THE MANY AFTERLIVES OF WILLIAM CORDER
BY PATRICK LOW
"Corder’s life was taken by the state and his body was denied burial or commemoration. Far from this being the end of the story, successive generations have seen fit to ‘go back to the scene of the crime’, endlessly singing about it, collecting relics, and visiting body parts in museums and hospitals. There is a history here about how crime enters popular culture and criminal bodies are commoditised, just as if they were celebrities or holy saints."
Dr. Shane McCorristine quoted in “Society’s Obsession with Criminal Celebrities and ‘murderabilia’ Explored." University of Leicester, Blog Entry, accessed Aug 15, 2014,
In the Moyes Hall Museum of Bury St Edmunds there is a curious and macabre collection; an ear, skin from the side a man’s head and a book bound in the very same man’s skin. They are all taken from the body of William Corder and are artefacts from one of the nineteenth century's most notorious criminal cases - The Red Barn Murder. The crime and subsequent trial and execution sparked the national imagination and spawned a veritable cottage industry of trinkets and collectibles depicting key crime locations, protagonists and details of the crime and even relics of the criminal, William Corder's, body.
In 1827, Maria Marten was murdered by her lover, William Corder, and surreptitiously buried in a building known as the Red Barn in Polstead, Suffolk, Ipswich. Corder was hung on the gallows at Bury St Edmunds on 11th August, 1828. A vast crowd attended his execution. The Times reported that, “the whole of the labouring classes struck work for the day, in order that they may have an opportunity of witnessing the execution of this wretched criminal.” After hanging the customary hour, Corder’s body was cut down and taken to be dissected in Cambridge, in accordance with the 1752 Murder Act. The case was one of the most sensational in the earlynineteenth century and attracted a vast array of media coverage at the time and in the subsequent decades. The trial, murder and Corder's execution were the subject of ballads, plays, puppets shows (see end of this article for video) pottery figurines and myriad newspaper reports. Even Charles Dickens himself included the story in his noted publication All The Year Round.
Although fairly unparalleled in scale, Corder’s celebrity status was not uncommon for criminals of the era. There was a thriving trade in macabre relics created from the criminal corpse and execution ephemera, from the wood of the gallows to the hangman’s rope. The practice is not without precedent and arguably has its roots in Christian belief, most notably in the Catholic Church. The Church’s belief in the healing power of relics (usual parts of holy people or sites) can be seen to this day in the use of ornate reliquaries. Much as Christian’s believed in this healing touch, spectators at the gallows often imagined the criminal corpse to have spiritual and healing qualities. As such, ephemera, keepsakes and trinkets connected to the executed criminal were deemed highly prized commodities.
Was there a peculiar glamour to the criminal body over others though? Research from our project suggests that whilst there was undoubtedly a “frisson” attached to a notorious criminal body, one reason why there constituent body parts were so often kept and traded is that their bodies were available. Bodies of ‘normal’ celebrities would have been properly buried and thus not available for partitioning and exchange. Criminals though, more specifically murderers, were not allowed to be buried as part of their sentence under the terms of the Murder Act 1752. As such, the distribution of their body after gibbeting or dissection was open to abuse. In the case of Corder, after his dissection, his flesh was removed, his heart preserved and a large portion of his skin tanned.
The fascination in these macabre relics may seem like an anachronism of a barbarous past, until we consider that they exist as tradeable objects and museum exhibits to this day. Indeed, as recently as 2010 a set of three Staffordshire porcelain models, created c.1828, sold at a Bonhams auction for £11,760. Similarly, the skull of one John Parker, executed in 1813 in Gloucester, was sold at a Sussex auction in 2014, for £2,000.