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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.

Clifford believes she has solved the mystery, after unearthing a long-forgotten version of a witness statement that was too graphic to be aired in a nineteenth-century courtroom. Her research is thorough and her arguments are convincing. She names the killer, restores Ashford’s sullied reputation, and succeeds in her mission to correct “a missed opportunity for justice.”

Click here to read the full review

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September 2018 – reviewed by Dean Jobb

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...

It’s also well illustrated and the image are chosen sensitively...

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’.

Read the complete review online here.

Criminal Historian

A gruesome murder, a fascinating story, a great book, let down by the lack of a much-needed index. Nonetheless, highly recommended.

Ripperologist, June/July 2018 – reviewed by Paul Begg

★★★★★ Comprehensive and well written

A very well written book explaining the case in comprehensive detail. I liked the fact that it has a character introduction at the beginning explaining about each person who was involved. Both perspectives are presented for and against Thornton's guilt based upon the evidence and the author has included reference to various fictional accounts that were written afterwards based on the case. Highly recommended and Clifford's final person evaluation based on the known evidence was a satisfying and fitting end to the book.

Amazon Reviewer, M. Ganendran

★★★★★ The Murder of Mary Ashford is another incredibly well researched book by Naomi Clifford, which I very much enjoyed reading. I love historical true crime because of the social history details and there are plenty in this book. Naomi has given very credible reasons for her conclusions on what really happened to Mary, who I confess I had not heard of before this book. I feel that she has now given Mary the justice that she deserved and didn't receive in 1817.

Amazon Reviewer, Jay

As featured by

Antiques Diary, September 2018

★★★★★ The Murder of Mary Ashford is another incredibly well researched book by Naomi Clifford, which I very much enjoyed reading. I love historical true crime because of the social history details and there are plenty in this book. Naomi has given very credible reasons for her conclusions on what really happened to Mary, who I confess I had not heard of before this book. I feel that she has now given Mary the justice that she deserved and didn't receive in 1817.

See the review online here.

GoodReads, Jayne

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.

See the review online here.

Criminal Historian

This interesting work re-examines this intriguing case in a fresh and comprehensive manner, delving deep into detail, exploring both the events leading up to the murder and those that preceded it. Naomi Clifford also reminds us why this case is still relevant today and how it changed English Law. She even has a possible identity for the killer. This is another great offering from the hand that gave us Women and the Gallows.

Cotswold Life, August 2018

As featured by

True Crime Library, Bulletin 477

★★★★★ 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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