Home   Bury St Edmunds   News   Article

Subscribe Now

Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor retells the story of what happened to the remains of infamous Suffolk murderer William Corder





After being arrested in London to where he had fled and married, Corder was put up for trial at Bury Assizes the following year.

Despite denying carrying out the evil deed, he finally admitted on the scaffold at the Sicklesmere Road gaol his guilt to John Orridge, governor of the Bury prison, where thousands of people attended the public hanging on August 11, 1828.

William Corder's bust.
William Corder's bust.

Corder’s lifeless body was then put on show at the Shire Hall for mawkish viewing by the public, before being dissected as was common practice in those days – in this case by county surgeon Geoge Creed at the County Hospital in Bury. From there on, his skeleton was used as a teaching aid for anatomy classes until 1949 when it went to the Royal College of Surgeons.

Other morbid relics relating to Corder are to be found in the excellent display cabinet in Moyse’s Hall Museum: his scalp, death mask, a bust of him and, perhaps the most macabre, a book of Corder’s trial bound in his own tanned skin.

However, there is a rather disturbing apocryphal addendum to this account, that of the mysterious disappearance of Corder’s skull sometime later.

Bury Gaol, where Corder was hanged.
Bury Gaol, where Corder was hanged.

It would seem that it was misappropriated by a Dr Kilner, who had been a doctor at the West Suffolk Hospital and who was a devotee of phrenology, according to one definition ‘the study of the conformation of the skull as indicative of mental faculties and traits of character’. Having surreptitiously replaced Corder’s skull with that from another skeleton, Kilner took it home and put it into a patinated ebony box. His home then was today’s Norman House, 79 Guildhall Street.

Norman House, in Guildhall Street, where Dr Kilner allegedly kept Corder's skull.
Norman House, in Guildhall Street, where Dr Kilner allegedly kept Corder's skull.

As was his wont there, he regularly took it out of the box and ran his fingers carefully over the skull - by this method he wanted to understand, if possible, how evil a person Corder had been. However, he started having headaches, nightmares and hearing strange noises, even seeing ghostly apparitions. Then, as the story goes, one night he heard a terrible crash in his drawing room, where the box was kept on a table, and on investigating he encountered the upturned table with the box laying on the floor opened, the skull out, looking leeringly at him. That was it, he gave the box with the skull in to a friend on the promise of having it buried in consecrated ground, preferably in a churchyard far from Bury.

Whether this person carried out this instruction is not known but if any of you come across a skull in a nice patinated box on an online auction site, car-boot sale or on the Bargain Hunt TV programme, leave well alone!

The William Corder relics at Bury's Moyse's Hall Museum.
The William Corder relics at Bury's Moyse's Hall Museum.

There is a postscript to the story because, in 2004, a distant relative of William Corder came forward to claim the skeleton. The College, fearing a legal battle, gave in and it is assumed that the bones of the murderer were either given a Christian burial or were cremated. Moyse’s Hall, fearing it was next on the list to lose its artefacts, was saved when a closer relative of Corder came forward, established their claim and gave permission for the Borough Museum to retain the collection in perpetuity.

Martyn Taylor
Martyn Taylor

-- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.