Out and About in Suffolk and a Story of Murder Most Foul.

This is of course, a gardening blog. I am not usually a fairweather gardener but this winter has defeated me with its endless wet, followed this last week with frost.  Instead of showing you yet more hellebores and snowdrops, I’d like to take you for a walk. England and Wales have 130,000 miles of public footpaths, taking you across almost any field you take a fancy to ramble over.  But after constant rain you tend to arrive home with most of the field on your boots. But you don’t need to tramp across bleak fields. This part of Suffolk is rich in some of the prettiest villages in the country. The wealth that the wool trade brought to fifteenth century Suffolk has left a legacy of magnificent churches and beautiful half timbered houses, many of them thatched.
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Not far from where we live is the delightful village of Polstead. In winter this is made even more delightful by the snowdrops growing in every garden and spilling onto the verges, many of them have petals tipped with green. In spring, there are trees frothing with cherry blossom; these are the famous ‘Polstead Black’ cherry, which is famous for its juicy sweetness. I did have one of these lovely cherry trees, but it  succumbed to one of the Pianist’s rare moments of strimming enthusiasm. But then let’s not apportion blame, maybe it was a rabbit. ( I have to be careful what I say, now and again the Pianist does actually read my blog. I don’t want to discourage his rare sorties into the garden)

The name Polstead means a ‘place of pools’. It has a pretty twelfth century church with lovely views over rolling countryside. We are told that the phantom off a previous vicar of the church sometimes comes dashing down the hill in a trap drawn by a headless horse.  A tad melodramatic, don’t you think? It’s funny how often phantom horses are headless. Maybe this same rector drove the Rev Hayden Foster from the rectory in 1980 with his attention-seeking hauntings.

Polstead pond

Polstead pond

But this post is not about ghosts it’s about a murder. The Victorians invented the murder mystery and they couldn’t get enough of real life murders. They invented murder tourism and would come from miles around to visit the sight of a grisly crime. Thomas Quincey said: ‘Pleasant it is no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea urn’. This may be true, but the Victorians couldn’t get enough of stories about other people’s sweethearts coming to a gruesome end. Maybe one of the first murders to catch the imagination of the public was the notorious Red Barn Murder in 1827, ten years before Victoria came to the throne.

Maria  Marten was the daughter of the mole catcher and ‘no better than she should be‘ as my grandmother would say through pursed lips.

Maria Marten's cottage

Maria Marten’s cottage

She had  had two illegitimate babies from two different fathers, ( one of of them William’s brother)  before she started a relationship with William Corder who was the son of a farmer and rather further up the social scale than Maria.

William Corder's cottage

William Corder’s house

William Corder

William Corder

Maria persuaded William to marry her after she had yet another child. He agreed to run away with her and told her to disguise herself as a man and meet him in a nearby barn. She did so and was never seen again. William  told Maria’s parents that she was waiting in Ipswich  for a special licence to get married. He even said that he had received a letter from her from the Isle of Wight. Eventually, he left Polstead, taking the key to the red barn with him. He advertised in the newspapers for a wife. He found one and settled down in Brentford in Essex. Eleven months after her disappearance, Maria’s young stepmother said that she had had a dream and that Maria’s father should go and dig up the floor of the red barn because she was sure that Maria was buried there. It has been suggested she knew where the body was because she had a relationship with Corder  herself and was piqued when he got married. She may even have been implicated in the murder, but after all this time we will never know the truth. Maria’s decomposing body was found and Corder was arrested. The trial at Bury St.Edmunds caught the imagination of the public and was reported in the papers in all its gory details. Maria appeared to have been shot, strangled and stabbed. There was Red Barn mania. A year after the murder case the barn had been destroyed by souvenir hunters wanting a piece. Later Maria’s grave stone would also be chiseled away. Plays and ballads were written and Staffordshire potteries made models of the barn.

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The murder trial was a sensation and the conviction inevitable.  Maria’s decomposing head was used in evidence. Corder was sentenced to be hanged and his body to public dissection. The hangman was allowed to keep the rope which he sold,  at a guinea an inch,  to souvenir hunters. It is estimated that a crowd of 10,000 people came to see the hanging and to file past the body which had been cut open so that they could see the organs. This disgusting practice came to an end in 1832 when the Anatomy Act came in. Up until then, anybody who was hanged for murder was denied burial, so when the surgeons had finished dissecting Corder his skeleton was given to the West Suffolk Hospital where it was used to teach anatomy. It remained there until the 1940s and was even taken to dances sometimes. The surgeon who dissected him was called Creed and he got to keep the scalp which he tanned. He even had a book made out of the tanned skin. These grisly relics are to be found in Moyses Museum in Bury St Edmunds. Close your eyes now if you’d rather not see.

Corder's scalp and a book made out of his skin. Moyse's Hall Museum. Bury St. Edmunds.

Corder’s scalp and a book made out of his skin.
Moyse’s Hall Museum. Bury St. Edmunds.

The Victorians were fascinated by their new found science ‘phrenology’ which wasn’t scientific at all . They really believed that a person’s character could be read in the bumps of his head.
Of course they were keen to read Corder’s skull and a cast was made of it by Childs. A lengthy dissertation was the result and of course the bumps in the head proved what a rogue Corder was.

Cast of Corder's head. made by Childs

Cast of Corder’s head made by Childs. Moyse’s Hall Museum.

It is sobering to think how blood thirsty and ghoulish our ancestors were in the not so distant past. Of course we all like a good murder mystery,there is even a new genre called ‘cosy murder mystery‘. But there is nothing cosy about the Red Barn Murder. I don’t know what Agatha Christie would have made of it all.
I hope when I come to write my next post it will have stopped raining and I will be bringing you news from the garden. It’s possible that I may show you some more beautiful Suffolk villages in future posts. But no more grisly murders. I promise.

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53 Responses to Out and About in Suffolk and a Story of Murder Most Foul.

  1. Christina says:

    I love a story well told, thank you!

  2. well with all the rain my garden and I have experienced over the last few years I have not yet resorted to posting about murder, possibly because it is a very, very rare happening on the island, despite it’s sadness and gore it is an interesting post, I can’t help thinking about Mary’s poor children, I hope they were looked after well,
    The people of the nineteenth century certainly liked their gossip and gore, but then they didn’t have soap operas etc. and constant news bulletins of all the dying and death there is in this world, not for me,
    during the wet months you can recall summer memories, plan for the future and/or curl up with a good gardening book, or other, at least we were/are not flooded out of our homes, Frances

    • Chloris says:

      Two of Maria’ s children died young. The baby she had with Corder died or disappeared. There was a suggestion that it was murdered too but its body was never found.

  3. They were a gruesome lot those Victorians! I do hope the weather stops soon – not least because I am a sensitive soul and very likely to have a nightmare about the red barn tonight. Flowers are less frightening by far!

  4. Sometimes I think TV is too gruesome, but at least it is all fake. I can’t imagine seeing a hanging or dissection. Loved the photos of the cottages.

  5. Cathy says:

    Fascinating post, Chloris! Apart from de Quincey’s chilling words, the thing that makes the imagination run riot most are your words: ‘It remained there until the 1940s and was even taken to dances sometimes’. What a picture! I hope you continue to explore Suffolk villages in future (but also hope you have some good weather!).

  6. Oh goodness, or should I say “oh, wickedness,” as I’m afraid I enjoy nothing better than a cozy murder mystery when there is time for such frivolity. If I’d known this shocking tale when I visited Colchester in September, I might have pressed on to see the murder site for myself.

  7. Brian Skeys says:

    An interesting winters murder mystery tale Chloris. I think it is good to post about things other than gardening, especially at this time of year. Thanks for the tour of Polstead, I didn’t know about the cherry from there.

  8. Yikes! Yegads! Such atrocities! Well, some of the most grisly murders have taken place in England, so I shouldn’t be surprised. In future, can you find any real such stories with a gardening theme? (tee hee…)

    • Chloris says:

      About 10 years there was a British television mystery series called Rosemary and Thyme. It was about 2 detectives who were also lady gardeners. They worked in beautiful gardens and solved murder cases at the same time. I don’t t know of any real cases though. As a rule gardeners don’ t go in for murder.

  9. Alain says:

    Polstead looks like a particularly beautiful village. When it comes to executions in the past, the worst I find is that most of those who were hanged in the 19th century were hanged for theft, sometimes only food. As you say, our not so distant ancestors seemed to have been blood thirsty and ghoulish.

  10. I am not sure if your post or the comments were more enjoyable. Hmm, the post.

    Fortunately, if anything like the murders has happened in my neck of the woods, I am blissfully unaware and no one has been practicing taxidermy on the leftovers – however, there is an enormous swamp nearby and plenty of alligators – so, the evidence is probably long gone..

    my husband is also a disaster in the garden.

    • Chloris says:

      I went to the Everglades once, I was terrified that an alligator would appear and eat me. Do they ever kill people?
      You have a non- gardening husband too? On the odd occasion mine does do any work in the garden, it ends in awful injury to the plants or himself. Very often both.

      • Alligators do kill people, rarely. Recently a robber was eaten hiding from police in the tall grass near a pond at night-it was a 12 foot gator. I have been living here 4 years and have not seen a gator yet. Moral of the story don’t sit in tall grass near pond at night.
        My husband is not allowed in the beds or to have herbicide; he can only mow grass and trim, I have had to move several trees as he ran over them with the mower, this is another good reason to remove lawn.

  11. Thank you for that walk–that’s what I need to do now that the temps are warming up just a bit here. Yikes–what a story! Weird to think these things happened not so long ago really. Grisly and gruesome, indeed.

  12. What a wonderfully spine tingling post, thank you Chloris for researching and telling it so well. Was this the case upon which Kate Summerscale based her novel The Suspicions of Mr Whicher?

  13. Flighty says:

    A most interesting post and wonderful pictures. I’ve done almost no plotting for a couple of months either thanks to the weather. xx
    The Red Barn Murder is the basis of the Nicola Upson novel The Death of Lucy Kyte –
    http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/u/nicola-upson/death-of-lucy-kyte.htm

  14. I suppose that the pottery barn replica is the equivalent of today’s plastic figurines. It is a slightly more healthy take-home trinket than the bound book. Yuck. I am amused that when you can’t garden your mind turns to such gruesome tales!

    • Chloris says:

      I didn’ t think: ‘ Oh, I know, I’ ll write a really grisly murder story’. We went for a stroll around Polstead, because it was too wet to garden and that reminded me about The Red Barn Murder. I think perhaps I gave a bit too much detail. Too much information. Probably put people off their breakfast .

  15. How creepy!! I don’t think the ‘good old days’ were really that good at all! It’s a bit macabre to want a replica of that barn.

  16. I wish I hadn’t read this just before going to bed, if I have nightmares tonight it will be all your fault! Very entertaining though. 🙂

    • Chloris says:

      I am sorry Gill, I am beginning to think I should stick to gardens and pretty flowers rather than giving people nightmares with tales about gruesome murders.

  17. Oh, dear. What a morbid bunch they were! Perhaps we are no better today, though we do at least keep a greater distance from the actual gore. And what a shocking social life they had in those pretty English villages!

    • Chloris says:

      You are right about the villagers; too many people, too few surnames in this part of the world.
      Yes, it is a comfort to know that we no longer hang people or make book covers out of their skin.

  18. Kris P says:

    I think the fascination with murder persists. We have a TV channel here which I swear runs shows like “Forensic Files” and the like 24 hours a day. (I’m unsure of the appeal as it always seems that the murderer is the deceased’s husband or boyfriend or, if the victim is male, his wife or girlfriend.) And I have a friend (a perfectly nice, professional person) who is seemingly enamored with serial killers. However, until now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of public dissection.

    • Chloris says:

      I think the public dissection was a hang over from the times when they used to publicly hang, draw and quarter. It is amazing that it wasn’ t stopped until 1832.

  19. bittster says:

    Ok, so I did not see the direction this post was headed, but am relieved(?) to finally put to bed the notion that things were always better in the good old days. A book bound by the skin of a murderers hide. I would have thought this would only show up in an odd Halloween horror story, not a physician’s personal effects.
    I have to say I hope your weather improves.

    • Chloris says:

      OK Frank, I’ ll try and keep off the subject of gruesome murders and the unconventional use of body parts . I do see that it is not really appropriate for a gardening blog. You come here to read about snowdrops and I show you a book made of human skin and a scalp. I quite see that it is not at all what you were expecting.

      • bittster says:

        I have been at war with mice in the garage this year. I have yet to tan a hide (mouse or otherwise) but even a garden blog is not always rainbows and snowdrops. Wouldn’t that be boring!

  20. Julie says:

    Oh goodness what an horrendous tale of the aftermath of this poor woman’s murder as well as the ghastly murder its self. Interesting diversion from the rain though! We had better almost Spring like weather here today but thick mud underneath, hoping it dries out soon.

    • Chloris says:

      It is so mild again and the birds are singing. Talking about birds, I have an albino Great Tit in the garden. Have you ever seen such a thing?

      • Julie says:

        By chance I have been reading about Leucistic Great Tits as we thought we had seen one in our garden, but I am not properly certain. (similar pigment loss) Albinos are quite rare apparently, so an exciting spot! The BTO have more on that on their website. I love the bird song right now, its so cheerful.

      • Chloris says:

        It’ s been around for a few days so I’ m hoping it will find the bird table near the window so that I can get a photo. It is cream all over rather than white.

  21. snowbird says:

    Oh sweet Lord….what a mighty fine/orrible tale. You had me on the edge of my chair…..and dear god….a human scalp, I have to say that’s a first for me!!! Fascinating stuff…I shant sleep tonight, but it did have me riveted….almost hoping it keeps on raining now, who knows what else you may turn your hand too!xxx

  22. Chloris says:

    I think I’ d better keep off grisly murders, I think I put several people off their breakfast with that scalp.

  23. Peter/Outlaw says:

    What an interesting story. It is truly interesting to think of how grisly and brutal our ancestors were. On the other hand, in the modern world, we’re, in many ways far removed from death. No viewing of the body at home, etc. Loved the homes and look forward to seeing more of your beautiful part of the world through your posts!

  24. rusty duck says:

    Oh the stories our old buildings do tell. It would be nice to think we live in a more civilised era, but perhaps not. Great post Chloris.

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