Sins of the fathers (and mothers...)
William Corder and Maria Martin, the major players in the Red Barn affair, both came to sticky ends but their children did not fare much better.
Maria had three children by three different fathers, although only her second child, by Peter Mathews, ‘A Gentleman’, survived into adulthood. Thomas Henry Martin was three years old when his mother was killed, but he grew up living with Maria’s father and step-mother, and eventually took over the Martins’ cottage for a rent of one shilling a year.
Peter Mathews had been supporting his son to the extent of £5 per quarter – which was far more than a parish bastardy order would have demanded. Presumably he carried on with the arrangement after Maria’s death. He may even have made a cash settlement on the child at some point, he could certainly afford it; he left £18,000 on his death in 1870. It is unlikely though that Thomas Henry Martin saw any of that money.
The Ipswich Journal, in December 1887, reported that Thomas Henry Martin, aged 63, had died in Maria Martin’s cottage where he had lived all of his life. The circumstances were tragic. His wife, who was several years older than him, was bedridden, ‘a helpless invalid’. He was unable to work so they were very poor. His wife heard him fall over several times but was unable to go and help him. She lay in bed for 24 hours without food or water before someone came and discovered the body…
William Corder’s wife Mary, whom he met after advertising in the newspapers for a wife, was six months pregnant at the time of his trial. The child, John Corder, was born in his grandmother’s house in Polstead three months later, but it was reported that he had a withered arm and may also have been mentally handicapped.
If a relationship of sorts grew up between the two Mrs Corders, it soon soured. Eight years later Mary Corder junior, brought an action for false imprisonment against William Corder’s sister Elizabeth, her husband Martin Harvey and others, following an incident outside their home. It seems that Mrs Corder junior was seeking financial support for herself and her son, and was convinced that Mrs Corder senior was hiding in her daughter’s cottage...
Subsequently the newspapers reported that Mrs Corder junior and her son were effectively destitute. Mary Corder junior died in Colchester in 1857, but John Corder lived for another 35 years. He died in an asylum in Essex in 1893.
I do tend to bang on about Wagner and Mahler in this column, but actually Beethoven was my first love, and every now and then I am reminded why.
This evening I watched Eroica, a fictional account of the first performance of Beethoven’s third symphony in the home of a nobleman in Vienna in 1804. From a distance of 200 years, bearing in mind the presence of Wagner and Mahler in between, it is easy to forget, or even be unaware, how truly revolutionary Beethoven’s music was at the time and still is.
The film, Eroica, captures this beautifully, and the reaction of some of the characters to Beethoven’s unconventional musical ‘novelties’, crescendi, discords etc, reminds me of the first time I heard the symphony performed at the Festival Hall in London. There was a young lady and an older man sitting in front of us – obviously a couple – and several times, during unexpected ‘discords’ or odd instrumental entries, she turned sharply to her companion as if to say, ‘that was a mistake, wasn’t it?’ But of course, it wasn’t a mistake; it was Beethoven, weaving his unique magic, as effective as ever, 200 years later.
There are many mysteries associated with the death of Maria Martin in the Red Barn in Polstead in 1827. Some of these follow from the actions of the man hanged for her murder, William Corder. Potentially, he had committed not one but three capital offences, having also stolen a five pound note from Maria, and uttered a forged cheque for £93. But the major difficulty with Corder concerns his confession, signed twelve hours before he was executed. He admitted shooting Maria Martin in the Red Barn and burying her body there, but he always denied stabbing her:
…I declare to almighty God that I had no sharp instrument about me, and that no other wound than the one made by the pistol was inflicted by me.
The three surgeons consulted in the inquest and trial had asserted that as well as the gunshot wound to the head, the body showed evidence of a knife or sword thrust into the same wound. There were also stab wounds to the neck and between the ribs, puncturing the heart. In addition, a handkerchief was tied so tightly around the neck that strangulation might have occurred. Corder’s only comment on the handkerchief was that he might have dragged the body by it to the hole he had dug in the barn floor.
The surgeon who initially examined the body during the inquest, Mr Lawton, was not present several weeks later when Maria’s corpse was exhumed. A ‘Mr Glover’, whose involvement was never properly explained, but was probably a member of the jury and the ‘scientific gentleman’ referred to by another surgeon, had noticed a stab wound between the ribs that Lawton had not seen. Three surgeons and two separate examinations showed that Maria had been stabbed several times.
The authorities wished to tie up the loose ends. They had convicted Corder and he had subsequently confessed to the murder but absolutely denied that he had stabbed Maria… Was someone else involved? Could the evidence of the surgeons be trusted? That Lawton at least had failed to do his job properly, was evidenced by the necessity of digging up Maria’s remains for a second examination.
The Sunday Times, on 17th August 1828, the Sunday following the execution, ran a story to the effect that Mr Orridge, the prison governor at Bury who oversaw the execution, had conducted an investigation. He had concluded that the stab wounds on Maria's body were made by an overenthusiastic member of the inquest jury, who wished to probe ‘…how far decomposition had advanced…’ A few days later, Orridge had some correspondence with a J Curtis about the confession and Corder’s denial that he stabbed Maria. No mention was made of the involvement of a member of the inquest jury.
On Wednesday 20th August, the Bury and Suffolk Herald repeated the Sunday Times story as ‘…going the round of the London newspapers’, but denied that Orridge was involved. The story wanted the ‘corroboration of a living witness to attest to the “fact”…’
The newspaper also published a letter from one of the surgeons, John Charles Nairn, who was responding to questions raised about the veracity of their findings in the light of Corder’s denial of any stabbing. He said that the gunshot wound alone could not have killed Maria, and also questioned Corder’s statement about the heavy bleeding from the pistol shot, given the path of the bullet. He said that these conclusions were not just his but that he consulted ‘several respectable members of the profession.’ He went on to ‘prove’ how the mole-spade could not have made the wounds in the body when Thomas Martin was probing the ground looking for it, but failed to mention the possibility that the mole spike could have done it.
Two weeks later, Nairn had another letter published responding to the story about the enthusiastic juryman. He had been assured, he said, that none of the jurymen touched the body. Regarding the wound in the neck, he said that ‘…as soon as the handkerchiefs had been removed from the face and neck…one of the first things that attracted our attention, was the wound beneath them…’ But of course, he wasn’t there. Lawton was the only surgeon present. He, alone, had untied the handkerchief and observed the wound, and no word was forthcoming from him. He had failed to notice the thrust between the ribs, and for good measure he removed the head in order to investigate fully the track of the bullet. He thus ensured that no further evidence could be gained from the neck wound...
I read somewhere that every country deserves its Press and its politicians. As for the press, I will comment on that elsewhere, but I will admit to feeling mightily fed up with domestic politics.
The Scottish referendum highlighted an aspect all too clear in Britain today – everyone is fed up with politicians. The independence vote gave the Scots an opportunity to put two fingers up to the Westminster Parliament. In England of course we have our own independence movement, and this highlights a personal problem I have been struggling with for many years: in assessing people, their abilities and the quality of their judgements, how do you stop personal ‘attractiveness’ getting in the way of a sober evaluation of their capabilities? The inverse problem is as troublesome: how do you support someone who is doing a good job but that you personally dislike?
I quite like Nigel Farage. He has a straightforward attitude, he is unafraid of laughing at himself and he presents his arguments in a very credible manner. But UKIP policies encapsulate the very worst xenophobic ‘little Englander’ attitudes in this country. The idea that the essence of a political movement is to be ‘anti’ anything, suggests a limitation of intellect that is really quite worrying. And that worrying ‘limitation of intellect’ has just secured its first scalp. Let us hope that the defection and re-election of a person with strong local support is just a flash in the pan.
I think I am more depressed about British politics now, than I can ever remember.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs