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Murder of Mary Ashford

Mary Ashford and Abraham Thornton

Ever since the morning of 27th May 1817, when a labourer on his way to work near Penn's Mill discovered the body of a girl, apparently drowned in a water filled pit, the case has been known as the "Murder of Mary Ashford". In fact there was no evidence that Mary, an attractive young woman of about 20 years, had been murdered at all, for both accident and suicide were other possible reasons for her tragic demise.

Tyburn House

Suspicion for the murder fell upon Abraham Thornton, son of well to do parents who lived at Castle Bromwich. He and Mary had met at a dance at the Tyburn House on the previous evening and later he had escorted her across the fields and lanes back to Erdington.

Whilst Mary was not as innocent or virtuous as she was later made to appear, Thornton portrayed himself as a local Don Juan. This lead to suspicion in the community that he had both violated and murdered the young woman.

It was not surprising, therefore, that the coroner's jury at the inquest held at Penn's Mill on 30th and 31st May returned a verdict of wilful murder against Abraham Thornton and he was committed for trial at Warwick Assizes.

The trial took place in August and the jury, without retiring, required only six minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.

Thornton was not to remain free for long. On 19th October he was re-arrested after Mary's brother William invoked an ancient statute which allowed a process called 'Appeal of Murder'. This time the trial took place in London at Westminster Hall, where on 17th November 1817 Thornton created a sensation by countering one ancient charge with another.

Asked to plead 'guilty or 'not guilty', he replied....

"Not guilty, and I am ready to defend the same with my life"

He was then handed a pair of gauntlets, one of which he placed upon his left hand and the other he threw upon the floor of the court.

It was not taken up.

Some of the books about the case that are available from Birmingham Library Service:

Craven! Craven! The Curious and Ancient English Law of Appeal.

Fairburn's Edition of the Whole Proceedings on the Writ of Appeal of William Ashford against Abraham Thornton.

The Trial of Abraham Thornton for the Murder of Mary Ashford

A Moral Review of the Conduct and Case of Mary Ashford, by the Rev. Luke Booker, LL.D 1818

The Trial of Abraham Thornton edited by Sir John Hall. 1926

Horrible Rape and Murder!! The Affecting Case of Mary Ashford...... 1817

More information about the death of Mary Ashford........
Chronology of events leading to Mary Ashford's death
History of Erdington
Erdington Library