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...
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