After a young woman was murdered by her lover in Suffolk, England in 1828, a terrifying ghost story ensued, terrorizing a local doctor.
The body of Maria Marten, stabbed, shot, and possibly strangled, was found buried in the Red Barn at Polstead, Suffolk, in April 1828. Four months later her love and murderer, twenty-three-year-old William Corder, was publicly executed at Bury St. Edmunds Jail, watched by a crowd of more than 20,000 Corder's body hung on the scaffold for an hour. It was then taken down and three surgeons made an incision along the chest, folding back the skin to display the chest muscles, after which the body was exhibited on a trestle in one of the courtrooms, sightseers filing past. Finally, as directed by the sentence of the times, the body was dissected and anatomised, for the benefit of medical students at the West Suffolk General Hospital.
This operation was performed by Mr George Creed, surgeon to the hospital, who also tanned the murderer's skin, part of which was used to bind an account of the crime, and pickled the scalp. When all this was done, the skeleton that remained was put on public view at the hospital, after which it came into use for teaching anatomy to the students.
Creed, on his death, bequeathed Corder's skin and scalp to his friend Dr John Kilner, a medical officer at the hospital and a well-known practitioner in Bury. In the late 1870s, by which time the skeleton had been in use at the hospital for some fifty years, Dr Kilner began to look at it with more than a professional eye. Corder's skull, he thought, would make an interesting addition to his collection - he could easily remove it and put a spare anatomical skull in its place. He resolved to make this change.
The doctor naturally did not want to be disturbed at his task and planned to switch the skulls late one night. He arrived at the room containing the skeleton and lit three candles, but no sooner were they all lit than one snuffed itself out. He turned to relight it, but as he did so, the flames of the other two candles died. This strange behaviour of the candles went on all the time he was busy removing the murderer's skull and wiring the spare one to the skeleton in its place; first one and then another candle would flicker and snuff out. But he managed to keep at least one candle alight while he was working.
It was an uncanny incident, and Dr Kilner said afterwards that from the first moment he removed Corder's skull he felt very uncomfortable about "something". However, he was a man entirely free of superstitions and scornful of "all this mumbo-jumbo nonsense about ghosts". To the close friend in whom he confided, he remarked that even if the skeleton had possessed some kind of supernatural quality, it must have had most of that nonsense knocked out of it during the half a century it had been handled by doctors and students at the hospital.
Dr Kilner now had Corder's skull polished, mounted, and enclosed in a square ebony box, which he placed in a cabinet in the drawing-room of his home. A few days later, just after he had finished evening surgery, a maid came into the doctor and said a gentleman had called to see him. Kilner, irritated by this unwarranted interruption of his leisure hours, asked if the caller was anyone she had seen before. No, said the maid. She added that the man was "proper old-fashioned looking, wearing a furry top hat and a blue overcoat with silver buttons".
Telling the maid to bring a lamp, Kilner reluctantly went to meet the caller, whom she had left waiting in the surgery in the twilight. The doctor said afterward that when he looked into the room it was rather dark; there might have been someone waiting by the window, he was not sure. However, he experienced the strong feeling, independent of sight and hearing, that he was not alone in the room. Then the maid came behind him with the lamp, and when its light crossed the doorway it was to show a totally empty room.
The puzzled doctor chaffed the maid, saying she must have been dreaming. But she remained quite positive that a gentleman had called. Perhaps, she suggested, it was a patient with toothache who had made off when the pain stopped. She recalled that a man with toothache had changed his mind and rushed out like that only a few months back.
After a few days, the doctor had nearly forgotten about the mysterious visitor. Then, one evening on looking out of the drawing-room window, he caught sight of somebody lurking near the summerhouse at the end of the lawn. He could just see that the figure was that of a man in a beaver hat and a greatcoat of antique cut. The doctor quickly stepped out into the garden, but the figure vanished. Kilner was now thoroughly uneasy, and, suffering the pangs of a guilty conscience for having disturbed the murderer's remains to gratify a personal whim, he became convinced that there was someone dogging his footsteps. The someone, whoever it was, seemed very anxious to communicate with him but its presence did not seem quite strong enough to accomplish this.
Tension now rose in the doctor's house as things began to happen at night. "It" opened doors, walked about through the house, and stood breathing heavily and muttering outside bedroom doors. Occasionally the members of the household heard a frantic hammering and sobbing below in the drawing-room. And all this time, through a maze of dreams, the doctor felt sure that someone was pleading and begging him to listen and attend to his needs.
The doctor had little sleep for some three weeks. There seemed no doubt that Corder's ghost, if such it was, would go on making things very unpleasant until the skull was returned. But this was an impossible thing to do: the skull, which now had a highly polished tortoise-shell gloss, would attract attention immediately if it was restored, and it would be very difficult to explain away the sudden change in its appearance. So Kilner decided to wait a few more days, and if the ghostly visitor did not cease its wanderings, he would have to think of some other way of disposing of the skull. The next night, Kilner left his bedroom door wide open, so that he would know immediately of any disturbance. He then got into bed and drifted off to sleep. An hour or two later he awoke suddenly, some noise having disturbed him.
He listened. The sound came from downstairs. He debated whether to call out and rouse the household, but decided against it. He did not want to appear an alarmist. So he stayed in bed for some minutes, watching and waiting. He then got cautiously out of bed, liit a candle, and walked out on the landing. Holding the candle over the stair-rail, he could just see, below, the glass handle of the drawing-room door, as it reflected the candlelight from its many facets. Suddenly, as he looked, the glass knob was blotted out. A white hand was on the knob, he could see it distinctly. But apparently, the hand belonged to no one, for he could not see any figure near it. As he watched, the handle was slowly and softly turned by the phantom hand; he could just hear the faint squeak of the bolt as it turned in the lock-case. The door was gradually and stealthily opening, there was no doubt of it.
Kilner was gazing in wonderment at this phenomenon when he was startled by a loud explosion, which sounded like the report of a blunderbuss. Filled with sudden anger, and a great loathing for the skull he had so foolishly "acquired", he dashed downstairs, pausing only to pick up the heavy plated candlestick as a weapon before rushing to the drawing-room. At the doorway, he was met with a tremendous gust of wind that extinguished his candle. But was it wind? It seemed like a powerful, menacing form that enveloped rather than touched him. He thrust forward into the darkness of the room, agitatedly striking a match. As the match flamed, his attention was caught by a litter of black splinters on the pale carpet. After his first puzzlement, he quickly realised what had happened: the box which had held the skull was broken into fragments. His eyes went to the cabinet which had contained the box. The door was open, and there, exposed on a shelf, was the grinning skull.
Dr Kilner now lost no time in ridding himself of the ghostly trophy. Thinking, no doubt, that once the skull was out of his house its supernatural qualities would cease, he insisted that his close friend, Frederick Hopkins, a local builder, should accept it as a gift. Hopkins, a former prison official, was now the owner of Bury Jail, where Corder was executed. He had bought the property when it was vacated as a prison and moved his family into the governor's residence, Gyves House, within the walls of the jail. Kilner told him, "As you are the owner of Corder's condemned cell and the gallows on which he was hanged, perhaps it won't hurt you to take care of his skull." But misfortune visited Hopkins from the start, even as he was on his way back to Gyves House with the skull, wrapped in a silk handkerchief. While coming down the steps of a hotel he twisted his foot and fell heavily, the skull rolling to the feet of a shocked member of the local gentry, Lady Gage, who sprang back with a cry of alarm.
The twisted foot kept Hopkins in bed for a week, but a further blow followed only the next day, when his best mare rolled over the side of a chalk pit and broke her back. In the next few months, Hopkins knew illness, sorrow, and financial disaster. With Dr Kilner he had embarked on several very successful land and property deals, but suddenly the tide turned, and, overtaken by heavy losses. both men were swept to the verge of bankruptcy.
Hopkins in desperation, resolved to break the skull's evil spell once and for all. He took it, one day, to a country churchyard near Bury St. Edmunds, and bribed a gravedigger to give the thing a Christian burial. After some weeks of peace and one or two strokes of good fortune, he thanked heaven that he had cast the troublesome relic out of his house. This was the uncanny story of which young Robert Thurston Hopkins, one of five children, heard his father and Dr Kilner tell and retell many times afterwards in the family circle, a story frankly and openly told, and verifiable to the smallest detail.
Now you have read about the haunting of Willian Corder's skull, make sure you check out The Sitwell Family Haunting Of Renishaw Hall: A Mysterious Coffin & An Overly Friendly Spirit.