Notable Historical Trials III – Abraham Thornton


This chapter in the Folio Society’s series on Trials is a famous trial, if not about a famous person or event.  It is the last trial where “Trial by Combat” was requested – and the fellow got off because of it.

Aside from that, I knew little of the trial and assumed it was an attempt to get a guilty man off.  The real trial was more interesting and turned what I thought I knew on its head.

Thornton had caught the eye of Mary Ashford at a ball, and the two of them had gone off and had sex.  Around dawn she had gone to where she was staying and changed to work clothes, and later that morning she was found dead in a pond on the way.  Thornton had an alibi for the time of death, being noted miles off at the time of death.  There were shoe prints in the area, but the tryst was in the same place so this didn’t mean a lot.

The first trial ended in his acquittal – and that seemed to be the end of it.  But with time the people of the area became more upset with the verdict and prejudiced against the result.  Finally an ‘appeal of murder’ was lodged against Thornton.  This obsolete procedure allowed a second trial to be brought against him for the same crime.  He was then thrown in jail, to await a new trial even though no new evidence was brought forward and much of the old evidence was lost.  To await in jail a retrial that could probably only have the result of a conviction seemed a bad idea.

Thus the defense of trial by battle – a countering obsolete procedure!  Since Thornton was a young man and the opposing attorney no match for him, if the defense by battle was allowed by the court he would go free.  Because of the circumstances – Thornton was probably innocent, the court allowed the defense.  Thornton had to emigrate to the USA to escape the mob howling after him, but he was free.

After this, both the appeal of murder and trial by battle were stricken from the law books.

What happened to Mary Ashford?  The most likely scenario was that she was attempting to clean herself in the pond before work and fainted and fell in.  She had been out all night, and not eaten in a considerable time.


One thought on “Notable Historical Trials III – Abraham Thornton

  1. Pingback: Notable Historical Trials IV – Daniel MacNaghten | Kilobooks

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