It is a cliché in TV detective dramas like Morse, Lewis and Poirot, how a tiny clue can open up a completely unexpected and fruitful line of enquiry, but it does happen in real life forensic genealogy.
As part of my investigation into the Red Barn murder, I wanted to find out what happened to William Corder’s posthumous son, born three months after Corder was hanged for the murder of Maria Martin. The authors of two previous books on the affair had claimed that he died in infancy, either within hours of the birth, or about nine months later. Following some correspondence with another writer on the Red Barn, I was made aware of a piece in a local newspaper in Cornwall in the summer of 1893. A brief note stated:
About a month ago the son of Corder, the murderer of Maria Martin in ‘the red barn’, died in a lunatic asylum.
William Corder’s son, John, was known to have been born with a withered arm and was said to be of ‘weak intellect’. Other newspapers of the period were searched, but this was the only reference that could be found. A search of the death indexes of the period showed that a John Corder of the right age had died in Essex in late 1892. Furthermore, the Essex lunatic asylum was located within the area where the death was registered. A copy of the death certificate showed that the John Corder in question had been a bookseller in Colchester. This revelation was greeted with disappointment; John Corder with a ‘weak intellect’ could not possibly have been involved in selling books.
However, a routine check on book-seller John Corder in the census returns revealed him to have been born in Polstead, where the Red Barn murder took place… He had been a well-known character in Colchester and there was even an obituary, but in all the local newspaper references to him, the Red Barn affair was not mentioned once. Then the record of a court case was found where John Corder had encouraged three farm-workers from Polstead to remove some crops from a field there because Corder believed that the land rightfully belonged to him. One of the witnesses said in court that he had seen Corder’s father hanged… Here was proof positive; John Corder, book-seller and newsagent of Victorian Colchester, was the son of William Corder, the Red Barn murderer.
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs