“Lost Hearts” is a classic ghost story by the British author M.R. James. James read an early version of the story at a Cambridge literary society gathering in 1893, and the short story was published in the December 1895 issue of the Pall Mall Magazine. The story was later collected in the anthology Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904).
The story opens with a young orphan named Stephen arriving at Aswarby Hall, the country estate of his elderly uncle, Mr. Abney. Although Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, Stephen learns that he is a kind man who has taken in other disadvantaged children in the past. Those children did not stay long, but Stephen is quite happy in his new life at the Hall. A few months after his arrival, however, Stephen begins to experience some mysterious and disturbing events.
“Lost Hearts” was one of the earliest stories written by M.R. James. Although the author himself did not care much for the story, some consider it one of James’ best. The story has been adapted for television and radio.
In September of 1811, a young boy named Stephen Elliot arrives at Aswarby Hall in Lincolnshire. Stephen was recently orphaned, and his elderly cousin, Mr. Abney, has generously invited him to come live at the Hall. The invitation was unexpected, for Mr. Abney is known as a recluse, an expert on ancient pagan religions who is wrapped up in his books.
Mr. Abney eagerly welcomes his young cousin, and he appears delighted to learn that Stephen’s twelfth birthday is nearly a year away. He tells Parkes the butler to take Stephen to the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch. Mrs. Bunch makes Stephen feel completely at home, and they quickly become great friends. Stephen, an adventurous and curious boy, learns much about Aswarby Hall and its gardens from Mrs. Bunch who has been at the Hall for twenty years.
One November evening, Stephen asks Mrs. Bunch “Is Mr. Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?” Mrs. Bunch tells him that his uncle is the kindest man. She then talks about other children Mr. Abney has taken in. The first was a little girl who had no family. Mr. Abney brought her back with him from his walk one day about two years after Mrs. Bunch first came to the Hall. After three weeks, the girl suddenly left before anyone else was up in the morning. Mr. Abney was distraught and even had the ponds dragged, but the girl was never seen again. Mrs. Bunch believes she was taken away by the gypsies who were seen in the area. The second was a young foreign boy who came around with his hurdy-gurdy seven winters ago. Just like the girl, the boy left suddenly one early morning. Mrs. Bunch has no idea why he left or what he did, for he left his hurdy-gurdy behind.
That night, Stephen has a strange dream. He is looking through the glazed door of an old disused bathroom down the corridor from his bedroom. Lying in the bath tub is a thin figure wrapped in a shroud. There is a faint and dreadful smile on its lips, and its hands are pressed tightly over the heart. Then it begins to moan and move its arms. Stephen wakes terrified and finds himself standing in the passageway. He walks up to the bathroom door and takes a peek to see if the figure is there. Finding the bath empty, Stephen goes back to bed. Upon hearing about the dream in the morning, Mrs. Bunch puts a new curtain over the bathroom door. Mr. Abney also shows interest in Stephen’s story and makes notes in his book.
As the spring equinox approaches, Mr. Abney repeatedly advises Stephen to take care and shut his bedroom window at night. He explains that the time of year was considered by the ancients to be critical for the young. One day, after Stephen has a particularly uneasy night, Mrs. Bunch finds his nightdress torn. There are long parallel slits on the left side of the chest. Stephen cannot explain the slits but tells Mrs. Bunch that there are similar scratches on the outside of his bedroom door. Mrs. Bunch goes to look at the door. The marks, which are too high up to have been made by an animal, look like fingernail scratches. She advises Stephen not to say anything to Mr. Abney and to lock his door at bedtime.
The following evening, Stephen is in Mrs. Bunch’s room when Parkes comes in looking uncharacteristically flustered. Not realizing Stephen is there, the butler begins to complain about the wine cellar. He is disturbed by noises coming from the far storage room. Mrs. Bunch points out that there are rats. Parkes replies that, if those are rats, they must be the kind that can talk. Mrs. Bunch protests that he is frightening Stephen, and Parkes finally becomes aware of the child. Stephen asks questions but Parkes will not say any more on the subject.
On March 24, Mr. Abney speaks to Stephen after lunch and asks him to come to his study at 11:00pm. He wishes to show Stephen something important connected with his future life, and tells Stephen not to mention it to anyone else. That evening, Stephen sees his uncle in the library. There is a silver cup filled with red wine and some sheets of paper on the table. Mr. Abney is sprinkling some incense on a brazier from a silver box. Stephen goes up to his bedroom unseen.
Around ten o’clock, Stephen looks out from his bedroom window over the country. The night is still and there is a full moon. He hears strange cries from time to time, not quite like owls or water birds, from across the pond. They seem to come closer and closer, but then the cries stop. Then Stephen sees a boy and a girl standing on the terrace along the side of the Hall. The girl reminds Stephen of the figure in the bath he saw in his dream. She stands half smiling, with her hands over her heart. The boy, thin and in ragged clothing, raises his arms in a gesture of hunger and longing. His nails are fearfully long, and on the left side of his chest is a gaping rent. Stephen hears, not with his ears but in his brain, those desolate cries he heard earlier. Then the boy and the girl noiselessly move away and disappear.
It is now nearly eleven. Stephen, although quite frightened, decides to go down to Mr. Abney’s study. He knocks on the door but receives no reply. He hears his uncle speaking. Then he hears him trying to cry out and choking. In the silence that follows, Stephen frantically pushes open the door.
Later at the inquest, the coroner concludes Mr. Abney was killed by a wild animal that entered the study through the open window. Mr. Abney was found in his chair with a terrible laceration on his chest exposing the heart, and his expression was frozen in a mixture of rage, fear, and horrible pain. There was no blood on his hands or on the knife that lay on the table.
Some years later, Stephen Elliot studies Mr. Abney’s papers and finds a different explanation for his uncle’s death. Through his studies of ancient texts, Mr. Abney had become convinced that one could gain supernatural powers – such as the ability to fly or become invisible – by consuming the hearts of three human beings below the age of twenty-one. The hearts were to be removed from living victims, reduced to ashes, and mixed with red wine. Mr. Abney chose children who would not be missed. The first heart was removed from a gipsy girl on March 24, 1792, and the second from a wandering Italian boy on March 23, 1805. The children’s bodies were concealed in the disused bathroom and the wine cellar. Mr. Abney chose Stephen as the third subject in his experiment. He hoped to gain powers to enable him not only to escape from justice but also to defeat death itself. Although he was aware of the ghosts of the children, called “the psychic portion of the subjects” in his papers, Mr. Abney believed them incapable of harming him.
“Lost Hearts” was adapted for television as an episode of the Mystery and Imagination series with Freddie Jones as Mr. Abney. The episode was first broadcast on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on March 5, 1966.
The story was adapted as a short television film for the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series with Joseph O’Conor in the role of Mr. Abney. It first aired on British television on December 25, 1973. The movie features hurdy-gurdy music, and the ghost of the boy is seen playing the instrument.
On December 26, 2007, BBC Radio 4 aired a 15-minute dramatization of “Lost Hearts” as part of the M.R. James: Ghost Stories series. Derek Jacobi, as M.R. James, introduces the story which is told as a recollection by the grown-up Stephen Elliot (James D’Arcy).
Just the other side of Acle, on the old road leading to Thurne, Caister and beyond, there is a single-span bridge over the River Bure; naturally, as one would suspect, it is called Acle Bridge.
This single-span bridge is just the latest of several bridges which have been on the site since 1101; it was only built in 1997. Our tale is not concerned with this version, nor with its immediate predecessor, built in 1931 which had two piers supported on oak piles driven into the river bed. This wooden structure replaced a hundred year old three-arch stone bridge built in the 1830s. This tale is only concerned with the three-arched stone bridge, however, please do not dismiss the 1931 or the 1997 bridges that followed this one!
It used to be said that if you found yourself on the stone Acle bridge on 7th of April, you would discover a pool of blood, which would not have been there the night before. That was so true then, when the tragedy happened – and it remains true today on the present bridge – remember, you have been warned not to dismiss it lightly! Now for our tale:
John, or it might have been Joshua, Burge was a corn chandler. For those not from these parts, a corn chandler was a person who dealt in corn and meal. Burge lived with his wife and children in a house close to the three-arched stone bridge at Acle and was known as a man who cheated on his customers, beat his wife and starved his children. So it will come as no surprise that, eventually, he went too far when he killed his long suffering wife. His subsequent arrest was a straightforward affair, such was his track record regarding his business affairs and relationships; plus the fact that too much evidence existed about his assaults and the killing for which he was taken to gaol in Norwich.
It followed that the legal profession brought Burge to trial for his wife’s murder but, such was his wickedness and cunning that he managed to secure himself an acquittal. You see, he had managed, somehow, to bribe the local doctor to say that his wife had died of a heart attack. It would seem that a doctor’s evidence in court at that time carried more weight than the evidence of bruising and contusions to a body. Discolourations as would have been made by a length of pipe that was discovered behind the cabinet in Burge’s kitchen. But, whatever the state of his wife’s body Burge was, in short, declared innocent of her murder and released – yes, quite unbelievable isn’t it!
However, this tale does not end there. The wife had a brother who on hearing of Burge’s acquittal, decided to plan for and hand out his own form of justice on his brother-in-law for the death of his poor sister. So, on the 7th of April as it turned out, he lay in wait on the bridge at Acle for Burge, having concealed a butcher’s knife, his chosen weapon, inside his jacket; he had also planned for his subsequent escape from the scene. The position of the brother-in-law on the bridge was over its central arch and he knew that Burge, who was in Great Yarmouth that day on business, would pass by on his return late that same evening. In the event, everything turned out as anticipated and planned for. Burge did indeed walk across the bridge at a late hour and towards his assailant who leapt up and wrestled Burge to the ground. There, having pinned him firmly to the bridge’s flagstones and taken out his huge butchers knife from inside his jacket, cut Burge’s throat from ear to ear – no half measures!
Burge’s blood gushed out spraying the brother and the stonework of the bridge, before finally coming to rest in a pool around what was then a dead body. Realising that the police would probably suspect him of the deed, the brother-in-law carried out the next stage of his plan by making his way to Great Yarmouth and boarding a ship that would take him away from Norfolk’s shores. Whilst all this turned out fortunate for the murderer – it was not so for a Jack Ketch who, following the discovery of Burge’s body, was accused by the police of the murder. This man had been cheated by Burge in a business deal and had been overheard threatening to get even. Mainly on this evidence, Ketch was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.
Some years later, Burge’s real killer returned to England and pretended surprise upon hearing of his brother-in-law’s (Burge) death; no one was the wiser to this deception. Then, as the anniversary of his killing of Burge arrived, his deceptor and brother-in-law, had an irresistible urge to visit Acle Bridge again – the scene of his dastardly deed. This was on the very night where, exactly 12 months previously, he had sliced through the sinews of Burge’s throat. It was this image that began to haunt him as he stood above the bridge’s central arch, peering over its side into the murky waters below. As he did so, a ghostly figure materialised from of nowhere it seemed, a figure that was more of mist and marsh fog than flesh and bones. It drifted silently towards him!
The next morning the townsfolk found a body dangling over the side of the bridge with a rope around what remained of his neck which had been severed as if by a large butchers knife. Some say the shadowy spectre was that of Burge, others that it belonged to the innocent man, Ketch, who had been hung for Burge’s murder. Either way, on the anniversary of the original murder, a pool of blood from one or other of these two victims appeared, and continues to appear each 7th April since – for it never did confine its appearance to the old three-arched bridge long gone. So, if you choose to go there on the 7th inst, by all means look out for the pool of blood but, just be alert if you are ever tempted to glance over the bridge rail to the murky waters below – you could possibly find yourself in a very precarious situation!
In Part 1 I told the story of Mary Wright from Wighton in Norfolk, who in 1832 consulted Hannah Shorten, a local “cunning woman” or “witch” before she decided to poison her husband William by putting arsenic in a plum cake. Mary was suffering from a pathological jealousy, and it is possible that Shorten encouraged her into her actions (which also accidentally killed Mary’s father) although we have no proof of this and Shorten was not called to appear at Mary’s trial.
Two years later, however, Shorten appeared as a witness at a double murder trial, again featuring poison, at the Norwich Assizes. The deaths occurred in the Burnham Westgate (now known as Burnham Market), which lies a mile from the north Norfolk coast and five miles from Wells Next the Sea. The inhabitants of a row of three terraced cottages in North Street were involved. Frances (or Fanny) Billing, her husband James and eight children, the youngest of whom was eight, lived in the cottage at one end; Peter Taylor and his wife Mary, who were childless, were in the middle; and Catherine Frarey, her husband Robert and their three children rented rooms above Thomas Wake’s carpenters shop, at the other end.
Washerwoman Fanny was a steady sort, a church-goer who regularly took communion. She was described later by a reporter as a “woman of no ordinary endowments,” the meaning of which is unclear, but the writer also noted her resilience and firmness of purpose, so perhaps it was her character he was commenting on rather than her appearance. Her husband James was an agricultural labourer. Like Mary Wright and her husband, and their neighbours, these were very poor people living as steadily and respectably as they could without benefit of education.
The Billings’ neighbour Peter Taylor was a journeyman shoemaker but he had suffered ill health and now worked as a sometime barber, pub waiter and singer. His wife Mary was a shoebinder. As is often the way with tight-knit groups of people living close by, close relationships can arise, and around 1834 Peter Taylor and Fanny Billing started an affair, which soon became the subject of gossip in their small community. James Billing became aware of it and, enraged when he discovered the two in close conversation out at the shared privy, beat them both. Fanny later had James arrested and bound over to keep the peace at the local Petty Sessions.
Like Fanny Billings, childminder Catherine (Kate) Frarey, aged about 46, had once had a good name but there were now rumours about her relationship with a Mr Gridley. She was known to associate with fortune-tellers and witches. Her husband Robert, once a fisherman, was now an agricultural labourer. On 21 February, Elizabeth Southgate, whose baby daughter Harriet was minded by Kate Frarey, was told that her child was very ill. At the house, she found her baby in great distress and Robert Frarey, who had been ill for two weeks, groaning in agony in his bed. Elizabeth gave Harriet a drink of warm water sweetened with sugar but she expired in the early hours of the following morning. A doctor determined that she died of natural causes.
In the days that followed, Robert Frarey showed no sign of improvement, but his wife Kate and her friend Fanny Billing were seen often together whispering with Hannah Shorten, who arrived on the day of baby Southgate’s funeral.
During this visit Shorten went with Kate Frarey to see Fanny Billing, who gave her some pennies and asked her to get some white arsenic to kill mice and rates. There is some question over whether it was Shorten or Billing who went to the pharmacy with Frarey, but whoever did the purchasing, the result was that a quantity of arsenic was bought.
Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth Southgate came to enquire about Robert Frarey’s health. In court she described Fanny Billing offering her porter, which she had poured into a teacup. Elizabeth saw sediment in it and handed it back saying, “I should not take sugar in porter.” Her suspicions were growing but whether or not she guessed the truth at this stage, it was a wise move. Billing handed the drink to Robert Frarey, saying, “Drink it up. It will do you good.” When Northgate returned that evening, Robert was retching violently into a basin, after which he deteriorated quickly and 48 hours later, on 27 February, while Elizabeth was visiting once more, he died. His wife and Fanny Billing were attending him. He was buried shortly afterwards at St Mary’s in Burnham Market.
Gossip must have started immediately. On a trip to Wells with Kate Frary some time after the funeral, Elizabeth Southgate talked to her about the cause of Robert’s demise:
“If I were you, Mrs Frarey, I would have my husband taken up [disinterred] and examined, to shut the world’s mouth.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, “I should not like it. Would you?”
“Yes, Mrs Frarey, I would like it, for it will be a check on you and your children after you.”
Barely a week after Robert Frarey was put in the ground, Fanny Billing was persuading a neighbour to accompany her to buy arsenic, saying it was for a Mrs Webster (who later denied all knowledge). Inspired by the successful despatch of Robert, Fanny and Kate were now determined on a new victim: Mary Taylor, whose husband Peter was having an affair with Fanny.
With the arsenic bought, all that was needed was opportunity. On 12 March, while Mary Taylor was out at work, Billing or Frary or Peter Taylor, or perhaps some of them in combination, poisoned the dumplings and gravy she had left out for the evening’s supper. When Mary fell ill, she had the misfortune to be nursed by Kate Frarey. People came and went, and neither Frary nor Billing seem to have been too guarded in what they did nor said while they did so. William Powell, the village blacksmith, stopped by for a haircut and shave. He saw Kate Frarey bring in a bowl of gruel and, using the tip of a knife, add to it what looked like powdered sugar. Phoebe Taylor, married to Peter Taylor’s brother, visited to tend to Mary and care for Peter. She saw Fanny Billing take a paper out of her pocket and pour its contents into a teacup, throwing the paper in the fire. Eventually, with Mary in convulsions, Phoebe Taylor and Kate Frarey summoned a doctor. He found that Mary’s pulse was feeble and she died in his presence.
A coroner’s inquest was ordered, and Mary Taylor’s body was opened in her own kitchen. Her stomach was taken to the pharmacist in Burnham Market, where it was found to be riddled with arsenic. Next it was taken to Norwich where more tests were conducted by surgeon Richard Griffin, again confirming arsenic.
The atmosphere in Burnham Market must have been febrile, when James Billing, who was already on the alert, in an unguarded moment, accepted a cup of tea from his wife. He became very ill, but recovered.
Fanny Billing was arrested on 18 March and taken to Walsingham Gaol. Kate Frarey then asked Fanny’s sons to drive her to Salle, “to see a woman there who is something of a witch [not Shorten], that that woman might tie Mr Curtis’s tongue so that he might not question my mother.” Mr Curtis was the gaolkeeper at Walsingham. Fanny’s sons questioned why, if their mother was innocent, Frarey should wish this. The indiscreet comments did not stop. When Peter Taylor was arrested, Frarey shouted out to him, “There you go, Peter, hold your own, and they can’t hurt you.” There were numerous other examples.
Kate Frarey and Hannah Shorten were also arrested and Robert Frarey’s and Harriet Southhgate’s graves opened. Peter Taylor’s house was searched for signs of arsenic. All three suspects, Billing, Frary and Taylor were committed for trial at the Lent Assizes at Norwich, but charges against Shorten did not stick. Taylor escaped when the grand jury chose to “ignore” his indictment as an accessory before the fact.
In a packed courtroom on 7 August, appearing before Justice Bolland, Frarey and Billing were both found guilty of both murders (no discernable traces of arsenic were found in baby Southgate’s body). As he condemned them to death, the judge referred to the women’s “profligate, vicious and abandoned course of life”, full of “guilty lusts”. He urged them towards repentance and sincere contrition and ordered their bodies to be buried within the confines of Norwich Castle.
Kate Frarey, often agitated, needed support. She went into “strong hysterics” and her shrieks could be heard after she was removed from court. Billing was more stalwart, and showed no emotion as the verdicts and sentence were given.
The women’s execution on 10 August attracted vast crowds into Norwich from the surrounding villages. All routes leading to the castle were thronged with “persons of various ages and of both sexes (the weaker vessels being the more numerous)”. 2 To reduce the distance the women would have to walk to the gallows, the apparatus was moved to the upper end of the bridge, which also had the effect that more people were able to see the action. At 12 noon the great gates opened and the Rev James Brown, prayer book in hand, followed by “the two unfortunate beings”, Frarey dressed in mourning for her husband and Billing in a “coloured clothes”, white handkerchiefs covering their faces emerged for their last journey. Billing walked with “a firm step”, but Frarey was on the point of fainting and had to be carried up the steps of the scaffold. The executioner William Calcraft was in attendance.
After the ropes were adjusted, hooded and holding each other by the hand, the friends dropped. Frarey was “much convulsed” but Billing’s neck broke and she suffered less. The crowd was silent.
The Norfolk Chronicle described the scene:
It was a sight which no one, but an alien to humanity, could look on unmoved.
FULL TEXT: October 17, 1835 – This day the sentence of the law was carried into execution upon the two women, Frances Billing and Catherine Frarey, who were found guilty of having poisoned Mary Taylor and Robert Frarey. Billing ascended the scaffold with the greatest firmness, but Frarey was obliged to be supported from the jail to the platform, and the two miserable wretches, the one 48, and the other 46 years of age, were launched into eternity amidst an immense concourse of spectators, (20,000 or 30,000), above one-half of whom were women.
Peter Taylor, who escaped trial, was among the spectators but was forced to flee when the crowd turned on him. He managed to make it his home village of Whissonsett but he was not safe. Before their executions, the women had made fulsome confessions, implicating him, if not of being directly involved at least of knowing what they were doing. The investigation was reopened and on 29 August, scarcely three weeks after Frarey and Billing had been executed, he was committed for trial as an accessory before the fact to his wife’s murder. He was found guilty and, insisting on his innocence to the last (which meant that he was denied the sacrament), in “a state of the greatest prostration of strength, both mental and corporeal,” on 23 April 1836 was executed at Norwich Castle.
Serial poisoning is generally a solitary crime, characterised by subterfuge and secret triumph over the victims. It is not often conducted in pairs or trios, which makes Billing and Frarey (with or without Peter Taylor) so unusual. It is noteworthy that they were unable to keep quiet at the appropriate times and talked unguardedly, raising suspicion and indeed certainty of what they were doing. Even if they had other victims, and there was plenty of speculation that they did, they were, in the end, singularly unsuccessful in getting away with their crimes undetected, precisely because they could not keep their mouths shut.
Billing and Frarey were also unusual because they were women. Although they committed the murders at the start of a run of female poisoners, which culminated in the so-called poisoning panic of the 1840s, and despite the general feeling that poisoning was a female crime, the truth is that poisoning is more likely to be committed by men. When the victim is female, the perpetrator is significantly more likely to be male; when the victim is male, the poisoner is equally likely to be male or female.
Perhaps the perception of poisoning as a female crime arose from the fact that when women did choose to murder, which was rare enough in itself, poisoning was often their weapon of choice. Female murderers did not often use brute force to kill their victims (unless, of course, those victims were smaller and weaker: children and newborn babies). Women tended to deliver their killer blows using the medium that was most available and most effective: food, laced with poison, generally arsenic. Perhaps that accounts for the poisoning panic: as the judge at Frary and Billing’s trials said, poison “was one of the worst acts that can be resorted to, because it is impossible to be guarded against such a determination, which is but too often carried into effect, when no one is present to observe it but the eye of God.”
There must have been numerous cases in history where women’s efforts to drastically change their lives by ending someone else’s (most often their husband’s) by putting arsenic in their food went entirely undetected because these women had cooler heads and operated on their own. Frarey and Billing were astonishingly obvious. Perhaps they encouraged by Shorten and her like to think that what they were doing had magical qualities or that their friends and neighbours trusted them so much that they would not begin to suspect them. In a world where justice was so unreliable it was fairly certain that their detection and punishment would follow.
Hannah Shorten is found, aged 80, in the 1851 census, living in Wells and described as a pauper.
James Billing, the only spouse to survive, died in 1871, aged 84, in Alderbury, Wiltshire.
Much of the detail of the case is given in the Norfolk Chronicle, 15 August 1835.
The following is an abridged report from Norwich Mercury dated April 4 1835:
The town of Burnham Market, in Norfolk, and the vicinity for some miles around have for the last week been in the most dreadful state of excitement caused by the discovery of three diabolical murders, which have already been committed, and a plan laid for taking away the lives of several other people.
The circumstance that led to the discovery was as follows; — A woman named Mary Taylor, the wife of Peter Taylor, a journeyman shoemaker, was taken with a violent retching after dinner on Thursday, the 12th instant, and though medical assistance was procured, she died at five o’clock the same afternoon. Mr. Cremer, the surgeon, as soon as he saw her, pronounced her to have been poisoned. An inquest was held on the body on the following Saturday, when the jury after sitting till eleven at night, adjourned the inquest till Monday, and then having no evidence as to how the deceased came by the arsenic which had been found in the stomach, returned a verdict to the effect that she died by taking arsenic, but that it was unknown by what means it was administered.
There were certain rumours that the husband of the deceased had been connected with a married woman named Fanny Billing, who lived next door, and this connexion seemed to have been a great cause of uneasiness between Taylor and his wife, and a week or two before the deceased had, it seems, taxed Billing with it, and they had had a quarrel. It was also discovered that Billing had a short time before bought three-pennyworth of arsenic of a druggist. Some flour that was in Taylor house was also found to contain a quantity of arsenic, and from this the deceased had made dumplings on the day she died. These facts coming out, the magistrates thought proper to hold a special meeting on the Wednesday for the further investigation of the matter, and Taylor and Billing were brought before them, examined, and remanded for further examination. As Billing, however, was going away, a woman living next door, named Mary, who was frequently in and out of Mrs. Taylor’s, was heard to say to her, “Maw, hold your own, and they can’t hurt us.” This led to further suspicion, and Frarey was apprehended. It was then recollected that Frarey’s husband, and a child they kept, died about a fortnight before very suddenly. Orders were then given to have them disinterred; their stomachs were sent to Norwich to be analysed, and they also were found to contain arsenic.
On Tuesday Billing was fully committed to take her trial for the murder at the forthcoming assizes. She is nearly 60 years old, has had 14 children, and nine are now alive. She has confessed the whole, but says that Frary gave the poison to Mrs. Taylor. She has also confessed to other acts of the same kind with Frary, and that there were several other persons they had marked out for their victims.
She had made an attempt to poison her husband about the same time, but he did not take a sufficient quantity, and recovered. Taylor is still remanded, and Frary has been taken speechless since Tuesday, and cannot be recovered. The wife of her brother, who lived at Burnham Overy, died about the same time suddenly, but has not yet been taken up. Taylor says he was taken sick on the Thursday with his wife, but that he threw up and got better. Mrs. [Catherine] Frarey was sent for to attend on Mrs. Taylor, and a witness by the name of Rowley says, when he was in at Taylor’s to be shaved, he saw Frarey, in making her some gruel, put something into it from a paper on the point of a knife, white, almost like flour, so that in all probability, to make assurance doubly sure, she poisoned also her gruel. It was, too, the merest wonder in the world that the poisoned flour (for it had not then been found to be poisoned) was not taken to provide for the funeral – indeed this seems to have been anticipated by the wretches, and then the whole family would have been their victims; but the management was fortunately taken out of Frarey’s hands, and the flour providentially unused. Taylor has borne a good character for many years until he got connected with this woman. His wife was a very industrious person, and although they had no family they lived very comfortably together. She was 47 years of age, and he is about the same.
Recommended reading where a full account of the case can be found:
Maurice Morson, Norfolk Mayhem and Murder: Classic Cases Revisited, Chapter 3, “The Burnham Poisoners,” (pp. 38-55), Barnsley, 2008, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, South Yorkshire
Neil Storey, Norfolk Murders, 2006, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire.
This is a convoluted story, of two sets of murders in a small area of Norfolk within a couple of years. The killings had several unusual factors: one was that the murderers were female; another was that one set of deaths involved a murderous duo, of female friends rather than lovers (although the plot involves the lover of one of them); another was that the murderers used poison, argued to be the female murderers’ weapon of choice (we’ll come to that in Part 2); and finally, a ‘witch’, the same ‘witch’, played a role in both narratives.
We’ll start with the story of Mary Ann Wright, who was born in 1803 in the tiny north Norfolk village of Wighton, which lies between Walsingham to the south and Wells Next the Sea to the North. In 1829, aged 26, she married William Wright, a 34-year-old “teamerman”, whose job was to deliver carts of grain pulled by five horses. (Note 1). Mary and William lived in Wighton, with Mary’s father Richard Darby. They were poor and illiterate people and they lived physically tough lives, but village life was close-knit and stable. Everyone knew everyone else. The couple had children but it difficult to say with certainty how many. There are records for Samuel, born in 1829, but reports of Mary’s trial mention two children.
It was well known that Mary suffered poor mental health. She had been affected both by the death in March 1832 of Samuel, aged 3, (Note 2) and another child. One person said in court that Mary was “never in her right mind” after the birth of her last child, so postpartum psychosis is a possibility. It was also assumed by her neighbours that a heredity factor played a part: her mother had spent 18 months in the asylum. Her neighbours noted that she had been behaving oddly, for example setting fire to the tablecloth and the chairs in her house.
Mary’s illness appears to have manifested itself as pathological jealousy. She told a friend that she would “stick a knife in him [William]” if he gave part of the fish he had just bought to her perceived rival and told another that she would not mind “running a knife” through him or “doing his business in some other way.” After she was arrested, magistrates heard evidence that she had made previous attempts on his life and on her own. (Note 3)
It is likely that Mary’s threats, and even her efforts to kill, William were brushed off at the time. No one could envisage what happened next. Mary was becoming increasingly desperate and had visited the local “cunning woman”, Hannah Shorten, at Wells, a walk of some two and a half miles. Shorten, whose services would have included casting love spells, creating charms and telling fortunes, made her living by offering magic to people for whom the Church’s teachings had little appeal. Many in poor rural societies traditionally preferred the power of folk remedies and curses; they must have seemed more direct ways to reach, and destroy, your enemies than prayer. One Shorten’s methods for achieving your desires was to burn arsenic with salt. Whether she encouraged Mary to use arsenic in other ways, or whether Mary misinterpreted her guidance, is not known.
Arsenic was a cheap poison used commonly for the killing of vermin. Thruppence (3d) would buy you 3 ounces, but you only needed enough to cover the tip of a knife to kill someone. It looked innocuous and could be hidden in flour or bread, or cakes. It was also tasteless but could produce a burning sensation after it was ingested. If you were intent on murder, the challenge was to acquire and administer it without attracting suspicion. As the symptoms of arsenic poisoning sometimes resembled gastroenteritis, it is likely that many poisoners “got away with it”. Vomiting, diarrhoea and inflammation of the stomach and bowels were easily mistaken for signs of cholera.
Mary appears to have planned the murder carefully. She asked Sarah Hastings to come with her on a shopping trip to Wells Next the Sea and told her that the local rat catcher had asked her to get some arsenic. Unfortunately, during the journey she quizzed Sarah on how much it would take to kill a person, something Hastings later described in court. While the women were in Wells Mary also bought currants. She said she was planning to make a plum cake. (Note 4)
A few days later, on the morning of Saturday 1 December, William Wright rose early. He had been instructed by his employer to take a load of corn to Cley, just over 10 miles from Wighton. Mary gave him two plum cakes for the journey. After preparing the waggon with the help of Richard Darby, his father-in-law, and before he started out on the road, they repaired to a public house for a pot of beer and to eat the cakes. Richard returned home and William went on towards Cley with another farm worker, William Hales. He seemed fine at first but later became so ill and was in such agony, lying on sacks on the floor and unable to move, that he could not make the return journey. Instead, Hales took the team back to Wighton and Wright was carried to a public house where Charles Buck, the local surgeon, examined him. Mary was sent for. William finally expired on Sunday night, less than 48 hours after eating the cakes. Everyone except Mary, of course, blamed cholera and was terrified. (Note 5)
When Mary returned to Wighton, she found that her father had also died. (Note 6) The trouble with poison, especially in food, is that you could not be sure the wrong people will consume it. Both men were buried at All Saints Church, Wighton on 4 December 1832.
It was a chance remark by Sarah Hastings that Mary had recently bought arsenic which led to suspicion falling on her. Four days after the funerals, the bodies were dug up and examined by Charles Buck in the chancel of Wighton Church; the stomachs were sent to Mr Bell, a chemist at Wells, who found they contained raisins from the plum cake. Bell used four separate tests to establish that they also contained arsenic.
Mary was arrested at Oulton, 16 miles from Wighton, and appeared at a special sitting of local magistrates. She was hardly able to speak and remained almost completely silent thereafter. Shortly afterwards, she was committed to Walsingham Prison for trial at the Lent Assizes.
A decision was made to prosecute her only for the murder of her husband, possibly because it was felt that she had not intended the death of her father. The Norfolk Chronicle (Note 7) reported that she had made a full confession before she left Walsingham for Norwich Castle but she nevertheless pleaded not guilty to murder at her trial before Judge Baron Bolland. Witnesses from Wighton testified to William Wright’s sudden illness and Mary’s expedition to buy arsenic; Charles Buck described William’s death and Mr Bell his chemical tests. Mr Crosse, a surgeon from Norwich, declared that:
…child bearing is apt to produce insanity [but] insanity from child bearing is mostly temporary.
Hannah Shorten was not called as a witness.
Mary was found guilty and condemned to death, her body to be buried in the precincts of Norwich Castle. She then had what was described as an “hysteric fit” after which she said she was pregnant. After some delay, Bolland assembled a panel of 12 matrons to examine Mary and after an hour they returned to court to declare that she was not with child. Perhaps prompted by Mary’s vehemence, Bolland then asked the opinion of three “eminent accoucheurs”, including Mr Crosse, who declared that Mary was indeed expecting a child. Five months later, on 11 July, Mary gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth. (Note 8) and Mary would not have been surprised to learn that her execution was then scheduled, for 17 August. (Note 9). However, at some point before this date, her sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
Mary did not reach Australia. She died in Norwich Castle in November. Cause of death: “by the visitation of God”, (Note 10) meaning no one knew why she died. Did a brain tumour or other natural disease affect her personality and eventually cause her death? Was her death a suicide? Or perhaps the double loss of her babies, combined with postpartum psychosis, caused some aberration of mind that lead to extreme jealousy and destructive behaviour. We cannot know. The newspaper reports of her trial imply a kind of medical defence was made but this was not spelled out and it was not strong enough to save her from a death sentence.
Mary was buried at the Church of St Michael at Thorn in central Norwich, Norfolk. This church, formerly in Thorn Lane and off Ber Street, was destroyed during the 1941 Blitz of World War II.
In Part 2 I’ll explore the extraordinary events of 1835 in Burnham Market, less than 10 miles from Wighton. Hannah Shorten features again.
1. “Teamerman” is a specifically Norfolk term, referring to the ploughman who ran a system of alternating horses to plough fields and to the waggoner who used a team of five horses to pull carts of grain. Naomi Riches, in her book The Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk (Routledge, 1937), has a detailed explanation.
2. Samuel was buried at Wighton Church.
3. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 1832
4. Plum cake contained raisins rather than plums.
5. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 183
6. Hereford Times, 29 December 1832, quoting Suffolk Chronicle 7. 30 March 1833
8. Norfolk Chronicle, 20 July 1833
9. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 10 August 1833
10. London Evening Standard, 6 November 1833
There is today, overlooking Norwich, a gem of a place which is free of urbanisation – although it is completely surrounded by roads, traffic, concrete and bricks. It is an area where there is freedom for trees, bracken, brambles, grass and weeds to grow, freedom for feet to ramble and for dogs to do what they normally do when let off the lead. This place once formed part of a much greater expanse of heathland that extended from the north-eastern bank of the River Wensum at Norwich, towards the villages of Salhouse and Rackheath way out in the County. It was once a large area maintained by grazing, but without such husbandry the trees grew tall and thick to produce woodland, now much frequented by walkers. Today, this area covers a mere 200 acres but is much appreciated by Norwich people as a welcome piece of open space. It is an island of green, known today as Mousehold Heath but in far off days was called Thorpe Wood.
Within it, Long Valley in particular makes one feel that Norwich is far away and that the only exciting thing that would happen below the deciduous canopy of Mousehold is for Robert Kett to emerge with the city’s authority in hot pursuit. The wood’s deciduous canopy also does more than cushion objects of our imagination, it muffles the noise of vehicles on those roads that run circles round the area, including that odd little field or two set amongst the trees. It is a wood veined with sand and flint edged pathways that have been cut through ridges by centuries of feet; nice pathways, many of them through birches growing in shallow areas either side. Pick the right one, but avoiding bramble, rough undergrowth, burrs and ticks and a largely forgotten chapel will emerge in the mind and where one can get lost in time. This is where ‘ St William’s Chapel in the Wood’ lays.
The Chapel site covers just a small area, towards the edge of present-day Mousehold Heath – a short distance to the south-west of the junction of Gurney Road and Heartsease Lane. It was originally dedicated to St Catherine de Monte, way back in those far off days following the Norman Conquest; at that time, it served as a parochial chapel for the Norwich Cathedral Priory. Later, in fact on the 27 April 1168, it was re-dedicated to honour a new ‘martyr’ on the block – the boy William. Fast forward to some 380 years later and we find that this chapel was amongst those religious establishments dissolved by Henry VIII; and whilst the exact date of its demise is unknown, the last offering was recorded in 1506, and by 1556 the site had been leased out by the Dean as ‘The Chapel-Yard called St William in the Wood’. But that piece of information is something of a distraction at the moment; we need to retrace our steps back to 22nd March 1144. On that date, a despicable act, supposedly, took place at the site of the chapel – It was Easter and not the best time for a murder!
Get the detail right and the place will be a stark reminder of a disturbing and unpleasant moment that, they say, took place here. But take care; the way history works is not to run into the past in convenient straight lines. With stories, indeed with and all historical accounts, it is best to visualise them as being in twisted flight, crisscrossing through time on a journey which, inevitably, turns the past into a foreign country – where ‘they did things differently there’. This is true of the Chapel’s story and, as with other historical stories, it doesn’t have one starting point but many. What we know or think we know about this story, is that parts of it will certainly be inaccurate, simply twisted by whatever common thought or agenda was in place when it was written. The story of St William’s Chapel and much that surrounds it is a case in point, laying as it does below undergrowth, trees and canopy. For the details of this story we have Thomas of Monmouth to thank!
It’s a safe thing to say that most people in Norwich are vaguely aware of William of Norwich, helped no doubt by a report in 2004 about 17 bodies being found in a medieval well in Norwich, during the development of the Chapelfield Shopping Centre (see Footnote below). That report was clearly written for readers who like Time-Team programmes with their trowel and forensic archaeology. However, these sort of people may not be aware of all the detail which, in William’s case, confirms that he was a victim of what some believe was a ritualised murder. Further, he was only a young lad of about 12 years of age who was an apprentice skinner and tanner, the first recorded apprentice in English history so they say. He certainly died somewhere in Norwich on or around 22nd of March 1144 and it was on the 25th March that his body was found, mutilated on the heath close to, if not on the spot where the Chapel stood. Clearly, if he had been murdered elsewhere then his body would probably have been carried to the heath by horse to be disposed of.
Nobody truly knows who did the foul deed, or where, or even why; but, as ever, blame was quickly apportioned by the populace, egged on by the religious authorities and William’s family. Their collective finger pointed directly at the Jews of Norwich who, by the way, were protected by the Sheriff in the King’s name. Now, this is where politics vie with the powers of the church for front row seats, not forgetting that in the 12th century the King was Stephen. He not only had the church to deal with but also his cousin Matilda; they were both grandchildren of William the Conqueror and amongst all the others competing for a dominant position in ‘The Anarchy – which, basically, was a rather nasty tribal squabble about who controls England – not forgetting Normandy of course. Add to this the question of Jews, who started to come over in 1066, had French as their mother language – and settled in Norwich – big trouble was afoot..
Thomas of Monmouth and his version of events:
Enter Thomas, and here we can only presume that he was born in Monmouth, only because he is identified by that town’s name. Having been “respectably educated” he first arrived in Norwich in 1150 and wasted no time in investigating the murder of William. First, he set about interviewing as many of the surviving ‘witnesses’ as possible. These included people who Thomas had already identified as being “converted Jews”; they provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. According to Thomas, one particular ‘convert’, called Theobald of Cambridge, told him that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned that task.
This, and much more, was written up in his multi-volume Latin account of the crime, titled ‘The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich’ which Thomas started shortly after his arrival in Norwich in 1150, and completed Volume 7 by 1173. Since most information about William’s life comes only from Thomas’s writings, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. It was he who devoted himself to the promotion of William to sainthood; he did this by collecting evidence of his holiness and by arguing that he had been martyred by the Jews in a ‘ritual’ murder. As things turned out, Thomas of Monmouth was ultimately unsuccessful in getting William of Norwich canonized as a saint, but did succeed in creating a cult around him in Norwich. From the outset, Thomas contended that he had received visions from the founding Bishop of Norwich, Herbert de Losinga, who had died in 1119. According to Thomas, Losinga told him that William’s body should be moved into the Chapter House of the monastery, but Thomas had to battle with the sceptical Prior Elias, who was unconvinced of William’s sanctity. However, the body of William was in fact moved within the same year of Thomas’s arrival in Norwich. That year of 1150 was also the year in which Elias died, and by then the cult of William was established.
Circumstances Leading up to the Murder:
Thomas confirmed that William had been born on 2 February 1132 and that his parents were a local Anglo-Saxon couple, Wenstan and Elviva. Later, William was apprenticed to a skinner and tanner of hides, often visiting homes in and around Norwich, including those in the Jewish quarter to the east of Norwich Castle. Shortly before his murder, William’s mother was approached by a man who claimed to be a cook, working for the Archdeacon of Norwich. He offered William a job in the Archdeacon’s kitchens and William’s mother was paid three shillings to let him go. William later visited his aunt in the company of this same man but she was apparently suspicious and asked her daughter to follow the two after they left. William and this man were eventually seen entering the house of a local Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive. It was Holy Tuesday.
According to Thomas, the man who claimed to be a cook had been employed by the Jews to entice William into the house where the sacrifice would occur. William was initially treated well, but was then bound, gagged and suspended in a cruciform position in a room where he was tortured and murdered in a manner imitating the Crucifixion of Jesus: the Jews lacerated his head with thorns and pierced his side.
“having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thorn points, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made…….. some of those present judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord’s Passion………..”
Thomas supports this claim further by saying that another converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body. He also says that a Christian servant woman glimpsed the child through a chink in a door. Then, another man is said to have confessed on his deathbed, years after the events, that he saw a group of Jews transporting a body on a horse in the woods.
On the 22th March 1144, William’s mutilated body was found near the chapel site by a local nun who did not initially contact anyone. Then a forester, named Henry de Sprowston, came across it. He noted injuries which suggested a violent death and the fact that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden ‘teasel’ and was wearing just a jacket and shoes. Was this a sexual assault?
After consultation with the local priest it was decided to bury the body on Easter Monday, two day hence; the position of the grave to be where the body was found. In the meantime, some curious folk came to look at the body, a few recognising William. The next day, being Easter Sunday, members of William’s family arrived to confirm, amongst other things, the identity of the body; one member was said to be a priest. The following day, with proper ceremony, William was buried. Beyond this, Thomas devotes most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William’s sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures affected on local devotees. Thomas admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior, Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William’s piety or martyrdom. Thomas actively promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.
The Christians of Norwich, having quickly blamed local Jews for the crime, then demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes. In the meantime, William’s body had been moved to the monks’ cemetery. Later, it would be moved to progressively more prestigious places in the Cathedral, being placed in the Chapterhouse in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.
As part of this promotion, images of William, as a martyr, were created for some churches, generally in the vicinity of Norwich. A panel of painted oak, depicting both William and Agatha of Sicily, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym who died in 1472, a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich. Another rood screen in St Mary’s church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.
As it was, William’s death was never satisfactorily solved and the local authorities would therefore not convict anyone, simply because there was no proof. There the matter apparently rested, that is until a Thomas of Monmouth came along, some six years later, and got caught up in the clergy’s idea of establishing a cult around the death of William with a motive which must have been partly pecuniary. It was William de Turbeville, Bishop of Norwich between 1146 and 74 who encouraged Thomas of Monmouth to write his book as a precursor to the church achieving its aim. It turned out to be an extensive hagiography work; Volume 7 being completed in 1173. Clearly, it was designed to deify the boy and to blame the Norwich Jews for what became Britain’s first ‘Blood Libel’. For those who would like a Googled explanation of Blood Libel, it comes from the idea that Jews use the blood of the murdered, usually Christian, children in Passover rituals to make bread – no more need be said!
As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. After Thomas of Monmouth’s version of William’s death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies, including: This evolved into the so-called blood libel.
The horrific death of William of Norwich at the hands of an unknown became an appalling beginning for future propaganda exercises in many other parts of Britain and across Europe which used murdered children by unknowns, some of whom, as with William, became the subject of veneration. Proof of William’s veneration can be found in Norwich Cathedral, in a small chapel less than a stone’s throw from the choir stalls. It’s not an exciting place, wood lined and with a few chairs; seemingly out of place within the Cathedral’s splendour but comfortably near the tombs of old bishops. As someone said elsewhere, this is where the story starts to get really nasty. William is said to be buried here, after being moved several times in the church’s attempt to get William away from Thorpe Wood and nearer the high alter. The answer is all very simple; saints bring pilgrims and pilgrims bring money.
In 2004, the remains of 17 bodies were found at the bottom of a medieval well in Norwich. They were discovered during an excavation of a site in the City’s centre, ahead of the construction of Chapelfield Shopping Centre.
According to the scientists, carrying out the investigation, the skeletons dated back to the 12th or 13th Centuries, at a time when Jewish people were facing persecution in Norwich and, indeed, throughout Europe. In their opinion, the most likely explanation for them being down the well were that they were Jewish and probably murdered or forced to commit suicide. Pictures taken at the time of excavation suggested the bodies were thrown down the well together, head first.
Using a combination of DNA analysis, carbon dating and bone chemical studies in their investigation, the team established that eleven of the 17 skeletons were those of children aged between 2 and 15; the remaining six were adult men and women. Out of the total found, seven skeletons were successfully tested and five of them had a DNA sequence suggesting they were likely to be members of a single Jewish family.
A close examination of the adult bones showed fractures caused by the impact of hitting the bottom of the well. But the same damage was not seen on the children’s bones, suggesting they were thrown in after the adults who cushioned the fall of their bodies.
The team had considered the possibility of death by disease but the bone examination also showed no evidence of diseases.
Medieval Jewish History
1066: The Norman Conquest opens the way to Jewish immigration. The monarchy needs to borrow money and Christians are forbidden to lend money at interest. London, Lincoln and York become centres for substantial Jewish populations.
1100s: Resentment against the Jewish community grows over their perceived wealth and belief they killed Jesus. The “blood libels” – Jews are accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.
1190: Many Jewish people massacred in York. In Norwich they flee to the city’s castle for refuge. Those who stay in their homes are butchered.
1230s: Executions in Norwich after an allegation a Christian child was kidnapped.
1272: Edward I comes to the throne and enforces extra taxes on the Jewish community.
1290: Edward I expels the Jews en masse after devising a new form of royal financing using Christian knights to fill the coffers.
The old ‘Yarmouth Independent’ newspaper carried a two-part article in its January 6th and 13th 1894 editions, entitled ‘Tales and Traditions of Old Yarmouth – A House of Mystery’ This story concerned the haunting in an old housed in Glasshouse Row, so named because the glass works of the celebrated William Absolon had been located there a long, long time ago.
The ‘Rows’ of Great Yarmouth, of which few remain complete, were an unique gridwork of very narrow streets which covered almost all of the old town. They were very narrow streets, most only measering a few feet in width and to quote from the article “most possessed the same quaint, gloomy and somewhat dingy characteristics in common”.
Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) said of them:
“A Row is a long, narrow lane or alley and quite straight, or as nearly as maybe, with houses on each side, both of which you can sometimes touch at once with the finger tips of each hand by stretching out your arms to their full extent. Now and then the houses overhang and even join above your head, converting the Row so far into a tunnel or tubular passage. Many picturesque old bits of domestic architecture is to be found among the Rows. In some Rows there is little more than a blank wall for the double boundary. In others, the houses retreat into tiny square courts (Crown Court was one -see below) where washing and clear starching was done.”
Unfortunately, a great proportion of these rows were destroyed by bombing during World War 2; subsequent planning and rebuilding has more or less obliterated the rest. However, during the period in which this story is set, the Rows were probably in their hey-day containing, no doubt, a complete cross-section of the Great Yarmouth population. The Row with which this story is concerned was named Glasshouse Row, so named because a glass factory once stood in, or close to, its precincts. Glasshouse Row extended from George Street to North Quay in the east/west direction.
In 1797 there stood in the middle of this Row an ancient house which for many years had the doubtful reputation of being haunted. Such was its reputation that it had remained more or less unlived in for many years, what few tenents had been brave enough to rent the property invariably moved out again within weeks, if not days.
All sorts of stories circulated as to the nature of the haunting. The general concensus of opinion was that, many years previously, someone had been murdered within its walls although opinions differed as to who exactly was responsibly for the haunting. Some said it was a guilty spirit of the murderer that wandered the house, whilst others maintained that it was the restless spirit of the victim which could not rest because its body was buried in unhallowed ground. Yet another section of opinion said that the spirits of both the murderer and his victim haunted the place and that they periodically re-inacted the grim tragedy. Whatever the true story, the reputation of the place was enough to keep even the most stouted hearted away.
The lack of tenants and upkeep certainly seemed to have shown on the old building. The windows became broken, the roof tiles became dislodged to allow rain to pour in through gaping holes. The woodwork became rotten and the whole placed was completely devoid of paint. All in all, the house presented quite a very sorry sight, with the only occupants for any length of time being a colony of rats.
The building continued in this derelict state for a number of years, until the owner died and it changed hands. The new owner, who one suspects went into the deal without doing his homework, soon became anxious to get rid of his newly acquired ‘white elephant’, which because of its reputation was more of a liability that an asset; so he put it up for sale. Needless to say, no queue formed to purchase the house and many months passed before one person eventually became interested. The owner was approached by this middle-aged man of an austere appearance and with a brusque manner, his name was David Browne…….. They haggled of course but Browne being a very determined fellow managed to secure the property for a very low price and, although not ignorant of the building’s reputation, considered that he had secured the best bargin. With little ado, he had the house repaired and furnished and within a short time he and his family had moved in. The family consisted of Browne, his wife, daughter of about 12 years of age and an aging mother – a kindly old lady who was devoted to her son.
During the first few weeks of their occupancy all went well and Browne could not help but congratulate himself on what appeared to be a shrewed purchase. However, this period of tranquility was not to last for much longer, as subsequent events soon proved. After a residency of about two months, the family began to be constantly annoyed by the sound of doors being slammed violently shut. Even if they were shut were closed tight, unseen hands would quietly open them and violently slam them shut. At first, the slammings were attributed to draughts so steps were taken to make the whole house draught free. However, instead of curing the problem the precautions taken only led to the opposite effect. Now, instead of the doors slamming occasionally as before, they slammed constantly in quick succession. If this was not enough, there came the occassionally the tramping of heavy feet ascending the stairs, followed by the heavy ‘thud’ of something hitting the floor overhead. At other times, light hesitant footsteps would be heard stealthily pattering about the house, accompanied by a soft ‘rustling’ sound like that of a long skirt brushing the floor. The door of the room in which the family were sitting in would invariably be thrown open and some invisible presence would enter, walk around the room, pause for a seconds to seemingly ‘examine’ the trespassers and then depart leaving behind an air of sinister ‘creepiness’.
Naturally, all this soon left its mark on the family, especially the female members who were becoming more and more frightened. Browne himself, being a hard-headed man, would not openly admit that anything strange was happening, although deep inside he knew that there was more to this strange phenomena than could be explained – and he was more than uneasy! This nagging realisation was gradually to cause him much worry as to the best way to deal with whatever or whoever was causing the disturbances. He went to the former owner, but received little sympathy and certainly no help. At this point his anxiety increased to a point of desperation and he decided to visit one Nancy Green, an elderly woman who had the reputation locally of being something of a ‘witch’. She concocted love-potions for women, could find lost articles and cured those who considered that they had been bewitched and, above all, was known far and wide for her power over evil spirits. It was also reumoured that she could work evil against people – if the price was right!In fact, she was shunned by the majority of the populace whose only respect for her stemmed from fear. Such then was the person who Browne, in his desperation, consulted. Her house was situated in Crown Court.
David Browne knocked loudly on Nancy Green’s front door and, after what seemed to be an eternity to his mind, the door opened and Nancy invited him in. She then startled her visiter by first telling him exactly what the nature of his visit was about and then saying that she was unable to help as she had no control over evil spirits. Then as if teasing Browne she went on to say that she did have something else to tell him, but then silence – she said no more. Minutes ticked by and Nancy continued to show absolutely no interest in resuming any conversation with Browne. This impasse in any form of sensible communication with the woman soon became impossible for him and the little patience that he had normally snapped! Browne demanded to know what it was that she had to tell him and, receiving nothing but a silent stare, cursed her. “Damned you woman, you are nothing but a charlatan and a cheat!” Nancy’s response was to look him straight in the eye and break her self imposed period of silence by calmly telling him that when he arrived home he would find one member of his family Dead!
Browne’s immediate response to what he thought was a threat was to laugh – so Nancy thought. Then he called her a liar and left for home, unable not to ponder on what the woman had said. The sight that met him as he approached his front door was to see his wife in tears. She told him that in his absence his very own mother had collapsed and died……………………..!
The period of burial and mourning passed, but surprisingly perhaps, Browne made no immediate attempt to move his family out of the house in Glasshouse Row; in fact, the days passed into weeks and the weeks grew to five months during which time the whole house remained quiet and free from disturbances. But, any thought that the house would remain in this ‘normal’ state was cruelly shattered by a series of events that was triggered by piercing screams one night. These were followed by first a single thud overhead which reminded Browne and his wife of similar passed thuds which helped prompt him to visit Nancy Green. On this ocassion, they saw to their horror the gaunt figure of a very old man, wearing a long white night shirt and red flannel night-cap. He gazed at the couple for some seconds before sighing and disappearing through the bedroom door. The screams stopped…….
…..A further period of peace and tranquility descended on the house which made Browne think that the appearance of the old man had been the culmination of a whole haunting and that maybe it was now finished. With this thought and some discussion, the family decided to stay in the house a while longer. Big mistake! Once more those piercing screams were again heard, only this time accompanied by a succession of loud crashes. Browne was to discover that, in the adjoining bedroom from which the screams were heard, every article of furniture, apart from the bed, was piled up in one corner, whilst the bed had been moved from its usual position to the centre of the room. Sitting at the head of the bed was a little wizened old lady, dressed in a black silk dress. She was intently occupied with a pack of cards which were spread out on the bed. She appeared to be completely unaware of Browne’s presence and continued rearranging the cards whilst muttering to herself. It was as if she was trying to see if the cards would foretell something! At length she gave a low chuckle, gathered the cards together and glided to the far end of the room and vanished. Browne was spell-bound and woundered if it was just his imagination, until he saw again the stacked up furniture. This was the final straw which convinced him that they should move out.
David Browne wasted no time in vacating the house but unsurprisingly he failed to sell it and it was left empty; Browne, in fact, thought that he had arrived at a point where he would never sell it, simply because stories of the Browne family’s misfortunes had spread throughout the neighbourhood and beyond. However and somewhat inexplicably, the notorious Nancy Green turned up out of the blue as it were and asked Browne for his permission to live in the house as a rented tenant; she gave no explanation. At first he was more that a little reluctant to have any more dealings with her but eventually, after some thought, agreed; probably because he knew that it would be impossible to find anyone else to take on the premises. No one knows why Nancy wanted to live in that particular house in Glasshouse Row. Did she have some past connection with not only the house……but maybe with that which caused its doors to slam, maybe the old man in the nigh-shirt who sighed…… and maybe, just maybe…the old lady who appeared to be able to ‘read’ cards? Of course, everything would be pure speculation with no human knowing this side of the divide. But, what was to become known to everyone hereabouts, was that in less than one month from moving in, Nancy Green was found dead, her facial appearance frozen in contorted terror!
Everything that happened after this, including the movements of David Brown and his family, was never-ever recorded. It was, however, suggested in the orginal Newspaper Article, that the house had been ‘exorcised’ and in the 25 years preceeding the 1894 Article, no further hauntings of the house were heard of…. but we don’t know what the future holds….do we!
FOOTNOTE: Today, very little remains of Glasshouse Row, certainly not that area in which the haunted house once stood. In fact most of it, running westwards from George Street, has long gone and replaced by a block of flats which extends across the original path of the Row at one point. Dare the question be asked as to whether there has been any reports of hauntings in. or near, these modern flats? Answers on a postcard please!
No one wants to admit it but we are all interested in murder. Few therefore can plead ignorant of the story of the ‘Red Barn Murder’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. It took place on Saturday 18th May 1827 in the Suffolk village of Polstead, not far south from my County of Norfolk.
In essence, it was a fairly tawdry tragedy, but it did have a number of features, including supernatural elements that rendered it sensational at the time and even fascinating in this present day. The circumstances not only made a great impact on the Victorians by way of topical news but also on the melodramatic plots that were subsequently injected into stage dramas. Not only that, but the tale was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were subsequently reported, and even how elements ‘enriched’ the English language. That being said, what follows is not intended to be a full account of the case or the characters involved; it is simply a summary – and another viewpoint! To start with, let’s just introduce the two principal characters and leave everyone else to reveal themselves as the following narrative unfolds:
William Corder was born in 1803, the third son of a yeoman farmer. He lived in Polstead in the County of Suffolk. His father and three brothers all died within the space of 18 months, leaving William and his mother to run the farm.
Corder was about 5ft 4 inches tall, slender, well-muscled, with a fair complexion and freackles. He was very short-sighted yet, apparently, an excellent shot. In the best authenticated likeness he looks rather studious. As a child he spent five years at a respectable boarding school at Hadleigh. Though bright, he was not well liked by others. He was nicknamed “Foxey”, perhaps because he was prone to stealing and lying. In Polstead, he was generally known as ‘Bill’. He did not get on well with his father or brothers, but was quite attached to his mother. Despite being considered kind, humane and good tempered, Corder was said to have been reserved and chirlish. He absorbed gossip and took pleasure in keeping information to himself. His father despaired of him.
William Corder became involved with Maria Marten around March 1826 and kept their relationship secret until Maria became pregnant. Thereafter, he was a constant visitor to the Marten’s cottage.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life was that he never seemed to have enough money. But, Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – locally, the Corders were important people. Yet he hinted time and time again about trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear that he doted on his mother, she seemed to have been unwilling to surrender any financial control to him. She was clearly very attached to him and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles. Certainly Corder, being a flamboyant dresser with expensive tastes, seemed to have been unwilling to seek any money from this obvious source.
Maria Marten was born on 24th July 1801, the daughter of Polstead mole-catcher Thomas Marten and his wife, Grace. Maria was a quiet and intelligent child. She received an education and, unusually for a country girl at the time, she could read and write well. Following her mother’s death Maria, aged 9 years, took on the role of ‘mother’ very seriously but still managed to continue educating herself. One comentator observed of Maria (Having been blessed with a very retentive memory and her mind deeply embued with a desire to acquire useful knowledge, there is every reason to believe that, if she had received proper tuition, she would have made an accomplished woman” (Curtis, 1828. p41).
At the age of 17 years, Maria became involved with Thomas Corder, William Corder’s second oldest brother. Thomas as a passably good-looking young man and was to vist Maria frequently at her cottage. At Thomas’s wish, their courtship was largely carried out in secret – Maria was not his equal in social status. Thomas fathered Maria’s first child, but his visits became increasingly infrequent as her pregnancy progressed. He did not marry her and provided little financial support; the child died young. Maria, now a ‘fallen woman’, next had an affair with a certain Peter Matthews – referred to as ‘Mr P.’ in the following narrative since he serves no role in the forthcoming tragedy. However, Peter Matthews was a well-respected gentleman with relatives in Polstead. He was aware of Maria’s past but, by him, she had a son, Thomas Henry, the only one of her children to survive, Again, there was no marriage; however, Matthews provided a regular allowance for the upkeep of his child.
Maria next took up with the leading character in this story, William Corder. His father and brothers were dead. He was wealthy. He was young. He would have made a good catch and it would appear that Maria loved him. Despite her mother’s disapproval of the relationship, Maria was to press William to marry her, but whilst frequently promising marriage, Corder always found an excuse to delay a wedding. Nevertheless, by him, she had a third child but it was weak and died within a month. The pair pretended to take it to Sudbury for burial but probably buried it in a field. Six weeks after the birth, Maria disappeared; it appears that her anxiety to marry had sealed her fate. Two months short of her 26th birthday, Maria was dead.
Now, Imagine the scene, it is a Saturday and the date is 18th May 1827. We are told that William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family, set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two. apparently, walked separately through the night to a barn, later to become the infamous ‘Red Barn’ which stood on Corder’s property. Maria was first dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice but on arrival at the barn changed into female attire. It was whilst she was in the process of changing that she met her death and was buried by Corder within the barn.
The tale goes on to relate that Corder not only remained in the little village of Polstead, but also informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth in Norfolk. She was also unable to write herself because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London and wrote to Maria’s father saying that he and Maria were now married and living on the Isle of Wight; Corder also stated that they were very happy and requested that the father burn some letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P – his identity already revealed above and serves no further purpose here. We also know that Corder was a liar and inconsistent in what he told others, particularly in the village during his visits there; such as whether or not he was indeed married and where Maria was residing during the year before the her body was discovered.
The Background to the Crime
All the sensation masks details of the story which may have a bearing on what really happened on that fateful night. First point, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman, referred to as Mr P at the Inquest. As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardy, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not, it seems, “a burden on the parish” and because the father made a generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep.
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time because they both lived in what was a very small village, and he and Maria went off to live in ‘sin’ in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one fathered by Corder, where, again, bastardy charges could have followed. They were not and the couple returned to Polstead, where the baby died. Corder removed the body, having placed it in a box and told villagers the child had been buried in Sudbury; in fact Corder buried the child in an undisclosed field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and Corden were to remain lovers, despite the gulf in their social position, which was nowhere as great as that between Maria and her former lover, the anonymous ‘Mr P’. Apparently, his family also disapproved on the same grounds. As it was, Corder’s father was dead, several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother had died in a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice on the village pond. His mother had suffered an immense amount of grief and now William Corder was heir and helping to run the farm.
Yet, Corder still did not have control of the money and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child which was contained inside. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder – who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardy charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they had prepared to elope, but Corder backed out each time, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life also appears to have been troubled by the moral condemnation from her younger sister, who regarded Maria as a ‘tart’, and had been particularly scathing about her dress sense. The death of her baby also affected Maria greatly, to say nothing of her health problems and Corder telling her that she was about to be arrested for bastardy, no doubt using this to frighten and control her. On the fateful night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, so she dressed in his clothes and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They would leave through separate doors of the Marten’s cottage, walk to the Red Barn where, being out of sight of any villagers, she would change and they would make off to marry by Licence, thus avoiding the necessity for banns to be read.
Of course, Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, so what followed appears straightforward enough with Maria changing out of Corder’s clothes into her own at the moment when she was shot in the head and possibly stabbed twice with Corder’s sword before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they had left the Marten’s cottage, Corder had gone to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother claimed he saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder was to claim that the boy was mistaken and that the person he saw was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who, by the way, also wore a velveteen coat. The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at Corder’s trial, the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight! Actually, he was to in London, about which more will be said shortly. For the next eleven months or so, Maria would remain buried in the Red Barn.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) would be rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. The illustration below is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
Supernatural Experience? The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence – to some it was God – led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest. In fact, the events which led to the discovery of the body have been the staple diet of supernatural books ever since because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt of where the body was actually buried. Apparently, she managed to convince her husband, Maria’s father, to investigate. All that we know comes from The Times, April 22nd 1828 which stated that the dream was of Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and that the dream had occurred on three successive nights. Of course, the papers were to make much of this but, between the lines, the argument for anything supernatural being involved was very weak.
It was well known that Maria and Corder had always met (and none but the naive would fail to presume that they made love) in the Red Barn. No sooner had Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ her parents were suspicious, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times had Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife had convinced him to search the barn, he took time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. Such deference by farm labourers towards landowners was the norm then and is still not uncommon today.
So it was that Mr Marten, together with a Mr Pryke, and both armed with a spade and a rake set off to the barn and went to the very spot indicated in the dream where they uncovered the remains of Maria, very much decomposed to being mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was noted that there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged. As Corder habitually carried a pair of percussion cap pistols and occasionally fired them into the Marten’s fireplace, his position looked precarious.
So was it a supernatural dream? Well, the bizarre way Maria, who could read and write and was close to her parents, had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of the anxiety felt by the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband, who had spent eleven months doing nothing, to actually go and check if Maria lay dead under the floor of the Red Barn. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe that it was supernormal on the part of Mrs Marten. However, that opinion does not dispel the supernatural. The Red Barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. It was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun; apparently, such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. So maybe it is understandable that there would be stories of ghostly tales of crime in and around the Red Barn – now long gone.
William Corder Seeks Marriage Elsewhere.
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria’s body, Corder was in Polstead before eventually setting off – supposedly to live on the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London where it has been suggested Corder had a number of criminal associates. What we do know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself and quite quickly fixed his eyes upon marriage for he took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827:
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement certainly worked for he received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck and attend a certain service where they would meet. Unfortunately maybe, Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left. He later discovered that the woman making the enquiries was a lady of some standing and with a large fortune. His plans to contact her again was thwarted when he met the women who would become his wife.
Corder met Miss Moore at an undisclosed public place and they immediately were attracted to each other. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single status, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were married. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy with Mr and Mrs Corder opening a boarding school for girls at Grove House in Ealing Lane, London. It was there, living with his wife and with a few pupils enrolled, that he was to be arrested for murder.
When found, the body it was quickly identified as Maria from missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse. There could only be one suspect and the village constable was sent off to London to find Corder. However The metropolis was outside his jurisdiction and he was obliged to go to a police station where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London. But find him they did when police constable Lea entered Corder’s house, pretending that he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as Lea had Corder in in the confines of his study, he told him that Maria Marten had been found. Three times Corder denied ever knowing the girl but he was arrested and his sword taken, along with a small black handbag that had once been the property of Maria Marten. Inside were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder with his wife believing that the charge was bigamy. Nevertheless, she was to stand by him until their final parting on the day before his execution. In the meantime, Corder was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester then was transferred in the early hours of the following night to the Cock Inn at Polstead where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
At the appointed hour, the Cock Inn was full and representatives of the London press who disputed Coroner Weyman’s ruling that the press could not take notes for their newspaper columns. Their accounts of the proceedings would have to be filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that such was the sensational nature of the case that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and declaring Corder guilty of the murder. Proceedings were then delayed by Corder’s representative who asked if he may come downstairs and witness the testimony; however, the Coroner ruled against him but stated the representative may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
Determination, in fact, proved extremely difficult for Maria appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed and at his subsequent trial, Corder was charged with all nine to ensure that at least one of them would stick. This legal nicety would seem a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined that poor Maria had been murdered and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
The trial was held at Bury St Edmunds with Chief Baron Alexander presiding. His orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos outside; once his carriage had arrived, it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and much longer for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with nine counts of murder and was horrified and clearly outraged to discover that the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! This meant that the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything other than the reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – the last person seen with the victim who had been found buried in his barn with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, not to mention the fact that he had lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder and there was no evidence that he had planned to honour a promised marriage; he even appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site and, for the first time in his life, kept the barn locked after the murder, along with his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardy. Afterwards, when he was supposedly living with her, he had refused to give their address to her parents, claiming the couple were fearful of Mr P – who whatever his moral failings, seemed to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and support Maria. The picture that emerged from the trial was that Corder was a weak and not very bright schemer, who lied constantly. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for him. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence and, indeed, both his wife and Corder appeared to be convinced that he would be acquitted.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect or try for a technicality since he had been charged on all nine counts! His second course would be to argue that the body was not Maria Marten, but the evidence was such there could have been little doubt that it was. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner being employed as the Prosecutor, to which the Judge was certainly sympathetic, as he was to Corder’s point about being already judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial had began. However, Corder decided on arguing from his best position, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman had collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night. If that was correct then Corder certainly had the pistols when he left their house. Despite those pistols being found in Maria’s handbag at Corder’s School, he claimed that she had the pistols on the fateful night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen to be crying and as she changed at the barn Corder claimed she had abused him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, Corder claimed that he had told her that having spoken to him in such a manner before marriage, how would she treat him once they tied the knot?. According to him, he told her that he would not marry her and walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, turned and saw her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. He gave no explanation for the second bullet mark on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left. Corder stated to the court that he then panicked, concealing the body while he cleaned up the scene and left to borrow a spade. He later returned with a pickaxe to bury poor Maria in the barn. After that he did his best to conceal her fate by telling so many lies.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – he claimed that this must have happened as he dragged her body to the grave. Then how could he account for the wounds, made by a stabbing instrument as confirmed to the court by three surgeons who also attributed such wounds to Corder’s sword. Interestingly, Corder claimed that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse!
Corder’s Fate is Sealed.
When instructed, the Jury retired and spent barely an hour of discussion before finding Corder guilty. The Judge, Baron Alexander sentenced him to hang and afterwards be dissected:
“That you be taken back to the prison from whence you came, and that you be taken from thence, on Monday next, to a place of Execution, and that you there be hanged by the Neck until you are Dead; and that your body shall afterwards be dissected and anatomized; and may the Lord God Almighty, of his infinite goodness, have mercy on your soul!
Corder was taken from the court on his way to Bury gaol to await his fate. There he met twice more with is wife, who seemed to have behaved with great courage and dignity, offering him religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others also sought an interview with him but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the prison chaplain.
Finally, on the morning of his execution, Corder wrote his confession and had it witnessed. According to this, his argument with Maria was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried that the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated that Corder had killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn the couple fell to fighting and while they struggled, Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime and events proceeded as already described. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon on August 10th, 1828 and hanged in front of an audience of 7,000 plus witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs – a common practice where executions fail to go ‘according to plan’!
After an hour, his body was cut down by John Foxton, the hangman, who, according to his rights, claimed Corder’s trousers and stockings. The body was taken back to the courtroom at Shire Hall, where it was slit open along the abdomen to expose the muscles. The public was allowed to file past until six o’clock when the doors were shut. According to the Norwich and Bury Post, over 5,000 people queued to see the body.
The following day, the dissection and post-mortem were carried out in front of an audience of students from Cambridge University and physicians. A battery was attached to Corder’s limbs to demonstrate the contraction of the muscles, the sternum was opened and the internal organs examined. There was some discussion as to whether the cause of death was suffocation; but, since it was reported that Corder’s chest was seen to rise and fall for several minutes after he had dropped, it was thought probable that pressure on the spinal cord had killed him.
Since the skeleton was to be reassembled after the dissection, it was not possible to examine the brain, so instead the surgeons contented themselves with a phrenological examination of the skull. Corder’s skull was asserted to be profoundly developed in the areas of “secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, philoprogenitiveness, and imitativeness” with little evidence of “benevolence or veneration”. The bust of Corder held by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds is an original made by Child of Bungay, Suffolk, as a tool for the study of Corder’s phrenology.
The skeleton was reassembled, exhibited, and used as a teaching aid in the West Suffolk Hospital. Several copies of his death mask were made, a replica of one is held at Moyse’s Hall Museum. Artifacts from the trial and some which were in Corder’s possession are also held at the museum. Corder’s skin was tanned by the surgeon George Creed, and used to bind an account of the murder.
Corder’s skeleton was put on display in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons of England. In 2004, Corder’s bones were removed from display and cremated
Supernatural Experience?: The Ghost of Corder
One doctor became fascinated by Corder’s skeleton and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his…… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his mind by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned – So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore!
A Sensational Case
It turned out that Corder would form the archetype for the “wicked squire” – the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks for Maria was to be the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama. Certainly, the story was to form the basis for many plays performed by travelling troupes all over the country, performing in barns and thus giving us the word “barnstorming”.
These plays were hugely popular and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows throughout the region and even in London depicting the murder. Not to be upstaged, a camera obscura show was put on in Bury St Edmunds. Such was the effect that the tragedy had on the general public that a nonconformist minister took it upon himself to preach to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn which, by the way, was dismantled by souvenir seekers. In Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten for it was chipped away by curiosity seekers long ago.
“On the morning of the 20th November, 1848, the City of Norwich was aroused from its usual state of general calmness and tranquillity by a rumour that terrific deeds of blood had been committed in the vicinity; and many were the shapes which the tale of horror took in travelling from mouth to mouth. But, however distorted, it was unfortunately true”……………
The Background to the Tragedy:
James Blomfield Rush was a farmer with inflated pretensions of being a country squire, but he held a very long record of suspect dealings and financial problems. He always seemed to be trying to crawl through legal loopholes to dispose of his debts and badly arranged financial commitments. He also fell foul of suits brought against him for seduction and bastardy – by more than one woman. He met his match in Isaac Jermy though – formerly Preston if you remember! He was the Recorder of Norwich and a member of the Norwich Union Board who knew the law, finance and was not backward in using both to his advantage.
The mortgage for Rush’s Potash Farm was due to be settled on the 30th November 1848, but Rush had no way of paying it. Two evenings prior to this deadline Rush, disguised with a mask, wig and whiskers, walked the short distance from his farm to Stanfield Hall and hid in the bushes until IsaacJermy Snr. stepped out after dinner for his spot air and possibly a smoke. Rush immediately came forward and shot him at point blank range before striding into the Hall where he shot dead Isaac’s son; a further round hit Mrs Sophia Jermy’s upper arm, while a second wounded Eliza Chestney in the groin and thigh as they attempted to flee. The murderer then went out through a side door. After medical examination by a doctor it was thought that Eliza had suffered a compound fracture of her bone. The wound to Mrs Jermy’s arm resulted in an amputation. Despite wearing a disguise, the size and gait of Rush was recognised by the staff of Stanfield Hall and he was quickly arrested the following morning after police had surrounded Potash Farm.
The Trial of James Blomfield Rush:
The circumstances surrounding the murders at Stanfield hall and the subsequent trial of the accused, James Blomfield Rush was an occasion which had all the hallmarks of a classical Victorian melodrama. The story had a large country mansion as the backdrop and plenty of blood; a villain who was cast perfectly with the right physical appearance of hard looks, bad behaviour, brusque manners, dubious morals and sinister scheming. If that was not enough then it had a riveting plot, all wrapped in a readymade story. This was the answer to a writer’s dream. No wonder the lurid details of the murders helped sell millions of copies of local and national newspapers, their column pages and supplements given over to the case. Queen Victoria was rumoured to have taken an interest, along with the great Victorian author, Charles Dickens who visited the scene and recorded his impression that the Hall “had a murderous look that seemed to invite such a crime”.
Everything was exposed at Rush’s trial which opened on Thursday morning, 29 March 1849 at the Norfolk Assizes before Judge Baron Rolfe. Every available seat was taken and no one was allowed to enter without a ticket of admission. On the opening of the doors, shortly after 8 0’Clock, there was a rush for the seats and the Court was quickly filled “in every part by gentlemen and ladies of the highest respectability, including several noblemen” Precisely at 9 o’clock, Judge Baron Rolf entered, there was an immediate solemn silence and the prisoner James Blomfierld Rush was called. Every eye was directed towards the Box when Rush entered, dressed in black and, apparently, in good health. He was informed of the indictment charging him with the murders of Isaac Jermy, Esq and his son, to which he pleaded NOT GUILTY!
Rush had previously turned down offers of a legal representation, opting, quite arrogantly, to conduct his own defence which, because of his own incompetence, belligerence and blatant intimidation of the prosecution witnesses, was to simply hastened his downfall. he was to present his defence over fourteen hours of rambling without making any impression in his favour. His address was full of repetitions and the witnesses that he called, one way or another, damned him; he also damned himself, not least when he was to ask one witness, a Maria Blanchflower who had passed within feet of him on the night, “Did you pass me quickly”! – a very unfortunate slip of tongue in open court and was to do his defence no good..
But that was to come later for the Prosecution were the first to present its case, calling on several witnesses, the first of which set the tone for Rush’s ultimate conviction. Thomas Jermy aged 67, then a gardening labourer living in south London was simply asked: “Can you write?” and he answered even more briefly “No Sir”. From his reply it was obvious that he could not have signed the Notes, dropped by Rush at the time of the murders, allegedly claiming the Stanfield Hall Estate by Larner and Jermy:
It was established that Rush was behind this deception with the intention of casting suspision for the murders on to Larner and Jermy, who could not possibly have committed them since at the time of the crime both were in London.
Other witnesses followed, including the injured victim Eliza Chestney and the principal witness, Emily Sandford. Both of whom were to be cross examined by Rush, again with a mixture of charm, religious fervour, rudeness and intimidation. Finally, his Lordship, in the most patient of manners simply requested the Jury to give the words of the accused “the degree of weight they deserved”. Then, having been told to consider their verdict, the Jury retired. After barely 6 minutes, they returned to deliver the verdict – GUILTY!
The Judge then put on the black cap and to a profoundly silent Court he sentence Rush to death, his penultimate words being:
“It remains only that I pronounce the awful sentence of the law upon you; and it is, that you be taken back to the place from which you came, and from thence to the place of execution and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that after death your body be buried within the precincts of the gaol and may the Almighty have mercy on your soul”
Finally adding a few exceptionally severe words:
“It is a matter of perfect indifference to society at large what your conduct maybe during the few days remaining to you”, being as you are “an object of unmitigated abhorrence to everyone”
Rush remained still for a brief moment after the Judge had finished, but when the gaoler touched to remove him Rush smiled in a slightly demonic manner and uttered what sounded like a few joking words. His escort, whilst not responding to the prisoner, took great precautions to see that there was no communication between him and anyone in the Court as they left. The Judge then retired and the Court was quickly cleared.
For the several days between the trial and the time of execution, Rush was confined to his cell still imagining that he could persuade those around him that he was innocent. Several members of the clergy attempted to bring him to his senses and to see the awful and unhappy position he was in, but with no success. One person expressed the hope that Rush would at least realise the old aphorism that the man who begins by deceiving others often ends by deceiving himself; but Rush continued to adopt airs and graces and offer phrases of a deeply religious man, but no one was fooled.
On the morning of his execution, Rush asked for some hot water to wash himself and a clean shirt in which to be buried. The solemnest of his cell as he passed his final hours was in stark contrast to the hive of activity already in evidence outside in the streets of Norwich where thousands of pedestrians were beginning to gather, mingling with the trades people that were there to sell their wares. One reporter observed:
“ If such be the usual state of the city on an ordinary market day, one may form some slight conception of what was likely to take place when, in addition to the attraction of the Market, there was to be witnessed the execution of so atrocious a criminal as James Blomfield Rush” – and then on observing the mass of people assembling said “the Cry was, still they come!”
The universal theme of conversation since early that morning was noisily about Rush and the Stanfield Murders. Then from about 10 o’clock the sounds of the bustle and hum of preparation for business ceased, to be replaced by anxious expectation of everyone, whether selling or buying. Perhaps more offensive to some was the conduct of a handful of ‘ballad-mongers’ who continuously bawled out doggerel rhymes of the person to be hanged later while a large black flag floated over the entrance to the Castle and a large section of those nearest gazed upon the gibbet perched over the bridge spanning the dry moat and from which Rush would hang.
Between 11 and 12 o’clock the bell of St Peters Mancroft tolled the death knell for the criminal; at some moment within this hour Rush was escorted from his cell to the turnkey’s ‘receiving-room’ to be pinioned; there he met with William Calcraft, executioner, of whom he asked Mr Penson, the Governor “Is this the man that is to do the business?” The affirmative reply pre-empted Calcraft’s task of pinioning Rush who, at that moment, shrugged his shoulders saying “ This don’t go easy” then “not too tight”.
Just after 12 noon with the preliminaries completed, a procession formed and made its way to the scaffold with the Chaplain leading. The distance between the Castle door and the gallows was about sixty yards, along which the Chaplain read aloud.
“ I am the resurrection ……………… blessed be the name of the Lord”.
Rush, on the other hand, presented an assumed dejected pose of someone who had ‘avenged a great injury’ and was satisfied with what he had done. He then raised his pinioned hands to his face and violently trembled before removing his hands from his face and, turning his eyes to heaven, assumed the attitude of prayer. When both he and the Chaplain had finished the ritual, Rush beckoned to the Governor of the Castle to his side and the following brief conversation took place:
Rush: “Mr Penson, I have a last request to make to you; it is, that the bolt be withdrawn while the Chaplain is reading the Benediction – “The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with us all evermore”.
Mr Penson: “I will immediately communicate your wish to the Chaplain and I have no doubt it will be attended to”.
However, the Governor was economical with the truth for the general impression of the officials there in the ‘receiving room’ was that they feared that Rush intended to carry out ‘some vain and fruitless feat’, as indicated by both his behaviour overnight, during the early hours and, particularly, his last request for the drop to happened when certain words of the Chaplains were spoken. Mr Penson, fearing that something was afoot, intended to give Calcraft the signal in advance of any chosen words – and whilst it was not his intention, the moment chosen by Penson would come as quite a shock to Rush! – if indeed he ever had plans for a final grand performance in front of the authorities and public.
Rush, accompanied by the officials and the executioner ascended the gallows which had been erected over the bridge that spanned the Castle’s dry moat. An observer’s comment was that the structure was “a clumsy and inconvenient structure, as badly arranged and as unsightly in appearance as anyone could conceive. It seemed to be the work of a most unskilful designer”. Rush, for his part, looked ghastly pale as if conscience or fear had at last done its work. For a few moments he looked at the huge crowd then, seemingly recollecting that it had been arranged that he should suffer death with his back to the people, he turned around. One eye witness recorded:
“The poor creature looked for an instant on the vast mass of spectators, whose earnest gaze was upon him and on every movement he made, and then turned himself round and face the castle – his back being towards the populace.”
Rush then shook hands with the Governor just before William Calcraft, the hangman, placed him under the beam on which he was to hang and then began placing the noose around his neck. Even at this moment Rush could not resist being theatrical, saying to Calcraft:
“For God’s sake, give me rope enough. Don’t be in a hurry; take your time” Then, moving his head about, Rush added,”! Put the knot a little higher up – don’t hurry”.
This done, the white hood was drawn over Rush’s head and the Chaplain proceeded with the prayers. It was at this point that the Governor’s intentions became clear; his signal to Calcraft triggered. Before the Chaplain arrived at the words “The Grace of our Lord ………………..etc the Executioner had withdrawn the bolt, the platform had fallen and Rush was at the bottom of his one-way descent; a descent that was with such force that his body had shaken the whole gallows and the snap of the rope under extreme tension had been audible to everyone. Rush’s body remained perfectly still for about two minutes before there was a short convulsive struggle – then all was completely over. Rush’s death was greeted with loud applause then, at one o’clock he was cut down, removed to the prison on a wheeled litter and during the afternoon, his head was shaved and a cast was taken for phrenological study. Later, the remains of James Blomfield Rush was buried, as decreed by the Judge, in the precincts of Norwich Prison; the timing was 8 o’clock in the evening in a deep grave next to the remains of Yarman who was executed some three years earlier for the Yarmouth murders.
In the end Rush’s wax image was ‘taken from life’ at Norwich by Madame Tussauds and placed on display in her Chamber of Horrors in London for over 120 years.
The Executioner, William Calcraft, lodged in Hay Hill.
Emily Sandford emigrated to Australia – paid for by public subscription – and married a German merchant two years later and moved, with her husband, to Berlin.
Stanfield Hall was finally sold out of the Jermy family in 1920.