I have been assessing printed information on the Red Barn murder to see if there is sufficient new material, not previously published, to justify a re-investigation. The latest book, Maria Marten, the Murder in the Red Barn, by Peter Haining, 1992, is very disappointing. The book calls itself ‘a reinvestigation of the famous Victorian crime’. Mr Haining’s editor and Haining himself might have failed to notice that the Victorian era did not commence until ten years after the Red Barn murder, but that is to quibble.
More importantly, for a book apparently written with the intention of clarifying what happened, Haining succeeds only in confusing fact with fiction, myth and legend, right from the start. He relates ‘facts’ that cannot possibly be known: ‘…she did not actually give up her virginity until she was eighteen, and then to one Thomas Corder…’; ‘It was a bright morning as William [Corder] strolled past the Marten’s cottage…in the garden Maria was busy among the flowers…’ And so on.
Then Haining takes as verbatim a clear confusion in the trial report that appeared in The Times, where it talked about a spike being found in the body near the hip bone. He launches into half a page about vampirism, questioning the fact that no-one else had commented on this point, and embellished the paragraph with a photograph of the skeleton of a ‘suspected witch or vampire’. A comparison with reports in other newspapers makes it clear that the ‘spike’ mentioned was Thomas Martin’s mole-spike; The Times just got it wrong, and Haining failed to cross-check. There is a diagram of the layout of the Red Barn which is clearly incorrect, as can be seen by comparing it with pictures of the barn published in the same book, and the map of Polstead is poor and not to scale.
Since Haining’s book also gives substantial space to the various fictional accounts of the Red Barn murder, including the film made in the 1930s, the reader interested in historical fact really struggles to separate out reality from everything else. As a study of a social phenomenon, the book might be interesting, but history it is not.
However, I await with interest delivery of Donald McCormick’s book, The Red Barn Mystery, 1968. He puts forward a unique theory involving the well-known poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who, he claims, knew William Corer while he was in London. His book may be the last word on the matter, although his claims are, it is said, based substantially on hearsay.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs