In May 1817, Mary Ashford walked with her friend Hannah Cox to attend a dance at the Tyburn House, a popular place in the locality of Erdington, England. Then twenty years old, she worked as a housekeeper for her uncle in a nearby village called Langley Heath. She was a popular partner for several young men that night, capturing much attention due to her bubbly personality and lovely looks.
One of her most insistent admirers that night was Abraham Thornton. His father was a local landholder, which placed him high on the social ladder in the area. One witness that night, a John Cooke, claimed that Thornton was immediately entranced by the pretty Mary, asking after her name. When Cooke told Thornton who she was, Thornton allegedly implied that he had carnal knowledge of Mary’s sister and intended to taste the same from her.
Thornton spent the night pursuing Mary, which seemed to have some success, as the two danced several sets together. Some time before midnight, Hannah Cox expressed to Mary that she wished to go home. Mary promised to leave with Hannah in a few minutes. While Hannah waited outside, she made the acquaintance of a young man named Benjamin Carter.
Mary, Hannah, Thornton, and Carter set out together to return to their own homes. Carter, however, abandoned the group to return to Tyburn House for more flirting and dancing. That left only Mary, Hannah, and Thornton.
When they came to a fork in the dark rural road, Mary dropped a hint that she wanted to go alone with Thornton. Hannah’s home was down one prong of the road, while Mary’s grandfather was down the other prong. Hannah accepted her friend’s subtle hint that she wished to proceed alone with the amorous Thornton.
Mary resurfaced at Hannah’s home at four in the morning to change out of her clothes and grab some belongings. Hannah reported that her friend seemed exhausted but joyful. Mary left still wearing her white dancing slippers, her boots bundled up in a sack. Less than two hours later, a man named George Jackson was walking down a road close to Mary’s home when he found bloody white slippers and other feminine clothing.
Around this road were several water-filled pits. These items were found near one of the pits, and Jackson, fearing the worst, raised an alarm, rallying other men to sift through the water. Mary Ashford’s body was soon found.
An autopsy performed by a coroner found that Mary had lost her virginity shortly before her death. It had been a brutal and savage attack. Other evidence found included footprints belonging to a man and a woman. Those who had found the body presumed that Mary had been running from the man, but on reaching the watery pit, the footprints stopped. Only a man’s footprints left the pit. When put together, this evidence led to the conclusion that Mary had been chased, tackled by her assailant, raped, and then thrown into the watery pit to drown.
When witnesses confirmed that Mary had left Tyburn House with Thornton, he was immediately apprehended for questioning. He alleged that after Hannah left for her house on that country road, he and Mary had spent hours on the dark roadside making consensual love. He also said that before four o’clock, he walked Mary to Hannah’s house so she could fetch some of her belongings. He waited for a while, but after quite a bit of time had passed, he decided to abandon his paramour and return home. Not once did Thornton change his story from this sequence of events.
However, Thornton was not believed by those investigating Mary’s death. His person was searched, and his clothes underneath were found to have bloodstains. His shoes were removed, and when compared to the footprints left at the murder scene, it was believed that they matched. Thornton was arrested for Mary’s murder.
Thornton’s trial took place in August 1817, just a few short months after Mary’s death. The prosecution alleged that after Hannah left them on the country road, Mary refused Thornton’s initial advances. However, Thornton was not going to give up so easily. He walked Mary back to Hannah’s home under the guise that he was being a gentleman in protecting her, but when Mary emerged with her belongings, Thornton pursued her. Under attack, Mary ran for the safety of her uncle’s home, but Thornton caught up to her, raped her, and murdered her.
Thornton’s defense had a simple explanation as to why he was not Mary’s murderer. He wasn’t even close to the scene of the crime when it happened in the early morning hours that chilly May day. Eight witnesses defended Thornton, claiming that they encountered or saw him returning home around the same time that Mary died. The prosecution had no witnesses to counter these testimonies.
Additionally, there were witnesses that supposedly saw Thornton with a female companion sitting on a stile. The lady concealed her face from passerby, but she did not appear to be in danger or distress, according to the witnesses. Other witnesses also claimed to have seen Mary walking alone between the hours of three and half past four o’clock between her uncle’s home and Hannah’s home. Another witness claimed Mary was still quite alone within five hundred feet of the place where her body had been found.
Those blood stains on Mary’s slippers were also explained away by the defence. Mary had willingly given Thornton her virginity that night before returning to Hannah’s house, according to Thornton’s lawyers. Mary was also menstruating that night, which accounted for the blood not only found on her slippers but also the stockings she wore to the dance. When Mary changed, she was wearing a fresh pair of stockings, which were found to not have blood on them.
Once the trial concluded, the jury left to deliberate. It took them only six minutes to reach a verdict—not guilty.
Despite the jury’s verdict, the public still viewed Thornton as a murderer. An old law was dug up to see him face justice. It was the ancient custom of “appeal of murder,” which Mary’s brother, William, evoked. Thornton once again found himself arrested.
However, the tides still flowed in Thornton’s favor. This old law of “appeal of murder” meant instead of a trial in front of a jury a “trial by combat.” Thornton was by all accounts a strapping, hulking man while William was slender and frail. William was seemingly made of hay, ready to blow away at the slightest breeze. When the gauntlets were thrown down, Thornton once again declared his innocence and accepted the challenge. William, on the other hand, declined to fight. Once again, Thornton walked away a free man.
An enraged public still saw Thornton as Mary Ashford’s rapist and murderer. The harassment was so bad, Thornton moved to America, where he married and lived a quiet life—as far as the historical record shows.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons took action to abolish the archaic law allowing “trial by combat” for an “appeal of murder.” That might have been the only positive to come from this horrible case where, to this day, speculation over the events leading to Mary Ashford’s death remain.
The Bizarre & Horrifying Case of Mary Ashford, YouTube Video from Brief Case
“By her own consent” The Murder of Mary Ashford and Rape Culture in the Georgian Era, YouTube Video from author and historian Naomi Clifford
The Drowning of Mary Ashford: Did She Fall or Was She Pushed? on Strange Company
Map of the roads, near to the spot where Mary Ashford was murdered on Curiosity Collections from Harvard University
The murder of Mary Ashford by Mairead Enright, University of Birmingham
The ‘Murder’ of Mary Ashford: (BUT, was it even murder?) on Sutton-Coldfield.net
The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History, Book by Naomi Clifford
The Murder of Mary Ashford: an interview with women’s history writer, Naomi Clifford on The Scroll
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