The Red Barn Murder Inspired A Century of Art

Maria Marten died in 1827. Since then, she has inspired countless works of art. Her murder has been celebrated in song and film, commemorated in paintings and ceramics. Here's how the Red Barn Murder became an entire genre of art by itself.

The Murder

Maria Marten was a mole-catcher's daughter. William Corder was a prosperous farmer's son. They had an affair which resulted in a child, and they planned to marry. Maria was perfectly happy with this. William seemed perfectly happy as well. One night, Maria and William eloped, alone, and a few weeks later the Martens received a letter stating that Maria and William were living on the Isle of Wight as man and wife. Things were great, but Maria had injured her hand, so the letter was in William's writing.


It's fair to say that the Martens were suspicious, but their suspicion didn't amount to anything, Maria's stepmother claimed, until she had repeated dreams of Maria in the red barn behind the property. The barn was not actually red, except for a small section of its roof, but it stood in such a way that it often appeared red in the light from a sunset. And "red barn" sounds sinister, so the name caught on. Maria's father went out to the barn, found disturbed ground, and unearthed Maria's body with William Corder's green handkerchief around her neck.


William Corder was caught a short time later, married to another woman in London. He claimed complete innocence during his trial, but after he was convicted, he said that Maria's death was an accident. He happened to be pointing a gun at Maria and it went off. The incident, widely publicized, became known as the Red Barn Murder.

The Art

Today, the most famous murders in history and art are the Jack the Ripper killings. They have an element of mystery that lets artists play around. The Red Barn murder, though less well known now, inspired an explosion of art that eclipsed the Ripper case and lasted for over a century. All the elements were in place. The poor young woman in love. The rich cad turned killer. The sinister barn. The disappearance. The forged letters. The prophetic dreams.


People went crazy for it. Between five thousand and twenty thousand members of the public rushed to London for William Corder's execution. The next day, a cast was made of his face, his scalp was ripped off and preserved, and reportedly a book was bound from his skin. All of these are still on display in Moyse's Hall Museum. Arguably, these were the first pieces of art inspired by the murder.

But they weren't the last. Printers churned out penny dreadfuls, either detailing the murder itself or spinning fictional stories inspired by the murder. Artists painted pictures of Maria's ghost coming to her stepmother, of William and Maria in love, of William's execution, and of the murder and burial. Little ceramic figurines became popular. They typically showed the red barn, William and Maria outside of it, still in love and untroubled.


Over time, people wrote ballads about the Red Barn Murder. Some were original, and some were set to existing tunes, substituting in new lyrics for the old ones. These songs, or versions of them, were recorded and released into the 1970s.

And then there were the dramatic arts. Dramatic companies regularly enacted skits about Maria and William on street corners and in theaters. These skits remained so popular for so long that, when movies came out, the Red Barn Murder came up as a natural subject for a film. Actually, it was a natural subject for three films. The story has been made into three different movies, one in 1902, one in 1913, and one in 1935. The Red Barn Murder occurred when murder had just started becoming popular entertainment as a genre. And it became a popular genre all on its own.


[Source: The Art of the English Murder.]

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