I’m intrigued and aggravated in equal measure the more I read Donald McCormick’s 1967 book on the Red Barn murder. The claims made: blackmail, conspiracy, robbery and murder, Beauty Smith being the secret lover of Maria’s stepmother and having ‘finished Maria off’ by stabbing her, unknown to Corder, are sensational. The deafening lack of response to the book, with the exception of a fairly indifferent review in the East Anglian Daily Times, suggests that McCormick’s reputation as an investigative journalist into historical events was already somewhat tarnished.
McCormick wrote over thirty books. He tackled the question of the identity of Jack the Ripper; he wrote about the Hell Fire club in a ‘carefree manner…rumour and speculation…’ (The Times, 10th April 1958); The Mystery of Lord Kitchener’s Death, where he had ‘disentangled truth from fiction…’ (The Times, 9th April 1959); a book describing how a Welshman called Madoc beat Columbus to North America, (writing as Richard Deacon), but admitting that, ‘it is one of those difficult things where legend ends and fact begins.’ (The Times, 20 Feb 1967). Quite so.
In the Red Barn book McCormick cites his sources, but these raise more questions than are answered. On the one hand he details the prosecution brief for Corder held in the Bury St Edmunds record office – which I have looked at, but lists ‘Correspondence of Mrs E T Kemp (Caroline Palmer, actress) with Mrs S F Hampson of Sydney…’ with no mention of where the correspondence is or how he knew about it. Then he cites the Settler’s Sentinel, Sydney, 21 July 1859. Interrogation of the excellent website of the National Library of Australia recognizes no newspaper or journal of that name…
Perhaps he was just a sloppy researcher; I cannot believe that he just made it all up. And tantalisingly, a Mrs Hampson did make a journey between Sydney and Launceston (Tasmania) in April 1837. This was before Wainwright arrived, but it suggests that said Mrs Hampson was in the habit of travelling between those two towns at about the right time. Was ‘Hampson’ a common name at the time? Not very; there were 3,529 people called Hampson recorded in the England census of 1841…
McCormick knew Ian Fleming well, and many of his books deal with espionage. One wonders whether that, coupled with Fleming’s best known creation, Mr Bond, might just have stimulated McCormick’s imagination to be less than rigorous in the search for sensation.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs