Saturday, October 28, 2006


The Molecatcher's Daughter

I'm on NPR Weekend Edition for this segment with Scott Simon about the most infamous murder case in 19th century Britain: the "Red Barn Murder" of Maria Marten by William Corder in 1827, and the media circus that followed his arrest. It also marked the beginning of modern crime writing: James Curtis's account The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten reads like an In Cold Blood of 1828.

I write on Curtis and the case in "The Molecatcher's Daughter" in the November issue of The Believer and -- make yourself a pot of tea, it's 12,000 words -- they've got the entire article online.

There's also an extraordinary twist not noted in the NPR piece. The case produced a cache of unclaimed PO Box replies to a personals ad that Corder placed in the Times of London on November 25, 1827:

That the ad replies survived at all was due entirely to the notoriety of Corder's trial; otherwise they surely would have eventually been burned as unclaimed trash. But they are a unique record—a startlingly intimate peek into Regency-era life, with rootless young people leaving villages for industrialized cities and left to their own devices to form relationships. In this new urban world, where all one knew of anyone's past was what they told you, a predator could appear as a loving and gentle suitor—you could even marry a murderer and bear his child without realizing it.

As far as I know, no study has ever been made of these letters, and they haven't been reprinted anywhere in many decades. But Corder's personals ad and a selection from the nearly 100 letters he received in response can now be found here on The Believer's site.

The letters range from witty and arch to frankly desperate; what's particularly noticeable is the utter pragmatism and forthrightness of many of the responses. Hence:


The advertisement of a private gentleman, aged twenty-four, in the Sunday Times newspaper, happened to meet the eye of a young lady, aged twenty-one, of the utmost respectability. The advertisement rather struck her; and, should the gentleman be really in earnest, he must advertise once again in the same paper, when he will hear further particulars. But the extreme modesty of the lady will not allow her to put her real name or address. The lady is at present in the country, but will shortly return to town.

N.B.—The lady is not very handsome.

Another response states flatly that "I have no fortune till the death of my mother." Which, well, might not have been the best thing to mention to someone like William Corder...

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