Mary Ashford spent the last evening of her life out dancing at a local ball, held in a pub near her house in the Midlands. The following morning, her lifeless body would be found in a pond. The year was 1817, and the subsequent trial would see a man widely regarded as being her murderer sensationally acquitted.
This is the case that Naomi Clifford details in her latest book, The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime that Changed English Legal History (Pen & Sword).
As she has previously shown with her earlier books, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn and Women and the Gallows, 1797-1837, Naomi is always interested in the history of the law, as well as the history of women and crime, and here, she looks at how, when justice appeared to have not been served, Mary Ashford’s brother attempted to use an ‘archaic process’ to prosecute the accused man, Abraham Thornton, for a second time.
The crime in this case is located in Erdington – now a Birmingham suburb, but at the time, still a village in Warwickshire. Naomi conjures up what life was like in this still relatively rural area at this time very well, and sets the scene for the reader, so that you feel you are one of the men who discovers the sodden corpse one morning – even though the event took place two centuries ago.
On every page is evidence of the author’s painstaking research – she has clearly done a lot of preparatory work for the book, locating people, places, and the law, and utilising her knowledge well. On occasion, you may need to reread a section, or have to concentrate to understand it all, purely because there is so much information to take in – but it is clear that this is a methodically researched history, which is always good to see.
It’s also well illustrated and the image are chosen sensitively. There are photos of buildings mentioned, drawings from court, and illustrations of both the murder victim and the accused. Naomi makes clear that the victim’s portraits are idealised (and they are certainly fairly generic), but a contemporary newspaper’s portrayal of Abraham really makes him a flesh and blood creature for the reader.
What Naomi Clifford does particularly well is her placing of Mary Ashford’s murder into its context, but she also shows how its brutality ‘became a marker against which the murders of women were compared’. Comparisons were made in the press between Mary’s murder and subsequent ones; it became something of a cause celebre for the next half century and even beyond. And what happened to the man who was acquitted of Mary’s murder, the unpleasant Abraham Thornton? You’ll have to read The Murder of Mary Ashford to find out more.