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1 7 maria martenReaders of Death and Mr Pickwick can devour bits and bobs of nineteenth-century anecdotes. Around page 200 of the Novel, we are briefly introduced Thomas Kelly, the publisher of Paternoster Row, London, and his sensational installments including An Authentic and Faithful History of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. Many publishing companies had also benefitted greatly from this murder. (Not without mentioning Robert Seymour, of course!)

Talking of the Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten, aka Red Barn Mystery in Polstead, Suffolk, it was the highly speculative murder case committed by William Corder, and Maria was often victimised in melodramatic and picturesque accounts as an ingenuous and country girl version of Amelia Sedley killed by an impoverished man with worst attributes and suchlike. On the contrary, Maria Marten was two years Corder’s senior and infamous for her lecherous affairs with other countrymen of the area with Corder as an impressionable but sparrow-framed young man. Ironically enough, Corder’s aspiration was to be a gentleman-farmer of letters and longing to reside in the literary circles in London.

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But that’s not it – the psychic portent was at the time seen as a matter of fact and unimaginable around the nineteenth century court case. Ann Marten, the stepmother (much younger than Old Marten) of Maria’s,  recounted her dream of witnessing a corpse (Maria Marten) being buried in the floor of the red barn by William Corder, and demanded the ground to be excavated immediately. Maria’s rotten body was really exhumed at the red barn and produced an arrest warrant against William Corder (who, at that time, had already married an well-educated schoolmistress named Kathleen Moore in London and together they set up a school in Ealing). In 1828, the noose was finally tightened at his neck in Bury St Edmunds and nothing in the least heroically about his death in the eyes of thousands of spectators who attended the execution.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. By George Cruikshank

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. By George Cruikshank

After the execution, Corder’s skull was used in phrenological examination (incidentally, phrenology was pseudoscience that Anne Brontë ridiculed in comparison with physiognomy; and Edinburgh Phrenological Society was founded by George Combe, who was Cecilia Siddons’s husband). It was found that the prominent areas which the killer greatly exercised in his lifetime were “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, and imitativeness”; but with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”.

George Combe lecturing on phrenology to a large mixed audience Credit: Wellcome Library, London. (by George Cruikshank)

George Combe lecturing on phrenology to a large mixed audience. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. (by George Cruikshank)

James Lea was the police constable who investigated the red barn murder and later another notorious and nerve-shredding case of “Spring-heeled Jack”.

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