumerating and identifying a box of personal effects taken off Maria’s body. “This is the handkerchief Maria had round her neck…. This is a piece of a Leghorn hat…” she testified as the items were drawn from a box, “These are the shoes she had….” She began to faint, Curtis noticed—“either from her feelings, from the effluvia rising from the rags which had been taken from her butchered step-daughter, or the heat of the court.” At the sight of this Thomas Marten began to weep again.

And with that, it was now Corder’s turn to mount his defense. Curtis watched as the prisoner pulled out from his coat pocket a blue copybook of the sort a schoolboy might use. He fiddled with his spectacles, bowed nervously to the court, and began to read his defense in a wavering voice. He could explain everything, he promised. “Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction,” he stammered—for, he claimed, they were on their way past the barn when they’d had a terrible argument. Then something extraordinary happened:

I turned from her, and had scarcely proceeded to the outer gate of the barn-yard, when I heard a loud report, like that of a gun or pistol. Alarmed at this noise, I immediately ran back, and to my horror I found the unhappy girl on the ground apparently dead…. I perceived the fatal weapon, which I took up, when, to add to my terror, and the extraordinary singularity of my situation, I discovered it to be one of my own pistols, which I had always kept loaded in my bedroom. The danger of my situation now flashed upon my mind…

It was all a terrible mistake, you see. She had killed herself and, panicked that he’d be accused, he’d buried her. And the stab wounds? They were by the father—it was the spike of the molecatcher that had smashed those holes into the head and heart of Maria Marten. And he, William Corder, was innocent. “It was known to her family that we were going to the barn,” he proposed. “Does any man who meditates a crime make known the place at which it is to be committed?” His long and apologetic explanation continued on, with Curtis smoothly shorthanding all of it for his readers. As he wrote, he looked up to appraise the jury. He’d sat in on so many capital cases by now that he knew well the expressions that faces took as they faced the greatest decisions of belief.

They weren’t buying it.

It only took thirty-five minutes to reach a verdict. After the Crier of the Court demanded silence from the packed courtroom, the judge pulled out a simple piece of fabric that was the dread sight of any guilty man: the black coif cap, a tight and somber black hat that judges wore only when pronouncing a sentence of death.

“Nothing remains now for me to do,” the judge intoned, “but to pass upon you the awful sentence of the law, and that sentence is this—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 anatomised…”

Corder slumped down in a dead faint.

“…. and may the Lord God Almighty,” the words hammered upon his prostrate body, “of His infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul.”

The prisoner was revived, and carried away sobbing to the courtroom’s holding cell. The courtroom emptied slowly as onlookers tried for one last time to get a look at the condemned man in his holding cell. Among the crowd, at least one person was feeling a good deal more embarrassment than morbid fascination. One of the sketch artists for an Ipswich paper had already sent to press a full-length portrait of the infamous Corder: he had, of course, picked out for his artistic attentions the man who was at the center of all the court’s dread action, the one sitting right at the defense team’s table and showing the keenest interest through hour after hour of testimony. Only, he hadn’t drawn murderer William Corder at all. He’d drawn reporter James Curtis.

*

Back at the jail, there was the sound of clattering sledgehammers smashing through brickwork. Corder’s journey back from the courthouse was so violent—the crowds had actually snapped the running board off the carriage—that at the jail it was quickly decided that a new door should be specially constructed by punching out a section of an exterior wall. This impromptu service exit, instead of the exposed front entrance, would be used to evade the crowds and spirit the prisoner out to the gallows on Monday. Corder himself was made less recognizable; he was a convicted man now, and had to give up his fashionable suit of clothing for prison garb. His clothes were to be set aside for later use, though; he would be allowed to die in them.

He sat in his cell variously attended by three men—the prison’s governor, a chaplain, and James Curtis. Now that it was all over, the governor wanted the real story. Corder still resented the implication that he’d stabbed Maria. Well then, the governor asked, why did he own that sword? Had he been in the army?

No, Corder said vaguely. “I procured the sword for another purpose.

“What could have induced you to have told Maria Marten that there was a warrant against her for bastardy, when you prevailed on her to change her dress and go with you to the Red Barn?”

At this question, Corder went glumly silent. He was just waiting to die now, but he also knew what everyone else was really waiting for: a confession. But the thought made Corder miserable. “Such a disclosure would only disgrace my family,” he complained. What good, he asked, would it do his soul to expose all its follies to the world? It was a good question. Why was this anyone’s business save for the accused and the victim’s family? Why did total strangers insist on knowing more and more about what was buried in a rural barn, about their private grief? Why? Everyone knew why Corder was here in this cell. But what was Curtis doing there?

Well, murder is entertaining.

For centuries, art has represented violent death to a curiously disproportionate degree, and this creates an inescapable circular logic. Murder is often our entertainment: therefore, murder is entertaining. In any civilized society, it’s also a highly unusual way to die. Yet ordinary death is profoundly unsatisfying. It lacks a story. A murder has a chronology with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it has clearly defined actors and a motive—and even if it doesn’t, it holds out the tantalizing promise of these things. An ordinary death is hopelessly diffuse in cause and maddeningly fuzzy in its logic. Who, exactly, is responsible for a heart attack? When did it begin? The avoidance of natural death is an indefinite matter of actuarial odds-making. Murder, on the other hand, lends itself to facile interpretation as a series of binary decisions. If only the victim had not done, say, this one thing, they would still be alive. This—and not the bewildering series of blind and unknowable choices that life actually hands us—means that murder allows us to believe that we can make sense of death. It gives the cessation of someone else’s life the comforting predictability and narrative pull of fiction.

And details: they wanted details too. Had it really been so easy to find a whole new wife? Indeed it had, Corder admitted. In November 1827, six months after disappearing with Maria Marten, Corder was placing London personal ads titled MATRIMONY. One of the scores of respondents had been Mary Moore, a young schoolmistress from Grey’s Inn Terrace; he proposed to her on their second meeting, and then they got married.

“Was that long after your acquaintance?” he was asked.

“About a week,” the prisoner said.

And yet their hasty marriage was by all accounts a happy one, and William had liked running a school with her. And there was more: just before his arrest, she’d become pregnant. It was this unfortunate pregnant wife, stricken with grief, that arrived at the prison the next day. She’d brought a book of religious consolation for him and she wept over his fate.

“Well, dearest William,” she tried to comport herself, “this trial has terminated in a manner quite different than what we all were sanguine enough to expect.”

She was putting on a brave face, and the man who should have been an expectant father became only more miserable.

“I am afraid,” he sighed, “… the sneers of the world will be visited on you when your wretched husband is no more.”

She didn’t care. She only wanted him to confess and ask for forgiveness, so that they might still meet in heaven. And as his last night on earth approached midnight, he finally asked for a sheet of paper. He and Maria, he explained, had been quarreling as they approached the Red Barn:

A scuffle ensued, and during the scuffle and at the time I think she had hold of me, I took the pistol from the side-pocket of my velveteen jacket, and fired. She fell, and died in an instant. I never even saw a struggle. I was overwhelmed with agitation and dismay—the body fell near the front doors on the floor of the barn. A vast quantity of blood issued from the wound, and ran on the floor and through the crevices…. it was dark when I finished covering up the body. I went the next day, and washed the blood from off the barn floor. I declare to Almighty God I had no sharp instrument about me…

Would he not admit to the stab wounds on the body? Corder had already said his piece, and he waved off further questions. “Is it necessary to my salvation,” he snapped, “that I confess to any but God?” His conscience was clear now—or clear enough, at least. But there was one thing that still bothered him: that the judge had also sentenced his executed corpse to medical dissection. His mind kept turning back to this, and the thought of his own dismemberment—unconsecrated and mutilated into fragments—filled him with horror.

“Oh God!” he cried in his cell. “Nobody will dig my grave!”

*

It was time to go. He wrote one last letter to his wife—“My life’s loved Companion—I am now going to the scaffold…”—and then the prison’s governor led him to make his final goodbye to the other inmates. Corder shook hands with every prisoner, and was especially distraught when he spotted a fellow prisoner named Nunn, whom he recognized from their childhood days.

“Nunn,” he grasped his hand and shook it with awful fervor. “May God Almighty bless you!”

The prisoner and his keepers walked outside and into a sea of humanity. Even Curtis, for all his years of reporting executions, was dazed by the sight that awaited them. The grounds outside the prison formed a natural amphitheater—a surprisingly beautiful sloping meadow—and it had been filling up since dawn, fed by streams of spectators from around the countryside. Laborers in the fields and their bosses alike had quit work for the day to come and watch. “Every foot of ground was occupied in the spacious pasture,” Curtis reported. “We should say that the field alone contained from eight to nine thousand persons, exclusive of those who possessed more elevated situations.”

The scaffold was waiting for William Corder. In fact, Curtis discovered, it had already been waiting: the authorities had been so sure of a conviction that they’d put in a requisition order for it to be built before the trial had even started. The carpenters had delivered their final verdict a full day before the jury did.

There was some agonizing fussing over the contraption as the minutes to Corder’s death ticked away. It was suggested to the executioner that he had cut the rope too long, and with great visible annoyance—apparent even through the black hood that he wore—the hangman grudgingly adjusted it. The rope was fitted around the condemned’s neck, and he spoke his last words: “I am guilty—my sentence is just—I deserve my fate—and may God have mercy upon me!” The trapdoor was released and he fell earthwards with a jerk: the hangman grabbed his waist and pulled him down harder to the finish the job quickly, and after raising his hands upwards a few times—in supplication or in agony—Corder gave a final convulsion and expired.

As the body was cut down, lengths of the rope that hung him were quickly pieced out and sold for a guinea an inch. Within an hour Corder’s still-warm body was delivered to Mr. Creed, the county surgeon; he made a longitudinal incision through the abdomen and peeled back the skin to reveal the muscles of Corder’s chest. This body—stripped of clothes and skin down the waist—was then left upon a table for public display. The crowds were so great that constables were stationed to keep the line moving, and thousands of onlookers filed through the room to stare at the mutilated body.

Curtis watched the procession thoughtfully. He’d been to every such execution in and around London for decades—to more, perhaps, than any man alive in Britain—and there seemed to be something odd about this one. The crowd at both the execution and the viewing somehow felt different, and the reason soon became apparent—indeed, he noticed the difference among the very earliest arrivals, the onlookers pressed up directly under the gallows platform.

“There were,” the reporter mused, “a great number of females present.”

*

Why did this murder of a lover in an obscure village so transfix the country, and women in particular? Perhaps the case’s peculiar circumstances evoked the deepest fears of modern life. First, there was the notion that one could disappear and nobody would even know. Maria was not a recluse: this was someone with family, a child, and a fiancé. She was murdered and buried on her own property, and yet nobody there ever noticed—like a ghost, she was present and yet invisible to her own family. True, one farmhand had detected a stench in the barn that summer; but, he explained in court, he’d just assumed it was a dead rat.

The other key to the case’s fascination is Corder’s living wife, the much suffering Mary Moore. Despite Corder’s fears, there was actually great public sympathy for Moore and her newborn child, and after her husband’s execution the Suffolk Chronicle even headed a successful fundraising drive for the unfortunate widow. In the published responses to Corder’s matrimony ad and in Mary’s fate, many women could see their own profound anxieties realized. That the ad replies survived at all was due entirely to the notoriety of Corder’s trial; otherwise they surely would have eventually been burned as unclaimed trash. But they are a unique record—a startlingly intimate peek into Regency-era life, with rootless young people leaving villages for industrialized cities and left to their own devices to form relationships. In this new urban world, where all one knew of anyone’s past was what they told you, a predator could appear as a loving and gentle suitor—you could even marry a murderer and bear his child without realizing it. What happened to Mary Moore was the culmination of the most paranoid fears of young women of her era.

Polstead quickly became a site of morbid pilgrimage: in 1828 alone, a staggering quarter of a million visitors came to this little village of twenty dwellings. Naturally, hucksters rushed in to meet the demand. You could buy “criminal crockery” made with clay dug up in Polstead, purchase lithographs of the infamous Red Barn, view the wicked William and the doomed Maria at a waxworks, or watch the murder re-enacted onstage. Indeed, the Red Barn stage play not only became one of the most popular melodramas of the nineteenth century, it even evolved into three silent films in 1902, 1908, and 1913, and a sound film in 1935. For many years Maria’s one surviving son was known for inflicting magistrates upon these stagings of his mother’s murder—not to shut them down, but to demand a cut of the royalties.

But one of the very first to capitalize on the case was the colorful London hack “Jemmy” Catnach. Along with their confessions, Catnatch’s penny execution broadsheets always magically unearthed some doggerel written by condemned men just before they died—whether or not, in fact, the dead man had written anything at all. Sure enough, Catnatch gleefully followed a transcription of Corder’s confession with eight stanzas of crashingly awful doggerel “by W. Corder”—“Come all you thoughtless young men, a warning take by me / And think upon my unhappy fate to be hanged upon a tree…” Catnatch sold an incredible 1,166,000 copies of this farrago in the aftermath of the “author’s” execution. Not to be outdone, his fellow hack William Maginn immediately turned his squandered talents to a potboiling novel titled The Red Barn, thus quickly earning himself some much-needed drinking money.

James Curtis returned to London bearing the greatest prize of all: he alone had befriended the doomed Corder and interviewed virtually everyone involved in the case, along with hundreds of residents of Polstead and the surrounding villages. Catnatch’s broadsheet sales were not lost upon Curtis; he couldn’t let his Times columns just sit there. What Curtis undertook next—stitching together his newspaper reports into a bestselling book—is such a commonplace practice today that we easily forget that somebody had to be the first to do it. In anyone else’s hands, An Authentic and Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten would have been merely another disjointed trial transcript: but Curtis had gotten inside the story and lived there. Blessed with unique talents and faced with an unprecedented criminal case, Curtis single-handedly invented the modern true-crime book. And there he stopped: aside from Shorthand Made Shorter, he never did write another book. But he was well aware that he’d created something special. “Nothing pleased him more,” his colleague James Grant recalled, “than to be called the biographer of Corder.”

*

But what of the molecatcher’s daughter? As tourists poured into Polstead, it became a habit among them to hike up the hill to ancient St. Mary’s Church, and chip little flakes off doomed Maria’s gravestone as souvenirs. By the end of the century, her headstone was a tiny nub of rock barely jutting above the dirt: then it disappeared altogether. The trial and its fame have returned her to where she began: lost and in an unmarked grave. The famed Red Barn fared even worse, having burned down mysteriously in 1841. But go to Polstead today, and you’ll find William’s house and Maria’s cottage are still very much in evidence, and indeed still inhabited. And locals still contemplate life now as then at the Cock Inn.

Corder himself, in fact, may also still be seen… sort of. After the public viewing of his mangled corpse, Corder was stripped nude and the executioner demanded the dead man’s trousers as his traditional “undoubted right.” Shipped over to the county hospital, Corder’s chest cavity was dissected and a plaster cast taken of his head. Doctors deemed him to have been a physically healthy man, though a phrenologist viewing the head cast propounded that he had enlarged organs of Combativeness and Secretiveness. Like so many criminal skeletons, Corder’s bones would be cleansed of their flesh and wired together for display in a medical college. But the autopsy’s supervising surgeon, George Creed, decided he had another splendid idea for Corder’s remains. He sliced away lengths of Corder’s discarded skin, cleaned the human hide and tanned it, and then…

He bound a copy of Curtis’s book in the murderer’s own skin.

The practice was not an entirely unknown one. Anthropodermic bindings have been spotted on a few early anatomy texts; the London antiquarian dealer Maggs Brothers even listed one such book in its 1932 catalogue, Bernard Albinus’s 1736 study Dissertatio de Arteriis, at a fairly affordable £105. But there have always been a few bookbinders who relish the ironic pleasure of matching their materials to a book’s contents. One collection, recently sold for a heady $25,000, consists of classic texts of animal anatomy bound appropriately—Wild African Animals I Have Known bound in zebra, With a Camera in Tigerland bound in untrimmed tiger fur, or Shark! Shark! Shark! bound in… well, shark. Humans are also represented, of course. Cutaneous Diseases of the Skin sports an anthropodermic binding, though fortunately a copy of All Quiet on the Western Front does not: that one was bound in “full Germany grey rough cloth fatigue of WWI German Feldwebel, with brass buttons on spine.”

But there has never been any question of which anthropodermic book is the rarest and most profoundly strange of all. While you can find its progeny massed upon our bookstore shelves, that single and rather innocent-looking volume still survives in a small museum in Bury St. Edmunds. It tells its story without even being opened. In an obscure Suffolk village, James Curtis achieved the physical embodiment of what every crime writer has merely aspired to ever since: he got inside a murderer’s skin.

Paul Collins teaches creative nonfiction at Portland State University. His latest book is The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine.

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