(Updated 28th January 2015)
As an autodidact in the writing business, I am not sure of the correct protocol when one discovers that another writer, purportedly of factual material, is found to have been manufacturing evidence in order to make a good story.
I come from a background (a long time ago) in scientific research. There was little point in publishing anything that was not 110% accurate, because someone, probably several people, would try to repeat your findings. If their results agreed with yours, all was well and the new ‘discovery’ would enter the canon of accepted results until someone else did something better. But woe betide you if your work was faulty; and the deliberate manufacturing of results was completely beyond the pale. Anyone discovered doing that was disgraced and could never work again. That is how science worked and works still. Peer review is an absolute essential to ensuring that only tried and tested ‘information’ finds its way into broad scientific knowledge.
For reasons explained elsewhere in this blog I am interested in the Red Barn Murder that took place in Polstead in 1827. In reviewing the existing literature on the subject I have found that, with a few exceptions, it leaves much to be desired. The most readable text is The Red Barn Mystery, Some new evidence on an old murder, by Donald McCormick, published in 1967. McCormick was a journalist and prolific writer. He wrote dozens of books, specializing under the pseudonym Richard Deacon in factual stories about the spying business. He also wrote about the Hell Fire Club, the identity of Jack the Ripper and the ‘mysterious’ death of Lord Kitchener. His book on the Red Barn murder makes sensational reading. He offers astonishing explanations for the two great mysteries concerned with the affair: how did Maria’s mother come to dream that she had been murdered and buried in the Red Barn? And why was it that although Maria’s body showed clear signs of stab-wounds, William Corder denied absolutely that he ever stabbed her, even after he admitted shooting and burying her?
McCormick claimed that Beauty Smith, Corder’s one-time accomplice in pig-thieving, was hiding in the Red Barn. Corder shot Maria, and thinking her dead, went to find a spade to bury her body. But she came to and Smith stabbed her to put her out of her misery. Maria’s step-mother, Anne Martin, knew she had been killed and buried in the barn, because Smith told her; they were having an affair…
Between the time of Maria’s death and Corder’s arrest for her murder, Beauty Smith had been convicted for animal-stealing, and was transported for life. According to McCormick, while Smith was in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), he met Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a well-known writer, forger and putative poisoner, who had also been transported for life. Wainewright had been acquainted with Corder in London and Beauty Smith confessed to him that he had stabbed Maria in the Red Barn after Corder shot her. Apparently, Wainwright told this story to Mrs Hampson of Sydney, a friend of an English actress Caroline Palmer, who had played Maria in stage adaptations of the murder and became interested in the case. In addition to this, Corder’s sister, Mary Borham, ‘years after the execution of her brother’, found some old diaries of his in which he referred to his acquaintance with Wainwright in London. Mary Borham became friends with Caroline Palmer and corresponded with her ‘for a few years’.
This is absolutely fascinating stuff except for two problems: Mary Borham, William Corder’s sister, was buried in Polstead, on 5th January 1829, less than six months after his execution, and Beauty Smith was transported not to Van Diemen’s Land, but to Sydney. Since both he and Wainewright were transported for life, even if either had got a Ticket of Leave (a type of parole), which both did, this would have precluded travel outside of their local area. Thus it would have been impossible for them ever to have met up in Australia.
There are a number of lesser ‘errors’ in McCormick’s book. He reports that Corder’s wife Mary gave birth prematurely in Lavenham, and she and the child died within hours of each other. Yet several newspapers reported that she gave birth on 16th November in Polstead where the birth was registered. Subsequent investigation shows that she lived for many years after that, and the child, John Corder, had a largely successful career as a newspaper and book-seller in Colchester, and died in 1892. McCormick cites a newspaper or journal, Settlers’ Sentinel, Sydney, 21 July 1859 in his references. The National Library of Australia have no record of such a publication ever having existed, nor was there any newspaper or journal with the words ‘Settler’ or ‘Sentinel’ in the title extant in Sydney in 1859.
Needless to say, all attempts at finding any record of the existence of the actress ‘Caroline Palmer’, which was allegedly the stage name of Mrs E T Kemp, have failed, as have attempts to identify Mrs Hampson of Sydney.
Clearly, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but all of these facts, taken together, point to only one conclusion: either Donald McCormick was fed spurious information by his network of international contacts, resulting from his years spent as foreign manager for the Sunday Times, or he deliberately manufactured evidence in order to make a good story.
A search of the internet will reveal that Jeremy Duns, an active writer and journalist, and Melvin Harris, a writer now deceased, both charge Donald McCormick with manufacturing evidence. Harris claimed that McCormick invented evidence in respect of two of his books, The Mystery of Lord Kitchener’s Death, and The Identity of Jack the Ripper. Details can be seen here: http://www.casebook.org/dissertations/maybrick_diary/mb-mc.html
Jeremy Duns claims that McCormick’s The Life of Ian Fleming also contains manufactured evidence. Duns’ material can be seen here: http://www.jeremy-duns.com/blog/licence-to-hoax
All of this means that Donald McCormick’s book on the Red Barn murder is effectively worthless as an account of historical fact, and the various mysteries associated with Maria Martin’s murder remain.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs