A search of the records of Ancestry.com will find well over 200 instances of the name ‘Maria Marten’. But the young woman who was famously murdered in the Red Barn in Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827 was not one of them.
The story broke on St George’s day 1828, when The Times had a piece entitled ‘Horrible and Mysterious Occurrence’. It was to become one of the most well-known of all crimes in Britain. The victim was an attractive young woman, the daughter of the local mole-catcher. But she was no blushing virgin, having had three illegitimate children by three different fathers by the time she was 26. The person accused of the murder, William Corder, was the son of a wealthy farmer; he had been the father of Maria’s third child, his elder brother having been her original seducer. The murder took place in the Red Barn, where Corder was accused of having shot, stabbed, strangled and suffocated Maria by burying her alive under the floor. There was uncertainty exactly how she had died, so the prosecution wanted to cover every angle.
The story of Maria Marten has been told many times, and there are a number of modern accounts seeking, to a greater or lesser extent, to explain some of the remaining mysteries associated with it. Maria’s body was discovered after her step-mother claimed to have dreamed that she had been murdered and buried in the Red Barn.
William Corder was arrested in Ealing in west London. He was tried for the murder, convicted and hanged before a large crowd in Bury St Edmunds. Just before he was executed, he confessed to having shot Maria before burying her body in the barn, although he always denied stabbing her.
But her name was not Maria Marten, and a simple search of the parish records of Polstead confirms this. The records of her father’s birth, his two marriages, Maria’s birth, that of her brother and sisters, and the births of Maria’s children, all state, without exception, that their surname was Martin. Furthermore, when Maria’s father was recorded in the 1851 census, at the age of 80, his name was given as Thomas Martin, and the prosecution brief prepared for the trial of William Corder consistently gives Maria, her father, her step-mother her sister and her brother the surname Martin.
How did the mistake arise? The original story in The Times recorded the name correctly as ‘Martin’. The following day, it ran a followup, ‘Murder at Polstead’, where again her name was given as ‘Maria Martin’. On the same day, the Morning Chronicle, reproducing a story from the Suffolk Herald, quoted her name as ‘Marten’. On Saturday 26th April, The Times ran a two column story on the case referring to both Maria ‘Marten’ and Maria ‘Martin’ in the same piece. Thereafter, she seems to have been referred to consistently as Maria Marten.
It is possible that the mistake arose from the coroner’s court. The coroner declared that the reporters from the newspapers were not allowed to take notes during the proceedings, fearing that publication of the evidence before the presumed trial could prejudice the outcome. Whatever the reason, the murdered girl became Maria ‘Marten’ from then on and the name stuck.
Is this important? Does a minor detail in the way a name was spelled matter in any way? Anyone who has done genealogical research knows that as late as the latter part of the Victorian era, the spelling of names was by no means consistent. Since many people were illiterate, the spelling seen in official documents, such as parish and centralized registers, was down to the whim of the clerk who was filling in the details.
The name 'Martin' is quite common in Britain and around 100 times more common than 'Marten'. Perhaps one of the original reporters, by using an unusual name, attempted to give the story more ‘cachet’. Nevertheless, and I have not checked this thoroughly, subsequent chroniclers of the Murder in the Red Barn do not appear to have picked this detail up. That is important, because the devil really is in the detail, and there are many factors in the story that are strange and unexplained.
Should we, for example, trust the fact that Maria’s body was discovered because her step-mother, only eight years older than Maria herself, ‘dreamed’ that she had been buried in the Red Barn? And how was it that Corder was found so easily in London after the body was discovered, within two or three days – barely enough time for the officers of the law to have travelled the distance? He had consistently covered his tracks and no-one in Polstead knew where he was.
Are we to believe the coincidence that Corder had met Mary Moore – the lady he subsequently married after he had advertised for a wife – twice before, entirely by accident on both occasions? Was the mysterious Samuel ‘Beauty’ Smith involved in any way? He was on board ship awaiting transportation for pig stealing at the time of Corder’s arrest. They had been friends and it was stated in the newspapers that he and Corder were involved together in pig stealing. Allegedly, while in custody at Chelmsford gaol, Smith had claimed that he had information that would hang Corder. When interviewed about it, he denied all knowledge of Maria; but it was a capital charge, so he would, wouldn’t he? How was it, in any case, that the son of a wealthy farmer became involved with a villain who had already been transported once for theft?
The murder in the Red Barn took place nearly 200 years ago and the lack of census information for the period makes the application of forensic genealogy difficult. Nevertheless, if subsequent researchers have been unable even to establish that Maria’s surname was incorrect, I wonder what else is out there waiting to be discovered.
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