Friday, 27 July 2007

A taste for murder

A brutal murder, a cryptic note concealed in the victim’s coffin, a secret lover, a callous killer obsessed with re-enacting his horrific crime – it resembles a plot straight from the pages of the latest PD James novel. However, these are bizarre elements from a real murder trial that has captured the public imagination.

The murder of Rachel O’Reilly, a 30 year-old mother-of-two from Dublin, stunned the small, trusting community where she lived, and devastated her close-knit family. In the days following the discovery of her battered body in 2004, it was thought that Rachel was the victim of a bungled robbery attempt. It soon emerged, however, that police investigating the case believed Rachel had known her killer and that her murder had been carefully planned months in advance.

The spotlight immediately fell upon Rachel’s husband, Joe O’Reilly, who admitted in a number of extraordinary press interviews that he was a prime suspect in his wife’s slaying. The 32-year-old advertising executive vehemently denied any involvement.

A media frenzy ensued and the investigation took several bizarre turns, culminating in Joe O’Reilly’s conviction on Saturday, 21 July. It was a crime that captured the public imagination. We watched as the illusion of the idyllic suburban life the couple shared together began to shatter and the details of O'Reilly’s heinous crime immerged.

Public fascination with violent crime, particularly murder, has a long history. The so called ‘Red Barn murder’ is one of the best documented crimes in history, and it marks the beginning of a widespread public interest in murder trials.

In 1824, village beauty Maria Martin’s body was discovered in a shallow grave in a barn near Polstead in Suffolk, England. Her lover William Corder was arrested for the murder, brought to trial and executed at Bury St Edmunds in August 1828. That much is historical fact, but even before the trial the elements of the crime were being sensationalized. As the 19th century progressed new elements were grafted onto the story.

While Corder was still in custody plays were being performed before eager audiences. Ballard singers were performing songs connected with the murder. After the widespread press coverage thousands of visitors made a pilgrimage to the barn - over 200,000 during the summer of 1828 alone! Many took pieces of the barn as souvenirs. It was said that the barn's owner was so irritated that she threatened to have it demolished. It stood, however, until 1842, when an arsonist burnt it down during a period of agricultural unrest. The only known remaining relics are a wooden shoe-shaped snuff box and an iron stay from the barn doors (both now in private collections).

Maria's grave also suffered at the hands of souvenir hunters. After the inquest of 1827 her body was laid to rest in Polstead Churchyard, but was exhumed and used as an exhibit at Corder's trial. Even after she had been returned to her grave, Maria was not left in peace. Large numbers of visitors took away chips of the headstone as souvenirs until it completely disappeared. Nowadays the only indication of the grave is a wooden plaque nailed to a shed at the side of Polstead Church.

The legacy of the 'Red Barn Murder' lives on today – Murder in the Red Barn was the tile of a song of Tom Waits’ 1992 album Bone Machine – and the public’s interest in sensational murders remain unabated.

Perhaps, our fascination with murder reflects our own fears? After all, the sudden, unnatural death of others forces us to confront our own mortality. May it be, that through the killer, we get a terrifying glimpse at the darkest corners of our own psyches?

The Suspect: The Killing of Rachel O’Reilly, by Mail on Sunday journalist Jenny Friel will be published by Maverick House in September.

– Gert Ackermann, Publicist

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It should be a good read -Alex