One pleasant May evening in 1817, twenty year old Mary Ashford set out to attend a dance in Erdington, England. She could never have guessed that this outing would result in her posthumously leaping from village anonymity to nationwide fame.
She even rewrote the law books.
Ashford dressed up for the party at the home of a friend, Hannah Cox, after which the two girls walked a distance of about two miles to a wayside inn known as Tyburn House, a favorite local spot for public dances. Mary was not often seen in this neighborhood, as she lived with an uncle in a nearby village named Langley Heath, where she acted as his housekeeper. Ashford was a remarkably pretty girl with an outgoing, flirtatious personality, so she naturally was a popular dance partner with the young men in attendance. The most persistent of her admirers that night was twenty-four year old Abraham Thornton. His father was a landholder, which, in this rural area, placed him a distinct social cut above most of his neighbors.
The new acquaintance between the pair later became a subject of intense controversy. According to one witness, John Cooke, when Thornton first spotted the beautiful newcomer, he asked who she was. When told she was “Ashford’s daughter,” Cooke said Thornton crudely boasted that he had known—in every sense of the word—the girl’s sister, and intended to do the same with Mary. No one else claimed to have overheard this remark, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Cooke was untruthful.
In any case, it is unquestionable that Ashford and Thornton immediately hit it off. They spent much of the night dancing together, with the girl showing every sign of enjoying his attentions. Around eleven o’clock, Cox told her friend she wanted to go home. Ashford agreed to join her outside in a few minutes. Cox and a young man named Benjamin Carter sat outside the inn for about half an hour. Then, finally, Ashford and Thornton emerged, and the quartet set out on the dark country road. After a short distance, Carter left the others and returned to the dance.
The three young people walked on until they came to a crossroads. One road led to Cox’s house, the other to the home of Ashford’s grandfather. At this point, Mary suddenly announced that she would spend the night with this relative. Cox probably realized this was just a ploy to get her out of the way, but she agreed. She finished her walk home alone.
Around four the next morning, Ashford arrived at Cox’s house to change out of her party clothes and pick up some items she had bought the previous day. According to Cox, she seemed tired, but in excellent spirits. For whatever reason, Ashford left still wearing her white dancing shoes, carrying her walking boots in a bundle along with her packages.
Less than two hours later, a laborer named George Jackson was walking by Penn’s Mill Lane, a road leading to Ashford’s home. The fields near the lane contained several water-filled pits. Near the edge of one of them, Jackson found some packages, a woman’s hat, and a pair of dainty white shoes, one of which had blood stains. Fearing the worst, he sent for men to drag the pool.
These fears were soon confirmed. In this pit was found the body of Mary Ashford. An autopsy later established that she had drowned, and that she had lost her virginity not long before her death.
In a nearby field some men found what they believed were the footprints of a man and a woman. These amateur sleuths deduced that they had been running, with the woman trying to evade a pursuer. At the edge of the fatal pit was found a similar male shoeprint. All this led them to the conclusion that Ashford had been raped and then thrown into the pool to die. As another young woman had suffered this exact fate only a year before and a dozen miles away (a shepherd had been hanged for the crime,) it seemed a logical surmise. It seemed equally logical to presume that Ashford’s attacker was her very ardent new admirer, Abraham Thornton.
When questioned, Thornton readily admitted that after they parted ways with Cox, he and Ashford spent several hours in the dark roadside fields, making love—with, he insisted, her full consent. Shortly before four o’clock, he escorted her part of the way to Cox’s house. He waited for her to leave Hannah's, but after a short while passed without seeing her, he returned home. He maintained that this was the last time he saw the girl. He gave his exact route, and named several people who had seen him walking to his home alone. He gave this story without hesitation, and never wavered from it.
Few people believed him. Reading between the lines, it seems Thornton must have had a questionable reputation even before Ashford's death, because his fellow villagers had no problem assuming he was quite capable of rape and murder.
This belief soon spread throughout England. Ashford and her sad fate became immortalized in sermons, plays, pamphlets, and ballads. A minister was inspired to give the dead girl a gravestone complete with an inscription meant “as a warning to Female Virtue, and a humble monument to Female Chastity.” The Reverend Doctor blamed Ashford’s death on her unwise decision to attend “a Scene of Amusement without proper protection.” The monument also included a poem he had composed for the occasion (“Mary! the Wretch who thee remorseless slew/Avenging wrath, which sleeps not, will pursue.”)
|Morning Post, Nov. 7, 1818|
At Thornton’s trial that August, the prosecution stated that when Ashford, contrary to his expectations, refused to surrender her virtue, he became enraged and resolved to take her by force. He waited for her to leave Hannah Cox’s home, then chased her by Penn’s Mill Lane, caught her, raped her, and then hurled her into the nearby pool. The defense argument was equally simple: Thornton could not have killed her because he was a long distance away when she died. His lawyers presented no less than eight witnesses who claimed to have seen him heading home during the time when Ashford must have drowned. Nothing was found to disprove their stories. A John Hompridge stated that when he was returning home from the dance, at about three am, he saw Thornton and a girl sitting on a stile together. He could not tell who Thornton's companion was, as she kept her head down in an obvious effort to avoid identification, but she showed no signs of fear or distress. Several others testified to seeing Mary walking by herself to and from Cox’s house between three and four thirty in the morning. One of these witnesses saw her—still quite alone—within five hundred yards of the place where she died.
|Map of the area where Ashford died, as presented at Thornton's trial.|
Chester Chronicle, Nov. 7, 1817
Even the fact that the white shoes and white cotton stockings Ashford wore to the dance had spots of blood wound up being a point in Thornton’s favor. The black woolen stockings into which she had changed at Hannah Cox’s house, and that she was still wearing when she died, had no blood on them. It was reasonable to conclude that the bleeding took place when she lost her virginity the previous night (she was also menstruating at the time of her death.) If she had relations with Thornton before she returned to Cox’s house, this refuted the prosecution’s scenario of Thornton lying in wait to ambush her on her trip home.
In short, the case against Thornton, once seen as so ironclad, proved to be a textbook example of “reasonable doubt.” Accordingly, the jury, after a deliberation of six minutes, pronounced him “not guilty.”
Unfortunately for Thornton, public opinion failed to see this acquittal as any sort of exoneration. Someone had abused and murdered this young girl, vox populi thundered, and that someone must have been Abraham Thornton. And everyone was determined that somehow he should pay for her death.
Some legal eagle recalled an ancient custom known as “appeal of murder,” where the heirs of a homicide victim could bring their own charges against a suspect and subject them to a new trial. Accordingly, Ashford’s brother William stepped forward and had Thornton re-arrested.
Thornton’s accusers then received a nasty little surprise. Under this never-repealed old law, “appeal of murder” could only be answered by “trial by combat.” In other words, there was nothing for it but to have Thornton and William Ashford fight it out until night began to fall. At that point, if Thornton was too weak to keep fighting, he would be hanged on the spot. On the other hand, if he killed Ashford, or at least managed to stay on his feet until after sunset, he would be acquitted.
It was this quirk in the law that turned the tragedy into farce. Thornton was a strong, well-built, pugnacious young man. Brother William, on the other hand, was a meek, weedy youth conspicuously lacking in anything resembling brawn. When Thornton, as the law demanded, threw a pair of gauntlets down at Ashford’s feet and announced his willingness to defend his innocence “with my body,” William prudently declined to pick them up. Thornton again won his freedom. As he still found himself an extremely unpopular man, he moved to America, where he married and lived a quiet and prosperous life until his death in 1860.
This rather embarrassing debacle inspired the House of Commons to abolish—a few hundred years too late—trial by combat.
So, how did Mary Ashford come to her death? Although we’ll never know for sure, the evidence suggests that Thornton was not guilty of anything more than being a rather unpleasant young man with an eye for a pretty girl. Could someone else have attacked Ashford? If so, who could have had the opportunity to commit the evil deed? Suicide can probably be ruled out, considering the testimony that she was in a cheerful mood the morning of her death.
Sir John Hall, who edited the Thornton case for the “Notable British Trials” series, suggested a simple and highly plausible theory. Noting the fact that Ashford's body was shoeless when it was removed from the pit, and that her bonnet was removed and placed with her bundle near the bank, he suggested that on her way home, Ashford stopped by the pool to rest, change into her walking boots, and wash off some of the blood on her legs and feet. After she removed her dancing shoes, the girl, no doubt exhausted after a sleepless and very busy night, lost her balance on the steep, slippery edge of the pit and fell helplessly into the water.
If Hall was correct, all that fuss was made over a tragic, but utterly ordinary accident.
[A footnote: There is a chilling coincidence connected to the Ashford case. One hundred and fifty-seven years to the day after Mary’s death, the body of a young woman named Barbara Forrest was found just a few hundred yards away from the spot where Ashford drowned. Forrest was, like her early counterpart, twenty years old. She had been raped and strangled. The similarities did not end there. The two girls had the same birthday, both had visited a friend the evening before in order to change clothes for a dance party, and the chief suspect in Forrest’s death was named Michael Thornton. Like Abraham, this modern-day Thornton was tried but acquitted. Forrest’s death, like Ashford’s, has remained a mystery.]