Melodrama

In 1827, in the small village of Polstead in Suffolk, England, a local farmer called William Corder killed his lover, Maria Marten, the daughter of the village mole catcher.

So what? A common place tale, of interest to nobody apart from the killer, the victim and their respective families and friends. Yet for some reason the story caught the imagination of the public and the press to such a degree that it immediately spawned ballads (one supposedly by the very murderer) and plays (still performed on stage). In fact, the first play was penned before the trial was even held!

Come all you thoughtless young men, a warning take by me,
And think upon my unhappy fate to be hanged upon a tree;
My name is William Corder, to you I do declare,
I courted Maria Marten, most beautiful and fair.

(The Murder of Maria Marten by W. Corder)

There are various macabre details to the story, some of which concerns a book I saw this weekend in the town museum of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk – occasioning this post. Do you know what anthropodermic bibliopegy is? If not, I dare you to read on!


Murder in the Red Barn

The skeleton (ahem) of the story is as follows:

Village girl Maria Marten became the lover of William Corder, a local farmer, and they had a child. Maria hoped to coax or, failing that, to coerce William to marry her (as the father of her child, if he refused to marry her, he would have been imprisoned); when the child died, however, she lost her leverage. William suggested that they elope and get married somewhere where they are less known; they met at their usual meeting place, the Red Barn, where William shot her.

If you will meet me at the Red barn, as sure as I have life,
I will take you to Ipswich town, and there to make you my wife;
I then went home and fetched my gun, my pickaxe and my spade,
I went into the Red-barn, and there I dug her grave.

After the murder he fled, got married and opened a boarding school for young ladies. He was captured a year later when Maria’s stepmother dreamed that Maria had been murdered in the Red Barn. Maria’s father went to the barn and found the dead body.

Her mother’s mind being so disturbed, she dreamt three nights o’er,
Her daughter she lay murdered, beneath the Red-barn floor;
She sent the father to the barn, when he the ground did thrust,
And there he found his daughter mingling with the dust.

Now to flesh it out:

We will never know how Maria died exactly. She had been clearly shot – Corder claimed the gun went off by accident during a quarrel – but she also had stab-like wounds and Corder’s green handkerchief was around her neck. Was she not only shot but stabbed and then strangled? And perhaps even buried alive, speculated the press with relish. Or were the stab-like wounds simply caused by her father’s spade when he dug up the body? Nobody knows.

Maria was not exactly an innocent girl led astray by profligate William. She already had two lovers in the past, and she had a child by each of them; one of whom died in infancy. Her first lover in fact was none other than one of William’s elder brothers. She was also hardly the village beauty; she had two front teeth missing and had an unpleasant looking growth on her neck.

Although nobody seemed to pick up on this back in 1828 at William Corder’s trial, there seems to be little doubt that the stepmother must have known what happened to Maria, perhaps was even present in the barn. What was her role exactly? If she was in the barn, who called her there – William or Maria? Was she complicit in the murder? She was only a year older than Maria herself – was she too in love with Corder? Did Maria have to die to ease her jealousy? If she was there at Maria’s request and was not complicit in the murder, why did Corder leave her alive? It’s interesting that she only “dreamed” about the details of the murder when it became known that Corder got married.

Melodrama

n, ¹a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions. (Oxford Dictionary of English)

All of the above makes the story of the murder an excellent source of melodrama. As I mentioned in the introduction, the story of Maria Marten’s murder became an instant hit with the 19th century audience. This was an age when melodramas were particularly popular, and before the trial even opened, Corder was already condemned by the press as a murderous monster – in line with the characteristics of classic melodrama. Maria in turn was presented as the innocent village beauty, led astray by the rich young squire. The difference in their social status – which wasn’t actually all that great – was duly emphasised in press reports. Further contributing to the melodrama were the dramatic dreams of the step-mother, the father finding the body and the young wife of Corder. Not even the judge himself was averse to a little melodramatic effect:

You sent this unfortunate woman to her account without giving her any time for preparation. She had no time to turn her eyes to the Throne of Grace for mercy and forgiveness. She had no time given her to repent of her many transgressions. She had no time to throw herself upon her knees and to implore for pardon at the Eternal Throne.

(Closing speech of Judge Baron Alexander at the trial)

A Gruesome Book in Bury Town Museum

William Corder was condemned to hanging, dissecting and anatomising for the murder of Maria Marten in 1828 in the court of Bury St Edmunds. The interest in the case was so extreme that when he was taken to be executed, a new door had to be cut into a side wall of the prison to allow the prisoner access to the gallows. A crowd of up to 20,000 people came to see Corder hanged; some 5,000 then went on to view the dissected body at the Shire Hall later that day.

This was not the end of the story of the body of William Corder, however. In the 1930s, his skeleton was still used to train local nurses – apparently they used to dance with him – and one of the surgeons involved in the dissection used Corder’s skin… to bind a book. Appropriately, the book was the account of the trial of William Corder.

So now you know what anthropodermic bibliopegy is: it’s the practice of binding books in human skin.

(Apparently it was particularly in vogue in the early 19th century.)

You don’t want to believe it? I wouldn’t either if I didn’t see the book with my own eyes in the town museum of Bury last weekend. I have to admit: I couldn’t really observe it very closely. I couldn’t make myself to take a photo of it either, or even stomach the idea of uploading somebody else’s photo here – if you want to see it, follow the link below. By the way, the museum in Bury also has his death mask and his scalp, with one ear attached… Disturbing doesn’t begin to cover it.

Links:Broadside Ballad Entitled 'The Murder of Maria Marten'The Macabre World of Books Bound in Human SkinMurder and Melodrama: The Red Barn Story on StageWhat Really Happened with the Notorious Murder at the Red Barn in Polstead?Moyse's Hall (Bury St Edmunds Town Museum)

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