Society’s obsession with criminal celebrities and ‘murderabilia’ explored

Posted by er134 at Aug 15, 2014 12:05 PM |
New book by University of Leicester academic Dr Shane McCorristine to be published on Monday 18 August

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 15 August 2014

A new book by an academic from the University of Leicester seeks to explore society’s fascination with the bodies of deceased criminals and ‘murderabilia’ by examining a famous murder case of the past.

Dr Shane McCorristine from the University of Leicester’s new book, entitled ‘William Corder and the Red Barn Murder: Journeys of the Criminal Body’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on Monday 18 August and explores the infamous murder of Maria Martin in the Red Barn at Polstead by Suffolk farmer William Corder, who has since become one of the most notorious villains in British history.

The murder took place on 18 May 1827 – and mass hysteria and his subsequent hanging resulted in William Corder becoming a celebrity criminal brought back to life by preachers, ballad singers, anatomists and theatre managers for generations.

Some of William Corder’s body parts are still available to be viewed by the public in the Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds, serving as an example of how criminal bodies have historically been commoditised in order to ‘curate’ crime.

Dr McCorristine explained: “When people become commodities it is sometimes hard to make a distinction between body parts as trophies that titillate and specimens that educate. Seeing the body parts of William Corder suggests that society has an extremely ambivalent attitude e towards notorious bodies.

“Corder’s life was taken by the state and his body was denied burial or commemoration. Far from this being the end of the story, successive generations have seen fit to ‘go back to the scene of the crime’, endlessly singing about it, collecting relics, and visiting body parts in museums and hospitals. There is a history here about how crime enters popular culture and criminal bodies are commoditised, just as if they were celebrities or holy saints.”

The book outlines that while the Victorians saw the Red Barn murder as a gory melodrama involving a wicked squire and a fallen woman, present-day audiences will see how the violence of the criminal was matched by the violence of the state.

Dr McCorristine’s research forms part of the University of Leicester’s ‘Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse’ project, a five year study funded by the Wellcome Trust to explore the criminal corpse from the disciplines of archaeology, medical and criminal history, folklore, literature and philosophy.

The project hopes to reveal the ways in which the power of the criminal corpse was harnessed, by whom, and to what ends in Britain between the late seventeenth and twentieth centuries.

He added: “There are comparisons we can make between the Corder case and how we deal with notorious criminals today. There is a lively online trade in criminal relics, skulls, and other ‘murderabilia’ which is quite disturbing when we think about how serial killers exhibit similar desires to keep mementos of their victims, such as locks of hair, clothing, organs and so on.

“Daily reports of slavery, trafficking, and organ theft suggest that bodies are still sent on journeys in which cruelty is empowered by market forces. Death, it is clear, is not a terminus but a journey.”

‘William Corder and the Red Barn Murder: Journeys of the Criminal Body’ will be published by Palgrave Macmillan on Monday 18 August.


Notes to editors:

For more information please contact Dr Shane McCorristine on

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