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  • Gavin Whitehead

The Red Barn Murder (S3E5)

Updated: Mar 6

From 1803 to 1808, Madame Tussaud toured Scotland and Ireland, exhibiting her handiwork in major cities. During this time, she took drastic measures to win her freedom from her exploitative business partner, Paul Philipstahl. Tussaud went years without creating new figures related to crime, but in 1828 she introduced a likeness of William Corder, perpetrator of the infamous Red Barn Murder. This brutal homicide sparked a cultural phenomenon that lasted for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond, inspiring books, broadsides, murder ballads, peepshows, plays, and even movies. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above: Todd Slaughter played William Corder in a 1935 film about the Red Barn murder, directed by Milton Rosmer. However, Slaughter is probably best-known as the first actor to play Sweeney Todd on film. The above artwork accompanies a modern Blu-ray box set that includes both movies.



Like other purveyors of true-crime culture, broadside publishers exploited the popular obsession with homicides. Their most elaborate broadsides often came out in conjunction with the murderer's execution. This broadside depicts key scenes in the commission and punishment of the Red Barn murder, from the first time Maria Marten laid eyes on the Red Barn to the hanging of William Corder.

An 1835 illustration of a boy looking into a peep show device by artist Theodor Hoserman. Peep shows often depicted sensational murders that had captured the popular imagination.

The Red Barn murder was standard fare at English puppet theaters throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. This birdcage was used as a stage prop in a marionette rendition of the Red Barn murder in 1999.

Staffordshire pottery representing William Corder as he leads Maria Marten into the Red Barn. These pieces were priced for sale to the middle-classes.



---Berridge, Kate. Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006.

---Chapman, Pauline. Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors: Two Hundred Years of Crime. London: Constable, 1984.

---Curtis, James. The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. London: William Clowes, 1828.

---Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: Thomas Donne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

---Pilbeam, Pamela. Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks. London; New York: Humbledon and London, 2003.



A swell of violins, punctuated by a thunderclap. No moviegoer in the mid-1930s could have misinterpreted the message: calamity was at hand. But then, just about every audience member seeing this black-and-white talkie in theaters would have known what was about to happen, anyway. Maria Marten, played with wide, ever-innocent eyes by Sophie Stewart, stands beside a wooden fence in the English countryside. Under normal circumstances, Marten would have sought shelter at the first sign of foul weather, but tonight she is waiting for her fiancé, the wealthy squire, William Corder. The couple have plans to elope to London. Played by master of the macabre Todd Slaughter, the first actor ever to portray Sweeney Todd onscreen, Corder emerges from the darkness, wrapped in a great cloak and carrying a lantern. The storm is too fierce, he declares on arrival. The trip to London will have to wait. For now, they must take cover. “But where can we go?” Marten asks, her voice heavy with disappointment about the delay. Corder fixes his eyes on a structure offscreen. “The Red Barn,” he answers. The camera cuts to reveal the single-story, thatched-roof edifice that the country gentleman is looking at, initially coal-black and then bone-white amid a flash of lightning.

Corder leads Marten into the barn, its floor made of dirt and strewn with hay. The building stands empty, but for a few rakes and other agricultural implements leaning against the wall. The two are alone as Corder locks the exit. “Why do you bar the door?” Marten asks, not unlike Little Red Riding Hood puzzling over her grandmother’s oversized incisors. “To keep the others out, and you in, my beauty,” he responds. A belated sense that something is wrong descends on Marten, and Corder drops the act. He has no intention of taking her hand in marriage. “Didn’t I make you a promise, Maria?” the squire demands, his eyes aglow with lupine malice. And then Todd Slaughter delivers the kind of line he was born to deliver: “I promised to make you a bride. Don’t be afraid Maria. You shall be a bride—a bride of death!”

This sequence comes from Maria Marten, or the Red Barn Murder, a 1935 film melodrama directed by Milton Rosner. Unless you’re a historical true-crime aficionado (and you admittedly might be if you’re listening to this podcast), there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the Red Barn murder. Yet just over sixty years before Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of Whitechapel in 1888, it seemed a contender for crime of the century. Committed in 1827, the Red Barn murder sparked a cultural phenomenon, spawning countless books, plays, newspaper columns, ballads, and more. In the words of Pauline Chapman, the lamentable fate of Maria Marten became “almost folkloric,” part of the narrative atmosphere that Britons grew up breathing. As the Todd Slaughter film adaptation indicates, it still hung in the air more than a century after the murder.

That’s partly thanks to Madame Tussaud. The Red Barn murder caused such a sensation—and brought such a windfall for those who exploited it—that Tussaud wanted in on the action. Profiting on this homicide represented a turning point in the wax modeler’s career, changing the kind of criminals that she would depict. Today, we’ll hear how Tussaud fought for and won her artistic independence from her exploitative business partner, how she established a name for herself in Scotland and Ireland, and how she took advantage of a killing that captivated the public like few others had in the nineteenth century. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 5 of Queen of Crime . . .

The Red Barn Murder

Uprooted So Soon

When we last left off with Madame Tussaud, she had partnered with phantasmagoria performer Paul Philipstal and taken her show to London. Whereas her older son Joseph came along for the ride, she had no choice but to bid farewell to her husband, François, and her younger boy, Francis. Tussaud had accepted tough terms when she signed on with Philipstal—he demanded fifty percent of her earnings while also expecting her to pay her own travel expenses. Even so, she could not have intuited the hidden depths of his unscrupulousness. Not only did he refuse to promote her exhibition with the same determination as he marketed his own, but he also relegated her to the basement of their homebase, the Lyceum Theatre. Takings were low—and so were Tussaud’s spirits—for the first few months. Like her mentor, Philippe Curtius, however, Tussaud had her finger on the pulse of public opinion, and when Colonel Edward Marcus Despard went to the gallows for high treason in February 1803, she perceived an opportunity to profit on the interest his case had aroused. After she fashioned an effigy of the convicted traitor, business took off.

Just as Tussaud was getting her bearings, however, Philipstal informed her of his unilateral decision to leave London for Edinburgh. He had unfinished business in the British capital, he added, so she would have to make the sea voyage around the eastern coast of England on her own. Ever the cheapskate, he expected her to foot the bill for transportation, even as he foisted the obligation on her with virtually zero notice. After months of mistreatment, Tussaud had had enough. A small body of her correspondence with various French contacts, including her husband, has miraculously survived the ravages of time. In one of these letters, she relates that she came within a hair’s breadth of breaking with Philipstal over this issue: “I threatened to return to Paris and when he saw I meant business he gave me £10. One has to be wary of Philipstal.” Philipstal plainly had not anticipated such defiance, and this dispute should have convinced him that he also needed to be wary of her.

The date of Tussaud’s depature was slated for April 27, 1803. She dreaded what lay around the corner in Edinburgh. On April 25, she wrote to François in loopy script that slopes across the page, freely mingling French and German phrases. For a moment, her tone is one of profound frustration with a lack of support from both Philipstal and François: “[Philipstal] treats me as you do, he has left me all alone. It is better so, as he is angry about everything.” Yet François’s flaws are soon forgotten, at least within the context of this letter. With precious few friends in London and unable to speak more than a few basic sentences in English, the intensely isolated Marie and Joseph were homesick. Referring to Joseph by his nickname, Tussaud declares, “Nini and I cried with joy and sadness at not being able to embrace you.” She expects more of the same loneliness in Scotland, promising to share her new address in Edinburgh as soon as she can so that he can write: “I implore you my love to reply to me at once as your letters are the only consolation in a place where I know no one. I will end by embracing you a thousand times.”

Ill Omens

On April 27, having boxed up her precious cargo of waxen likenesses, Tussaud and Joseph went to the wharves and set sail for Scotland. The voyage hardly augured well. So choppy were the waters that even seasoned seafarers succumbed to mal de mer. Ferocious waves crested and splashed onto the vessel, forcing Tussaud to spend most of the trip below deck. “The boat rolled in the most terrifying manner,” she wrote home, “and the captain who has made this voyage a hundred times said he had never seen anything like it.” Tussaud’s sea sickness was at least tempered by motherly pride. Despite the violent push and pull of the tide, “Monsieur Nini was not afraid. He made friends with the captain and everyone else. In fact, the captain wished he had a child like him.” Five-year-old Joseph’s indomitable courage even earned him the nickname, “Little Bonaparte.”

Tussaud was still queasy when she landed in Edinburgh on May 10 (she wrote to François “with a bad head as if I was on board," but lingering nausea was the least of her worries. Freshly arrived in yet another strange city, she found herself in desperate need of money. Philipstal had given her £10 for the journey, but the total came to £18. She was unable to make up the difference. To her horror, moreover, the turbulent transit had damaged her waxen displays, which had sustained no fewer than thirty-six breakages. Repairs were imperative, and those would set her back even further.


The solution to Tussaud’s predicament came in the form of fellow Francophone and family friend, Monsieur Henri-Louis Charles. Monsieur Charles was a traveling ventriloquist by trade and hailed from the same tight-knit community of showmen and -women who made their living on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. He had arrived in Edinburgh about a month before Tussaud. She certainly knew him beforehand, and it’s possible that her surrogate father and mentor, Philippe Curtius, had even employed him at his wax salon. Maybe the most endearingly grandiose entertainer we’ve encountered this season, Monsieur Charles was no ordinary ventriloquist—he did his show without a single dummy. He dubbed his performance “The Auricular [that is, auditory] Communications of the Invisible Girl.” An advertisement in the Edinburgh Evening Courant billed the exhibition as “The Only True Original and the Most Incomprehensible Experiment that has ever been witnessed in the World.” There was some truth to this hyperbolic advertising—based on what I’ve read, Monsieur Charles’s trickery was incomprehensible. He supplied the voice of the Invisible Girl, an all-seeing entity who remained unseen. Throughout, customers could ask the Invisible Girl questions in English, French, or German, and she would respond in the same language. Though nowhere in sight, she appeared to know what audience members were doing at every moment. “In short,” one contemporary witness enthused, “everything is as completely visible to her as she is invisible to the assembly, near whom she seems to sigh close to their ears, so that her breath may not only be heard but also felt, she follows all their motions and seems even to guess their thoughts.” Also part of the spectacle was an intricate metalwork apparatus mounted onstage, with a tube attached to it. If patrons lifted this device to their ears, the Invisible Girl could seem to speak through it.

Monsieur Charles was a godsend for Tussaud. When he learned of her money troubles, he made her a loan of £30, which sufficed to cover her debts. He even offered to stay on in Edinburgh to ensure that she got her show up and running before he left town. Next to Philipstal, Monsieur Charles was a paragon of generosity.

Thanking her benefactor, Tussaud went looking for a suitable exhibition venue. Within two days, she had located one at Bernard’s Rooms, Thistle Street, which she describes as “a nice salon well-furnished and decorated for 2 pounds a month.” She and Joseph would lodge at the same address. Around this time, Tussaud also hired an interpreter fluent in French, German, and English. This helper assisted her in placing advertisements and writing copy for museum catalogues, facilitating the adjustment to her new surroundings.

She opened on May 18, eight days after her arrival in Edinburgh. Admission was two shillings, and the hours of operation lasted from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then from six to eight. The schedule could be grueling—sometimes Tussaud and Joseph were too exhausted even to cook dinner after close. To the wax modeler’s delight, however, her collection met with immediate success. Over the course of the first eight days, she wrote to François, daily earnings had climbed from £3, 14s on opening day to £13, 6s on the last, making for a total of 133 visitors. Profits ballooned even more in the following two weeks, yielding an impressive £190. “Everyone is astonished by my figures,” Tussaud declares in a letter to François dated May 26, “the equal of which no one has seen here.” She was never one to humble-brag.

It was not just skill that accounted for the healthy turnout; it was also the topicality of Tussaud’s collection. As we discussed last time, Tussaud was able to travel from Paris to London thanks to the Treaty of Amiens, which ended hostilities between England and France. On May 17, 1803, however, just one day before she opened her doors to the public in Edinburgh, the fragile truce fractured, with England declaring war on France. The revived conflict would rage for twelve years. The war endowed Tussaud’s waxworks about the French revolution as well as current events in France with a sense of urgency. Sensing as much, Tussaud placed advertisements promising “Accurate models of life from Bonaparte First Consul of the French Republic,” along with other effigies of French notables.

Tussaud may have claimed a certain objectivity in her waxwork—she represented her subjects exactly as they appeared in life, she insisted—but she by no means took a neutral stance in catalogue entries about them. As we mentioned earlier this season, Tussaud’s customers could purchase catalogues at the door for an additional fee, and these guidebooks included brief write-ups about the cultural, historical, and political significance of the figures depicted. The earliest surviving example dates from her time in Scotland, bearing the unwieldy title of Biographical Sketches of the Characters Composing the Cabinet of Composite Figures Executed by the Celebrated Curtius of Paris and his Successors. Tussaud is hardly a dispassionate observer regarding the rise of Napoleon. “For whether the ruler be called a monarch or a consul,” the catalogue reads, “it is of little consequence to the people, if their liberties mest be sacrificed for his aggrandisement [sic].” Nor does she mince words about the threat he posed to the United Kingdom; he intends to “overthrow . . . her people, their laws and their liberties.” These sentiments would have played well since her customers were likely to share these concerns.

Not only was Tussaud doing a brisk business in Edinburgh, but she and Joseph were enjoying a more robust social life than they had in London. A favorite hangout was Edinburgh Castle, the colossal hilltop fortification that dates back to the Middle Ages. She calls Edinburgh “a beautiful little city from which one can see snow-covered mountains,” and she may have had the sweeping castle vista in mind when writing that remark. It was at Edinburgh Castle, however, that she became acquainted with an unnamed lady-in-waiting who had spent time in France, where she attained fluency in French. Tussaud would have cherished every opportunity to reminisce about home in her mother tongue, and she and this friend of hers appear to have done so on more than one occasion. Joseph also formed a friendship: “Monsieur Nini is dressed like a prince and spends all day at the castle with a little French boy.” In the warm glow of companionship and profit, the stifling isolation and hardship of London faded into a distant memory.

Tussaud Buys Her Artistic Freedom

Unfortunately for Tussaud, Philipstal was as much a snake as ever. He slithered into town shortly after she first unveiled her artwork. He should have been pleased with her warm reception—he was entitled to half of the earnings, after all. But Philipstal was endlessly greedy, easily threatened, and equally prone to petty jealousy, so he was less than thrilled. “Philipstal is worrying about my success,” Tussaud wrote home, “and wondering how to get more money out of me.” In more desperate terms, she added in a later letter, “He holds my nose to the grindstone seeking only to flout and ruin me so he can take all.”

Philipstal’s disastrous Edinburgh debut only compounded the problem. In addition to his signature spook fest, he was exhibiting mechanized automata. According to an advertisement in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, one of the contraptions represented a six-foot Spanish ropedancer “that seems almost endowed with human faculties, the power of respiration which the mechanism here demonstrates is incredible.” The same machine appeared to smoke a pipe and “marks the time of the music with a small whistle.” On Philipstahl’s first night in Edinburgh, this automaton smoked, whistled, and danced to marvelous effect. But the phantasmagoria ran off the rails when a series of technical glitches rendered it more farcical than frightening. The fiasco so thoroughly embarrassed Philipstal that he apologized in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, admitting that his magic lantern “was not completely in order and failed of producing the effect intended.” He never recovered from the misstep, and on July 23, he surprised Tussaud with yet another carte-blanche decision. She was to close her exhibit straight away—it was time to move on from enchanted Edinburgh.

Tussaud was livid. In a letter to a certain Madame Allemande, Tussaud strikes a defiant tone, “I have good friends and if he thinks I am afraid of him he is mistaken.” She goes on, “I am regarded as a great lady here and have everyone on my side.” Tussaud took her grievances to the lawyers, to little avail. The only lawful means of ending her subjugation, she ascertained, was to buy her way out. The citizens of Edinburgh had heaped plenty of money into her purse, but she still could not afford to pay the scoundrel off. Between May 18 and July 23, she had brought in £420. (She had set her heart on an uptick in ticket sales in July, during which Edinburgh hosted a horse fair, but the well-attended event had not given her the bump she hoped for.) Her expenses totaled £118, which, subtracted from £420, left her with £302. From that sum, she owed Philipstal a hefty £150, 16 s. Strictly speaking, she had the funds, but she clearly worried about getting by on what she would have left over. She had no alternative but to bide her time.

Tussaud finally purchased her artistic liberty in early 1804. By that time, Philipstal had dragged her first to Glasgow and then to Dublin. Sadly, we have no specifics about when she closed the deal, but she may have savored the schadenfreude of knowing that she was flying free while he was nosediving into debt and insignificance. His box office was abysmal, and in May 1804, his financial situation grew so dire that he put his magic lantern apparatus up for sale. According to a newspaper advertisement, “any gentleman of a scientific and mechanical turn will find this an object worth his attention: either for gratification of private society or, in its present successful connection with the public, as a source of profit.” Warning window-shoppers to stay away, he added, “No person applying either from idle curiosity or a view to making improper discoveries [whatever that means] can possibly be attended to.” Not long after, he announced that business required his attention in England and bowed out of Dublin with what little dignity remained him. Tussaud never saw his miserly ass again.

The wax modeler’s dealings with Philipstal instilled in her a fierce independence. Never again would she place herself at the mercy of another entrepreneur. She even declined to team up with Monsieur Charles, the family friend and open-handed ventriloquist who had helped her out in Edinburgh. She voiced her feelings in no uncertain terms, “[O]nce I have got away from Philipstal, I don’t want any more joint ventures.”

“Only For Myself and My Children”

Tussaud’s partnership with Philipstal dissolved alongside another relationship in her life—that with François. As we discussed last time, Marie was one half of a topsy-turvy marriage. In a perfect inversion of contemporary gender roles, the wife in this union acted as main provider while the husband depended overwhelmingly on her support. We have access to only one side of the communication between Marie and François—her letters have come down to us, but his have not. Based on her replies to his messages, however, we can infer that François was feeling the financial pain of living without her in Paris, and money quite likely lay at the heart of their marital strife.

The disintegration took place over the course of about a year. Things seemed more or less copacetic between the Tussauds when Marie was getting ready to leave London. She and Joseph wept with joy to receive word from him, after all. Furthermore, she appears to have indulged a request for financial assistance. On her last day in the British capital, she visited the law offices of Mr. George Wright at 41 Duke Street, Manchester Square. There, she had legal documents prepared granting François full power of attorney along with the authority “to borrow what seems good and on the best terms he can, all the money he requires and to compel his said wife to join with him completely in paying the capital interest laid down in any transaction.” Remember, Marie inherited assets from her guardian, Philippe Curtius. By making this arrangement in London, she showed a willingness to share that inheritance with François, empowering him to do with it as he pleased. She was also prepared to place herself on the hook for any loans he took out.

By the time Tussaud had reached Edinburgh, however, the tone of her letters had turned from joyful to reproachful. Angered by his prolonged silence, she complains in a missive dated May 26, “This is the hundredth letter I have written to you without reply. Why have you not written? Remember that I am your wife and that you are the father of my children.” Any delay in his replies likely came about due less to neglect and more to the political tensions between England and France. At any rate, Marie had certainly heard from him by June 9, and in his most recent letter, he has evidently asked her to come back to Paris. It’s uncertain whether love, money, or some other concern underlay that wish, but Marie had not anticipated it. At once befuddled and indignant, she writes back with a hard pass: “I am not ready to return yet, and can’t help being surprised that you suggest it before my business is cleared up, and when all the ports are closed.” She continues, “I will not return without a well-filled purse.”

Six or seven months later, Marie no longer had any intention of returning. This change of heart coincided with her triumphant break from Philipstal. Marie’s hard-won artistic independence—coupled with a growing confidence in her ability to thrive in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland—led her to realign her priorities. In a crushingly honest mic-drop of a letter, she tells François, “The day I finished with M. Philipstal my enterprise became more important to me than returning to you.” She goes on, “I now work only for myself and my children.” From this time forward, Tussaud never doubted what mattered most: the prosperity of her business and the security of her sons, Joseph and Francis. François was no longer part of this picture.

In a sense, there was one last man in Tussaud’s life from whom she needed to separate herself. Unlike Philipstal and François, this one had never dragged her down but rather lifted her up, had never taken every last shilling he could but rather given all he had to give: Philippe Curtius. In England and Scotland, Tussaud had counted on the bankability of Curtius’s renown. For example, in Edinburgh she advertised waxworks “modelled from life by the great Curtius of Paris.” You might have noticed earlier that she mentions him by name in the title of that early catalogue as well. Tussaud stayed in Ireland from 1804-1808, traveling from city to city, and by May 1808, she had stepped out of Curtius’s shadow. While exhibiting in Belfast, she promoted her collection under her name and her name alone: “Madame Tussaud / Artist of the grand European / Cabinet of Figures / Modeled from life.” Biographer Kate Berridge says it best: “[Tussaud] had given birth to herself as a brand.”

A Separate Timeline for the Separate Room

In Scotland and Ireland, Tussaud continued to exhibit her gruesome relics of the French Revolution as well as her likeness of Colonel Despard. During these years, however, she started to display these figures in a showroom set apart from the rest of her collection. The name of this chamber varied over time, but it usually went by the Separate Room or the Adjoining Room. This division served at least two purposes. First, it implicitly passed a moral judgment on the individuals depicted in the Separate Room. While, generally speaking, the great and the good took pride of place in the main exhibition, the scum of the earth were to be seen next door in the Separate Room. (This split would become more pronounced as Tussaud added likenesses of one notorious murderer after another to this collection.) Second, Tussaud could boost revenue by charging an additional fee for admission to the Separate Room. Of course, many customers were more than happy to fork over the surcharge—the creepiest elements of Tussaud’s waxworks were some of the most popular.

Early in the process of storyboarding this season, I foresaw a problem with this chapter in Tussaud’s biography. We’ve just taken her up to 1808, but she would not add a brand-new likeness to the Separate Room until 1828. For the second half of this episode, we’re leaping into the future to talk about the homicide that finally moved Tussaud to beef up the Separate Room, the homicide that altered the course of her career. Next episode, rather than moving forward from 1828, we’ll turn back the clock and pick up with Tussaud circa 1810. For now, after a quick break, we’ll hear the harrowing tale of William Corder and Maria Marten.

Bill and Maria

Depending on whom you asked, William Corder led a respectable life before he became the arch-villain of 1828. Born in 1803, he came from a well-to-do farming family who made their home in the village of Polstead, Suffolk, in the east of England. For five years of his boyhood, Corder attended a jacket-and-tie boarding school in Hadleigh, a market town in Suffolk, during which time he excelled as a student. As he matured, Corder became the picture of a handsome gentleman-scholar, freckled and fresh-faced, sinewy if smallish at five-four-four-inches. Because of extreme shortsightedness, he wore a pair of eyeglasses that gave him a studious look. (On a side note, despite his visual impairment, Corder was a crack marksman and had ample practice with a pistol.) When he went to trial, numerous character witnesses testified to his kindheartedness and general amiability. Others pointed out that he eschewed such vices as excessive drink and overspending. Indeed, Corder was mostly known to part with his money account of a sweetheart.

Yet still others were more critical in their assessment of Corder’s character. Some complained of his haughty standoffishness, others of his propensity for gossip. Most disturbing were anecdotes about his dishonesty. This trait may have inspired one of Corder’s sobriquets. Many called him by the familiar “Bill,” yet others nicknamed him “Foxy,” perhaps suggesting wiliness. On one occasion, Corder’s father sold a litter of pigs to another Polstead farmer named Baalham. After this sale, Corder rounded up several hogs from the family farm and offered them to Baalham at a similar price, passing the livestock off as his own. Following this transaction, Corder’s father discovered these missing swine in Baalham’s possession and accused his neighbor of stealing them. Baalham vehemently denied this allegation since he had made the purchase in good faith. An ugly dispute ensued, but in the end, Corder was exposed as the culprit. This was not the only porcine heist on his record. Shortly before the murder of Maria Marten, Corder fell in with Samuel Smith, alias Cooper, an ex-convict who had twice served time for stealing pigs. One night, the two snuck over to a neighboring village and filched a swine, later slaughtered by Corder. Asked about his partner in crime, Smith reportedly opined, “I’ll be d---d if he will not be hung some of these days.” Time would prove him right.

While Corder hailed from relative privilege, Maria Marten sprang from humbler stock. Born in 1801, she was the daughter of a scrappy Polstead molecatcher, Thomas, and his first wife, Gracie. As a girl, Maria went to live with the family of a clergyman in Layham, Suffolk. There, she tended to the little ones in the nursery and furthermore received an education. Endowed with a keen intellect, Maria learned to read and write, setting her part from many working-class girls in the country. When she lost her mother at the age of nine, however, she had no choice but to move back to the family cottage in Polstead, providing emotional support for her father and caring for her younger siblings. In the unlooked-for and draining role of pre-teen matriarch, Marten made an effort to continue her schooling, with limited success. According to James Curtis, author of a contemporary book about the Red Barn murder, “Having been blessed with a very retentive memory, and her mind deeply embued [sic] with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, there is every reason to believe that, if she had received proper tuition, she would have made an accomplished woman.”

Marten grew up to become a beautiful young woman, and it comes as no surprise that she attracted multiple suitors. At the age of seventeen, she entered into a romantic relationship with Thomas Corder, William’s older brother. Probably because he belonged to a higher social class than Marten, Thomas insisted that they court on the sly. When Marten fell pregnant and then gave birth, Thomas grew distant, refusing to provide support for the child. Tragically, the baby died in infancy. Not long after, Marten was with child again, this time by the upper-middle-class Peter Matthews. Like Thomas Corder, Matthews split once the baby arrived. Unlike Marten’s first lover, however, he agreed to pay a monthly maintenance fee. This income proved vital as this child survived. He was christened Thomas Henry.

As time wore on, Marten felt mounting pressure to marry. She had carried the children of two separate men, neither of whom proposed. Now, she had a toddler to care for and scant means to do so without a breadwinner. By the standards of the period, however, Marten would not have made the most desirable wife. As a molecatcher’s daughter, she could offer little in the way of assets and as a so-called “fallen woman,” she carried a potent and permanent stigma that would tarnish her household’s reputation.

So it was that Maria met William in or around September 1826. In what must have seemed an ominous reenactment of her relationship with Thomas, the older Corder brother, William insisted that they court in secret. Passions flamed, and Marten was soon expecting a third child. Based on past experience, she had every reason to fear abandonment. Yet far from withdrawing, Corder leaned in, taking responsibility for the pregnancy and visiting the Martens’ cottage on a regular basis. Maria’s stepmother, Ann, disapproved of this “Foxy,” perhaps aware of his deceitful habits, but Maria seems to have loved him. His concern for her welfare as she prepared to give birth for a third time may have reassured her that he cared, too, nourishing a hope that he would make her his wife. The economic advantages of wedding Corder would not have been lost on her. In the span of eighteen months, William’s father and older brothers had passed away, leaving him as the proprietor of the lucrative family farm.

The relationship unraveled in two short months. Marten brought the baby to term, but the “sickly” infant would not live more than a month. With their illegitimate offspring ineligible for Christian burial, Maria and William probably buried their child in the fields outside the nearby village of Sudbury. Then, on May 18, 1827, shortly after the death of their baby, Corder showed up at the Martens’ cottage, unannounced, ready at last to marry Maria, though not under circumstances she could have foreseen. In the presence of Marten’s stepmother, Corder proposed that he and his paramour run away to Ipswich. There, they would tie the knot. They had to act fast and with the utmost discretion, Corder maintained, falsely claiming that parish constables were seeking Maria’s arrest on account of her illegitimate children. To avoid detection, she would have to dress as a man, removing her disguise at a predetermined location: the old red barn on Barnfield Hill, about a half-mile from the Marten residence. One imagines that Maria experienced the prospect of this drag-show elopement as alarming, exhilarating, and even absurd. At any rate, she consented to Corder’s scheme, saying her farewells and setting out from the cottage in the guise of a man. Her family never saw her alive again.

But they did see Corder over the next few months. He took up residence outside Polstead shortly after Marten’s disappearance but still came home from time to time. Asked what on earth had become of Maria, Corder assured her family that he had married her in Ipswich as planned. His Polstead visits became increasingly infrequent until they ceased altogether, after which he communicated with the Martens by post. Now, he claimed, he and “Mrs. Corder” were living in blissful matrimony on the conveniently isolated Isle of Wight in the English Channel. When Marten’s relatives demanded to know why Maria had not written to them herself, Corder unfailingly came up with an excuse: she had fallen ill or injured her writing hand. He also insisted that she had written to them, but the letter had gotten lost.

These evasions kept up until about April 1828, almost twelve months after Maria’s vanishing. There are differing accounts of what precisely led to the discovery of the crime. Newspaper stories as well as sermons about the Polstead bloodshed repeated the more wondrous version over and over again. Maria’s stepmother, Ann, supposedly saw her stepdaughter in a series of three dreams on as many consecutive nights, dead and buried inside the Red Barn. Driven by these revelatory visions, she prevailed on her husband to search the barn for traces of Maria. Surprisingly, perhaps, the story of Ann’s nocturnal clairvoyance was submitted as evidence at Maria’s inquest. However, as Judith Flanders notes in her indispensable study of the nineteenth-century obsession with true crime, The Invention of Murder, no mention of Ann’s dreadful dreams was made at Corder’s trial. Instead, witnesses proffered a more prosaic explanation as to how the murder came to light. As worry over Maria’s continued silence grew, a neighbor recalled that Corder had asked to borrow a spade on the day of her supposed departure for Ipswich. Another local remembered seeing the youth head toward the Red Barn with a pickaxe in hand.

Whatever prompted him to take action, on April 19, 1828, Thomas went to the Red Barn, equipped with a mole spike. Driving the sharp instrument into the earth inside a grain storage bin, he later testified with forensic matter-of-factness that he “brought up something black, which I smelt and thought it was like decayed flesh.” His olfactory nerve had not misled him: he unearthed the badly decomposed body of Maria Marten, buried in a sack. Her killer had shot her in the eye and stabbed her twice, once in the ribs and once in the heart. Furthermore, a post-mortem noted, her attacker had pulled a green handkerchief “so tight upon the neck as to have produced death by strangulation.” It was impossible to determine which of these injuries killed the victim. An inquest was held, and Maria’s sister, also named Ann, identified the body. Despite the advanced state of decomposition, she recognized the color and texture of her hair, that cist on her face, the gap in her teeth. And then there was the green handkerchief, recovered from the crime scene. Ann knew this accessory on sight; it belonged to William Corder.

Police had their prime suspect, and they made short work of tracking him down. He had left Polstead for London, it turned out, and you never would have taken him for a murdering bastard based on the life he was leading there. For starters, he had taken over as the co-owner of a girls’ school—a respectable enough profession. On top of that, he had done what he promised to do with Maria Marten: he married. Indeed, he met his wife by placing an advertisement in the lonely hearts columns of the Morning Herald and the Sunday Times. It reads, “A Private Gentleman, aged 24, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded . . . To any female of respectability . . . and willing to confide her future happiness in one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the advertiser is in affluence; […] should this meet the eye of any agreeable lady who feels desirous of meeting with a sociable, tender, kind and sympathizing companion, they will find this advertisement worthy of notice.” This tenderest, kindest, and most sympathizing gentleman-bachelor received more than forty responses to his ad in the Herald, combined with another forty from the Sunday Times. Police arrested him more or less at the breakfast table, in the company of his astonished wife. Next, he would go to trial.

The Red Barn Murder Mania

The Red Barn murder excited intense public interest. It had all the makings of a titillating melodrama—a lying villain, a largely sympathetic cross-dressing heroine, illicit sex, a supposed elopement, a cold-blooded murder, and a discovery of the body by supernatural means. That the whole horrid affair had played out against the unspeakably bucolic backdrop of Polstead also captured the popular imagination.

Before we discuss the many ways in which Britons indulged their curiosity about the Red Barn murder, I want to introduce a core concept of this season: true-crime culture. Today, the true crime genre is a pillar of popular entertainment, encompassing multiple media. To give a few examples, we read newspapers, watch Netflix miniseries, and of course listen to podcasts about sensational crimes, especially murder. Because the genre has become so popular on streaming platforms and other mass media, the craze for true crime can seem like a decidedly modern phenomenon. But if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this season of The Art of Crime it’s this: people relished tales of true crime long before the twenty-first—or even the twentieth—century. Britons were certainly gobbling them down in the 1820s, and you can rest assured they were before then, too. In the early nineteenth century, various cultural institutions—newspapers, playhouses, and wax museums—quickly realized the widespread appeal of true crime and exploited it for profit. Taken together, the staggering output of plays, songs, books, and so forth make up what I call true-crime culture. In the nineteenth-century, much like today, true-crime culture cut across multiple media. A survey of the Red Barn murder mania will show you what I mean.

Maybe quickest to cash in on the Polstead tragedy were the newspapers. Back then, journalistic standards were not what they are now. Even at the most reputable publications, newspapermen played fast and loose with the truth, especially if it allowed them to craft a narrative that would resonate with readers and thus boost sales. In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders examines how journalists covering the Red Barn murder airbrushed details about the key players to enhance the story. To begin with, they transformed Corder, a well-to-do tenant farmer, into a filthy rich squire, a stock villain in contemporary stage plays. Condemnations of his character were commonplace, as were baseless accusations of further crimes. For example, The Times vilified him as “unfeeling and wretched,” falsely suggesting that he had tried to murder Marten’s second child. Other periodicals ran with this unsubstantiated claim and cooked up a scheme in which Corder had attempted to kill the toddler with a poisoned fig. At the same time, reporters downplayed Marten’s illegitimate children, which otherwise would have damaged her reputation. According to The Times, even though “her conduct cannot be justified, much might be said in palliation.” In the end, the story of the Red Barn murder came to resemble the kind of black-and-white narratives that were characteristic of nineteenth-century stage melodrama, in which pure villainy preyed on pure innocence.

Those who could not afford newspapers, still relatively expensive at the time, might have turned to broadsides for up-to-date details about a horrible murder. Broadsides dated back to the sixteenth century, but technological advances had recently made it much easier and cheaper to produce them. Your typical broadside was a single, unfolded sheet of paper, printed on one side. You could buy one on the street for a penny or less, or you could peruse one without paying for it in a pub. Much as modern sports bars mount TVs on the walls and screen football and soccer matches today, publicans back then would pin up broadsides for customers to enjoy as they downed their drinks. When a headline-grabbing homicide captivated the public, publishers released a series of broadsides, one for each major break in the case—the discovery of a body, the detainment of the suspect, the ensuing courtroom drama---all of which came to a profitable climax with an issue about the execution. In addition to a brief essay that was not unlike a news article, murder broadsides might feature relevant poems, ballads, and engravings. A broadside published about the Red Barn murder, viewable on the Art of Crime website, boasted no fewer than five engravings related to the offense. One on the bottom left depicts the first time Marten set eye on the Red Barn, a nighttime scene, with Corder pointing toward the building, perched at the top of a grassy hillock in the background, dark and foreboding beneath the moon overhead. Another on the bottom right illustrates Marten’s fatal visit to the barn, this time bathed in the light of day, nestled among the fields of the countryside.

True-crime culture extended well beyond the realm of print media. Consider the peep show. Originating in the fifteenth century, peepshows made use of large wooden boxes with peepholes on one side. Paying customers peered through these apertures to gawk at images projected, painted, or otherwise displayed on the other end of the container. When depictions of a blood-curdling murder weren’t on view, common subject matter included pictures of exotic animals, faraway places, courtly masques, and of course pornography. Wandering entertainers set up peepshows at fairs or on streetcorners, charging a small fee for a look inside. As an adult, Lord George Sanger became proprietor of the largest circus in nineteenth-century Europe, but as a boy, he toured fairgrounds with his father’s peep show. In their apparatus, images were somehow raised and lowered by strings, illuminated by candlelight after nightfall. Writing in 1910, Sanger recalls that the family business participated in the Red Barn murder mania. Sanger beckoned potential customers, “Walk up and see the only correct views of the terrible murder of Maria Marten. They are historically accurate and true to life. See how the ghost of Maria appeared to her mother on three successive nights at the bedside . . .” Apart from Marten’s homicide and her spectral homecoming, Corder’s arrest figured prominently. “Observe the horrified faces,” Singer exclaimed as patrons squinted through peepholes, “and note also, these pictures are so true to life, that even the saucepan is shown upon the fire and the minute glass upon the table timing the boiling of the eggs.”

Perhaps no institution turned a greater profit than the theaters. Dramatizations of the Red Barn murder played out in all manner of venues, from puppet booths to illegal, unlicensed playhouses known as penny gaffs. In May 1828, less than a month after the discovery of Marten’s body, fairgoers were taking in dramatic reenactments of the murder in Stoke-by-Nayland, another village in Suffolk. In July, residents of—and visitors to—Polstead were treated to not one but two separate theatrical representations of “The Late Murder of Maria Marten,” both at the Cherry Fair. The more graphic of these horror shows included a scene inside the Red Barn, “where the mutilated body was [seen] lying on . . . the floor, surrounded by the Coroner and the gentlemen of the jury as they appeared . . . after the fatal discovery.”

Because of its tie to the homicide, the Red Barn itself became an object of morbid fascination. Countless sightseers engaged in what you might call murder tourism, making daytrips to visit the crime scene. Staffordshire potters sculpted models of the Red Barn, priced for sale to the middle-classes. One ceramic replica is bright red, complete with a golden thatched roof along with some chickens and a pig in the front yard. Meanwhile, a figurine of Corder stands before the open doorway, beckoning to Marten, who is off to one side. With time, you could even own a piece of the barn. Not unlike the Bastille in 1789, the edifice was torn down, after which merchants sold the detritus as toothpicks, tobacco-stoppers, and even snuffboxes. We’ll hear how this surge of true-crime culture impacted the trial and execution of Corder after a quick break.

Anatomy of a Murderer

Ceramic decorations and marionette plays might sound harmless, but the nationwide murder festival raised concerns about whether Corder could receive a fair trial. Newspaper, broadside, peepshow, melodrama—the medium did not matter. Time and again, Corder’s culpability was taken for granted, so by the time he went to trial in early August 1828, much of the public considered him guilty until proven innocent. The defendant’s attorney seized on this problem, asking of one witness, a churchwarden, “Are there not exhibitions going round the neighbourhood representing Corder as the murderer . . . And you’ve not interfered to prevent them? Is there not a camera obscura near this very hall at this moment, exhibiting him as the murderer?” (In this context, the term “camera obscura” probably refers to a peepshow.) The clergyman answered, “There is a camera obscura, I believe about the streets, but I do not know the nature of the exhibition, neither am I aware that I have any power to prevent them in my own parish, much less in this town.” Hardly a win for the defense.

The problem of a tainted jury pool might have caused more of an uproar if Corder had not obviously committed the crime. The evidence against him was overwhelming. Marten was last seen in his company. His green handkerchief was found at the crime scene. Police discovered a handbag belonging to Marten in his study. In the same room, he kept a pair of pistols along with a sword. Corder was later shown to have had this blade sharpened right before the killing. And let’s not forget: he lied to the Martens for months about living on the Isle of Wight with Maria, who in fact was dead and buried in a barn—nothing sketchy about that. Corder’s attempts to defend himself were pitiful. He told the court that Marten had planned to flee Polstead in an effort to conceal another illegitimate pregnancy, a falsehood that bore less than a second of scrutiny. She had already had three children out of wedlock, so why would a fourth suddenly send her running for the hills? After this assertion, Corder spoke of some nebulous relationship between Marten and an unnamed man from London. When she met him—that is, Corder—at the Red Barn on the day of her death, “she flew into a passion, upbraided me with not having so much regard for her as the gentleman before alluded to.” Then, she shot herself dead. Panicking that others would suspect him of murdering her, he buried the body without reporting the suicide.

To nobody’s surprise, Corder was convicted and sentenced to death. On August 11, a large crowd assembled to watch him hang at Bury St. Edmunds jail. The exact number of spectators is unknown, but estimates range from seven to twenty thousand. According to one broadside, the condemned man was “so weak as to be unable to stand without support,” and “he looked somewhat wildly around” as the hangman adjusted the noose. Corder died a prolonged and agonizing death. He survived the initial fall from the scaffold, the drop having failed to break his neck. In the words of one witness, the executioner performed the “disgusting but necessary task of suspending his own weight around the body of the prisoner, to accelerate his death.” Despite this “humane” measure, Corder kicked and twitched for eight minutes until finally falling still. Ever prepared to make some fast cash, the hangman is reported to have sold segments of the cord that strangled Corder at a guinea an inch.

The spectator sport of public execution gave way to a more scientific—if at times pseudo-scientific—line of inquiry: the anatomy of a murderer. The criminal’s corpse was transported from the gallows to the Shire Hall, where a surgeon laid out his body and removed the skin from his upper torso, exposing the bones and muscle tissue beneath. This macabre anatomical display was open to the public. Over the next twenty-four hours or so, thousands of sightseers came to view it. The next day, the cadaver was transferred to the County Hospital, where it underwent public humiliation in the name of scientific instruction. Specialists in galvanism wired it up to a battery and administered shocks, showing how muscles spasmed with electricity.

Phrenologists also weighed in on the specimen. The junk science of phrenology held that you could make inferences about human behavior based on the shape and texture of the skull. Presumably, the bumps and craters of Corder’s cranium revealed his inherent capacity to kill. Afterward, anatomists separated skin from bone entirely and exhibited the killer’s skeleton in the Suffolk General Hospital. Most gruesomely of all, perhaps, one medical professional tanned a quantity of the leftover skin, which he planned to use to as binding for a book about Corder’s life and trial.

Crime of the Centuries

Corder was dead, but the story of his despicable crime wasn’t going anywhere. Some version of it held the English stage for much—maybe most—of the rest of the 1800s, not ot mention the beginning of the twentieth century. As they mounted and remounted productions about the Red Barn slaying, playmakers kept things fresh with new gimmicks. Some made use of special effects. For instance, one script concludes with a veritable phantasmagoria. In the final scene, Corder sits in his prison cell on the eve of his execution. The spirit of Maria Marten appears without warning, awash in the eldritch glow of blue fire, her visitation accompanied by a ghostly melody. Others deployed special-gust casting. In the early 1860s, one production featured James Lee, the very same policeman who arrested Corder in London. Seventy-six years old at the time of this performance, Lee played himself and reenacted the detainment.

The Red Barn murder also proved influential in music. It was common practice for balladeers to write and sing songs about real-life homicides. In 1908, English folk singer Joseph Taylor sang a passage from a ballad about Maria Marten to Percy Grainger, who recorded the performance using a wax cylinder. What you’re hearing right now is a snippet of that recording, and if you want to hear more, there’s a link on the Art of Crime website. Today, I want to wrap up with another musical allusion to the Red Barn Murder that I found out about quite by surprise while working on this episode. I listen to music when I research and write, and I was going through the discography of experimental blues and jazz singer Tom Waits. He’s a phenomenal lyricist with a penchant for the dark and sordid, and he sounds like he started smoking a pack a day in the womb and grew up in a coal mine. Depending on your tastes, that description might not sound too appealing, but I dig his music and would highly recommend it. His most popular album is Rain Dogs, and it’s probably my favorite. Anyway, I was writing this episode and listening to Waits’s 1992 record, Bone Machine, which I had never heard before, when the opening line of a song made my jaw drop: “There was a murder in the red barn, a murder in the red barn.” I looked at my phone and realized that I was listening to a song entitled “Murder in the Red Barn.” Its lyrics are cryptic as all get out but appear not to make any direct reference to the historical crime. Rather than croon—or croak—about the murder of Maria Marten, Waits calls attention to the everyday violence of agricultural labor with this haunting line: “’Cause there’s nothin’ strange about an axe with bloodstains in a barn / There’s always some killin’ you got to do around the farm.”

Given the powerful—and what would prove enduring—interest in the Red Barn murder, it’s no wonder Tussaud found a way to make a buck on it. She introduced an effigy of Corder in the Separate Room shortly after his hanging. According to Pauline Chapman, she was unable to attend either his trial or execution, so she could not make sketches for her model from life. Fortunately for her, however, there were other reliable sources to work from. At least two artists, Mizonti of Cambridge and a certain Mr. Child, did have a chance to visit Shire Hall when the killer’s cold body was laid out on a slab, and one or both took death masks of Corder. Fashioning her model with the help of Corder’s death mask would allow Tussaud to stress the accuracy of her effigy, even though she had never seen the perpetrator in the flesh. Probably more true to life than the average broadside engraving and certainly more faithful than an actor playing the killer onstage, Tussaud’s effigy played a part in fixing Corder’s image in the public consciousness.

The unveiling of Corder’s likeness marked a watershed in Tussaud’s career. Since the outbreak of the French Revolution, she had only depicted crimes and criminals that were political in nature. In striking contrast, neither William Corder nor the murder of Maria Marten bore any connection to the realm of politics. This exception became the norm, and her sculpture of him remained on display for many years.

Next episode, we crisscross the United Kingdom with Tussaud and her burgeoning family business. Along the way, we’ll head back to Edinburgh, where a killing spree garnered national attention and motivated another new addition to the Separate Room less than one year after the Red Barn murder.


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