1818: The case of William Ashford v Abraham Thornton ends. In 1817 Thornton was charged with the murder of Mary Ashford. Mary was around 20 years old at the time of her death and worked as a general servant and housekeeper in Warwichshire, England. Her father was a gardener near Erdington. On May 26, 1817, she worked as usual and then went to a Hannah Cox’s house to change into party clothes. Hannah also lived in Erdington. The two young women then went to the Tyburn House where an annual dance was held. Thornton was also there and the 24 year old was taken with Mary. He was either a “well-looking fellow” or “of repulsive appearance” as descriptions differ. He was with Mary at the party and she and Hannah left with Thornton to walk home around 11 PM.
Hannah wanted to continue onto her grandfather’s house since it was closer to her place of employment and she and Thornton continued on while Hannah went home. Around 2.45 AM Thornton was seen leaving a friend’s house in the company of a woman who shielded her face with her bonnet. Just before 4 AM, Mary was at Hannah’s house in order to collect her work clothes and then she hurried away. A late partygoer saw her leaving Hannah’s house in a hurry. Around 6 AM a passing laborer saw a woman’s blood-covered shoe near a water filled pit. He called for help, the pit was dredged, and Mary’s body was found. There were two sets of footprints in the mud leading up to the pit, a man’s and a woman’s, but only the man’s left.
Thornton was found and he admitted to having been with Mary and having had sex with her. He claimed it was consensual. He denied having seen her after 4 AM. He was charged with murder and the townspeople were of the opinion that he was guilty of both murder and rape. The trial began on August 8, 1817 and a crowd rushed in to see the spectacle (women were not permitted because of the nature of the evidence). There were eleven witnesses able to provide an alibi for Thornton. The jury came back with a not guilty verdict in only six minutes. Thornton was freed, but Mary’s brother was outraged. William brought an appeal of murder against Thornton which was issued on October 1, 1817 and Thornton was once again arrested.
The Ashford family tried to find evidence to implicate Thornton but finally on April 16, 1818 the court ruled in favor of Thornton. Thornton had offered to meet Ashford in battle, an old Norman law still on the books. Ashford was unable to withstand a physical battle with his larger opponent and on this day had to decide to allow him to go free. The old law was predicated on the idea that God would side with the innocent and allow him to kill off the opponent. This was the last time this law was invoked as it was soon removed from British law.
Can it be possible that this “wager of battle” is being seriously insisted on? Am I to understand that this monstrous proposition as being propounded by the bar—that we, the judges of the Court of King’s Bench—the recognized conservators of the public peace, are to become not merely the spectators, but the abettors of a mortal combat? Is that what you require of us? – Irish Chief Justice William Downes, refusing to invoke trial by battle in 1815
I am sorry to say that difficulties have been started likely to occasion much trouble and perhaps ultimate defeat. it seems the Appellee [Thornton] has the option of waging Battle and of challenging the Appellor [William Ashford] in single combat which if not accepted by the Appellor the suit is lost and, if accepted, and the Appellee can hold out from sun rise to sun set, then he wins the contest and claims his discharge, otherwise his election subjects him not only to a good threshing but also the pain of death into the bargain. – William Bedford, November 11, 1817 (Thornton’s lawyer)
The discussion which has taken place here, and the consideration which has been given to the facts alleged, most conclusively show that this is not a case that can admit of no denial or proof to the contrary; under these circumstances, however obnoxious I am myself to the trial by battle, it is the mode of trial which we, in our judicial character, are bound to award. We are delivering the law as it is, and not as we wish it to be, and therefore we must pronounce our judgment, that the battle must take place. – Lord Ellenborough
If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable. – Louis D. Brandeis