The Murder in the Red Barn
A murder was said to have been solved by the intervention of the victim's ghost.
by Brian Dunning
January 16, 2018
Can the ghost of a murder victim come back and help identify her killer? That is exactly what is said to have happened in 1827 in the village of Polstead, county Suffolk, England. Maria Marten was murdered in a red barn by her betrothed, William Corder, who buried her inside. Then, months later, Maria began appearing to her stepmother in a series of dreams and identified the spot where she died. Her father went to the spot described in the dream, dug, and was horrified to discover the decomposed body of his daughter. Corder was convicted and executed in 1828. Today we're going to look at the famous Red Barn Murder, and see if our skeptical eye can find a slightly less paranormal explanation.
In the 1820s Polstead was a lovely farming town of 900 inhabitants among rolling green hills. Our interest today is on two local families. First, the Corders. William Corder was the sole surviving son, having lost his father and brothers in just the past year. Consequently he inherited the family property, and after a lifetime of petty thefts and forgeries and frauds, he suddenly found himself a man of respectable means. Corder owned extensive farming property, which included a great red barn that was somewhat notable as a local landmark.
The Martens were another family. Old Thomas Marten was an exterminator who trapped and killed moles for the local farmers. He was married to his second wife, Ann, and among his daughters was the pretty Maria. She had had two sons to different boyfriends. The first had died but the second survived, and received some support from an absentee father. In 1826, at the age of 24, Maria began dating William Corder, two years her junior. Soon they had another son of their own, but the child was sickly and died after only one month.
Corder and Maria did plan to marry, but trouble was afoot. Corder brought news (never proven) that a warrant had been issued for Maria for the crime of having a child out of wedlock. And so, on May 18, 1827, Corder presented his plan to the Marten family. He and Maria would elope. Maria would disguise herself in a man's clothing. The two would leave by separate routes — Corder armed with a pair of loaded pistols — and they would meet at the red barn, half a mile distant from the Marten home. They would then make their way to Ipswich, some 15 miles away, and get married the very next day.
A few days later, Corder returned to the Marten household and explained that there was some holdup with the marriage license, and that Maria was remaining in Ipswich to try and resolve it. He came back again a few weeks later with the same news. And again. And again.
By the end of 1827, Corder wrote the Martens from London, explaining that he and Maria had moved there, and had finally been able to get married. He wrote several times, always telling them of Maria's happiness in their new life.
But then, in April of 1828, Ann Marten suggested to her husband that he should go to the red barn and examine it. He asked why, and she answered "I have very frequently dreamed about Maria, and twice before Christmas, I dreamed that Maria was murdered, and buried in the Red Barn."
Surprised that she'd kept this to herself for four months, he asked why she hadn't told him this before, and she explained that she was worried he would consider her to be superstitious, a trait of which she knew he disapproved. Ann was insistent, so on April 19, Thomas collected a stalwart friend and the two men went to the red barn. They cleared away the straw from the floor and saw one place against the back wall where the earth appeared to have been disturbed. They dug, and it is not necessary to try to describe a father's anguish at what he found.
Police took over from there, and quickly determined the cause of the violent murder, and retrieved a handkerchief from the body which Ann identified as Corder's. They learned of Ann's dreams, and all regarded it as a miracle that Maria had somehow been able to solve her own murder from beyond the grave.
Investigators quickly tracked down Corder and arrested him in London only four days later. News of Maria's ghost spread over all of England. Songs and plays and poems and puppet shows recreated the grisly murder. By the time Corder's trial began on August 7, London hotels were said to have been filled two weeks in advance. Such was the fame of the case that when Corder was hanged on August 11, between seven and twenty thousand spectators were reported to have witnessed it.
Fourteen years later, the red barn burned down, bringing an end to the story; and the smoke could be seen from the Marten home. And now we fast forward to the present day, where that same home still stands, expanded a bit and modernized, still ensconced in greenery, and now listed in the UK's National Archives as an historic location. Today we have the luxury of looking back on this tale with some hindsight and with a bit of skeptical experience under our belts. You don't have to be a police detective to know how today's police would regard Ann's dream revelation.
In 2014, Florida police were investigating the murder of Kelly Brennan. A friend of the victim's, Sheila Graham-Trott, contacted police claiming to have had an experience she believed was psychic: a dream in which she saw Brennan being hurt. She first told her sons about it, and described exactly where the attack happened in the dream. Sure enough, they found Brennan's body in a wooded area exactly where she said it was — the case could not have been a more perfect parallel for the Red Barn Murder. Soon it came out that Graham-Trott had discovered that her friend Brennan was having an affair with her husband, and beat her to death with a hammer. Graham-Trott was arrested, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison. The lead investigator expressed his belief that Graham-Trott never actually had any dreams or visions, and that it was guilt that compelled her to make up the story as a way to reveal the location of Brennan's body.
When psychics come to police with a tip that actually does pan out — which is the rare exception — one of two things usually happens. The first and most common is that it turns out police only said that the tip came from the psychic; in most cases, it actually came from a confidential informant whose identity the police want to protect; so they'll cheerfully allow the credulous media to attribute the success to whatever psychic was hounding the police to assist in the investigation. Thus, the history of news is peppered with reports of cases where psychics actually did provide valuable assistance. In his 1994 book Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases, Joe Nickell discussed just such a case. Claims of psychics aiding police investigations are almost always cover stories to protect actual witnesses — be skeptical next time you hear one.
But it is the second most common outcome that we're interested in today: the psychic, upon providing a tip that turns out to be true, immediately becomes a prime suspect; and as often as not, is arrested and proven guilty by the evidence they themselves provided. This is exactly what happened in the Kelly Brennan murder, and it could well be what happened if the Maria Marten murder was being investigated today.
It turns out that Ann Marten — the stepmother who had the dream — may have had a motive to kill Maria, or at least participate in her murder; and then, ten or eleven months later, she had another motive to throw Corder under the bus by revealing Maria's murder. For it turns out that Ann and Corder were having an affair, and had been for some little while, both before and after the murder. It's probably the reason Corder hung around Polstead for a few months before finally going to London. This affair was known to some and suspected by others, and came out during Corder's trial. Ann, although married to Maria's father, was only a year older than Maria, and was said to be no less susceptible to the charms of this handsome young man of means, as compared to her dreary, fat, old mole-catching husband.
No proof survives and so we can only speculate, but Ann may have played an active role in a premeditated plan to remove this rival for Corder's affection. Corder himself, as reported by multiple witnesses, was said to be annoyed at Maria's pressure on him to marry her. Doctors who examined Maria's body found that she had died first by strangulation from Corder's handkerchief tied around her neck. Then she'd been shot in the face and stabbed in the eye, neck, and chest. However, the exact circumstances of what happened in the red barn, and who was present, will never be known.
It's probable that the reason Corder stayed around Polstead for a while was to continue his affair with Ann. Once he moved to London, one of the first things he did was to write home to the Martens — multiple times — describing the fictional wedding he and Maria had enjoyed. But while he was writing those, he was also writing a personal ad to run in the London papers, via an intermediary to keep his identity secret. The ad ran on November 13 and again on November 25. Dozens of replies were received (and ultimately read in court). A young lady named Mary Moore captured his heart immediately, so much so that the second ad may not have even been necessary. London records show only one marriage between a William Corder and a Mary Moore, and it was on November 27, only two days after the ad ran (though its birth year shown for Corder is 5 years off, so it may not be the right record).
Corder wrote more letters to the Martens, telling them how happy he and Maria were, even after he was married to Mary Moore. But the grapevine of gossip eventually had its way with him. By April of 1828, Ann Marten learned that Corder had married. And then, coincidentally, her dreams began, and she outed him as a murderer. Jilted much?
This is not a new theory; such rumors were being tossed about even before Corder's trial. Nevertheless it is Ann's claim of a dream that has become the popular version of the story that is told and retold today. Did Maria come to her loving stepmother in a dream and show her where she'd been murdered, or is it possible that some other, more Earthly (and more worldly) explanation was at the root of the story? When you hear a ghost story that sounds like contrived fiction, even if it surrounds actual events, you should always be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Murder in the Red Barn." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
16 Jan 2018. Web.
22 Jun 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4606>
References & Further Reading
Curtis, J. An Authentic and Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. London: Thomas Kelly, Paternoster-Row, 1828.
Donaldson, W. Brewer's Rogues, Villains, and Eccentrics. London: Cassell, 2002. 736.
McCormick, D. The Red Barn mystery; some new evidence on an old murder. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1968. 206.
National Archives. "Maria Marten's house, Polstead Heath." Discovery. National Archives, 22 May 1936. Web. 11 Jan. 2018. <http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/a71e9e56-b49d-46fb-8928-dccd3f4b98c1>
Nickell, J. Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1994. 161-162.
Van Sant, P. "A Vision of Murder." Forty Eight Hours. CBS News, 23 Jan. 2016. Web. 10 Jan. 2018. <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/48-hours-a-vision-of-murder/>
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