True Crime from the 1820s: Shades of Capote In Cold Blood wasn't the first book to turn true crime into literature. In 1828, James Curtis detailed a London murder by interviewing members of the accused killer's family and sleeping in his bed. Paul Collins writes about Corder for The Believer magazine.
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True Crime from the 1820s: Shades of Capote

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True Crime from the 1820s: Shades of Capote

True Crime from the 1820s: Shades of Capote

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Before there was Truman Capote, turning murder into literature, there was a London journalist named James Curtis. James Curtis also befriended a murderer and produced an account of a crime that transfixed a nation, a book called The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten. It was published in 1828.

Paul Collins, a professor of writing at Portland State University, who often reveals literary mysteries for us, describes every little, lurid detail of this case in next month's issue of The Believer magazine. He joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Radio.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor PAUL COLLINS (Portland State University): Oh, it's good to be here.

SIMON: And James Curtis did all of this before there was The New Yorker magazine that Truman Capote had; or more to the point, before there was Court TV or Nancy Grace or any of that stuff.

Prof. COLLINS: Yeah. He was really an extraordinary figure. He was coming out of a whole scene in the 1820s of these penny newspapers. And what they found, the best way to compete with each other, was with really the most sort of lurid and detailed crime news. And you know, most reporters spent their time hanging around the courthouse, but Curtis was a bit different. For one thing, he was quite an insomniac and he was also a dedicated pedestrian. He would just spend hours walking around the city. And so he became, in a way, the original shoe leather reporter. He got to know all the sort of street denizens of London and he would be the first person at the Old Daily in the morning and the last out.

SIMON: Tell us about the crime, because this was a crime that horrified Great Britain.

Prof. COLLINS: What happened was, in May of 1827, in a village called Polstead, in Suffolk, there was a 20-year-old woman, Maria Marten. She had had three children out of wedlock by three different men, and the latest of whom was a local fellow from a farming family called William Corder. Corder was being pressured by her family to marry her, and he had been really resisting this. One day he suddenly said, okay, I'll do it. Let's elope. All of a sudden, she gathered up her things and she was never seen again.

Almost a year after Maria Marten had left, they were getting letters from William Corder saying that they had gotten married, and that she was too busy to write to them, and so forth. And her father, while digging in a barn at the edge of their own property, found her body. And there was really no question who did it.

SIMON: People in those days didn't say alleged perp, did they? It was...

Prof. COLLINS: There wasn't much alleged to Corder's case, I think, as far as...

SIMON: It was - it was...

Prof. COLLINS: ...most people were concerned.

SIMON: ...the fiend, the ogre, that sort of thing. Yeah.

Prof. COLLINS: Yes.

SIMON: Okay.

Prof. COLLINS: But what I think really fascinated people was that Corder went to London and actually placed a personals ad in The Times of London, looking for a wife, and got nearly 100 replies to his ad, and met with one of them and married her about a week later. And in fact...

SIMON: This is - Mary Moore I think was her name?

Prof. COLLINS: Mary Moore.

SIMON: Yeah. Mm-hmm. And you sort of had a story of the times there too, because you had people coming from communities where everything was known about them and everyone was known to each other, coming to the big city to find work and - as been the story of the 20th and 21st century - to reinvent themselves.

Prof. COLLINS: I think that's why people were so transfixed by this case. There was really two things going on. One is the idea that Maria Marten could disappear and no one would even really know it. And in fact, you'd actually - she was actually buried on her own property. And her parents and sister were walking right by her and didn't even know.

The other thing was Mary Moore, that here's someone who doesn't really know anything about the guy that she's married except what he's told her. And there were a lot of Mary Moores back then. There were a lot of people moving to London from villages. All you really had to go on was what people told you.

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. COLLINS: And I think people who saw this case saw Maria Marten and they saw Mary Moore and they thought, you know, that could have been me.

SIMON: Help us appreciate how much James Curtis involved himself in the case, both with Maria Marten's family and then the extraordinary closeness that he sort of struck up with William Corder.

Prof. COLLINS: Well, what happened was, immediately reporters started pouring in from all over the countryside, and from London, of course. And Curtis, unlike the rest of them, didn't immediately go to the courthouse. First of all, he walked the whole distance from London to Polstead, which was over 50 miles. And when he got there, instead of going to the courthouse he got the idea that he would want to go to the local fair instead, which happened to be going on at the same time, because it occurred to him that maybe he could meet people who knew both the accused and the victim. He met the victim's family. He met the accused family, their neighbors, but particularly Corder.

SIMON: He slept in his bed at one point to try and get inside the mind of a murderer?

Prof. COLLINS: That's true. And when I first came across that passage in his work, that's when I first knew that I had found something surprisingly modern.

SIMON: James Curtis's book about this case has a special place in - how do I put this - William Corder's resting place.

Prof. COLLINS: It does. As was not uncommon at the time, part of Corder's sentence was that - not only that he executed but that he be dissected. The surgeon who dissected him took his skin and tanned it and bound a copy of Curtis' book. So there is actually a copy of The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten bound in the murderer's own skin. It's called an anthrodermic binding.

SIMON: You mean this is done enough that they had to come up with a Latin term for it?

Prof. COLLINS: Yeah.

SIMON: Shame on them. Well, Paul, it's been a delight to talk to you. Until the very end, of course.

Prof. COLLINS: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: Professor Paul Collins. His article is called The Molecatcher's Daughter, and it appears in next month's issue of The Believer. Speaking from Oregon Public Radio. And you know, you can read the article right now, The Mysterious Murder of Maria Marten, if you visit our Web site

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