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The Murder of Mary Ashford (Paperback)

The Crime that Changed English Legal History

True Crime Social History Women of History Biographies

By Naomi Clifford
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 160
ISBN: 9781473863385
Published: 21st May 2018


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In the small hours of 27 May 1817, Mary Ashford, a young servant girl from the village of Erdington near Birmingham, left a party in the company of Abraham Thornton. A few hours later she was found drowned in a pool; an inquest established that she had been raped.

Despite a seemingly solid alibi, Thornton, an uncouth young man with a bad reputation, was soon on trial for his life, but to the widespread consternation of everyone from the local gentry to the humblest labourer, he was acquitted at the direction of the judge. Public opinion across the country was outraged, convinced that a murderer had evaded the gallows.

Then, in a last-ditch effort to find justice, Mary’s brother used an archaic legal process to prosecute Thornton again, only find himself confronted with an extraordinary challenge. In court, Thornton threw down a gauntlet and demanded his legal right to trial by combat…

The outcome altered the course of English legal history.

In this many-layered account, Naomi Clifford looks at the key issue of whether Thornton was guilty but also explores themes including the birth of forensic investigation, the meaning of sexual consent and the struggle of a modern state to emerge from its medieval legal heritage.

★★★★★ This fresh look at a two-centuries-old crime brings new knowledge and painstaking original research to bear on a once-famous case. Naomi Clifford forensically sets out the death of Mary Ashford and its incredible aftermath, giving modern readers a unique perspective on what might or might not have happened, and presenting her own convincing conclusions. A recommended read for anyone interested in history or the law.

Amazon, Paul H.

★★★★★ Naomi Clifford's writing is clear, accessible and engaging - and this account of a notorious Birmingham case is a real page turner. Naomi's feminist reappraisal of this crime looks at what happened from the point of view of the woman at the heart of the story - something most true crime writers forget, and she comes up with a credible explanation of the events. She has found evidence ignored for 200 years that identifies the perpetrator.
The crime did change English legal history, but the most interesting parts of the book relate to the history of rape prosecutions and the way women were viewed by society.

Amazon, Dora Maitles

★★★★★ A fascinating re-examination of one of Birmingham's most notorious murders, exploring not only the events and evidence directly relating to the case but also the social context in which it took place & the role this played in its outcome. Naomi's research is thorough & the conclusions she draws from it convincing, and for me, finally answer the questions surrounding the death of Mary Ashford. Highly readable and highly recommended.

Amazon, Mrs K L Gomez

About Naomi Clifford

Naomi Clifford mines old newspapers for glimpses of everyday Georgian life for her blog naomiclifford.com and has been researching 18th-century elopements and abductions for the past four years. She has also written These Were Our Sons: Stories from Stockwell War Memorial, published under the name Naomi Lourie Klein. She is a former journalist and lives in London.

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