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On Sunday the 27th of May 1974, 20-year-old Barbara Forrest had a great day. Together with her boyfriend, 21-year-old Simon Belcher, they led the service at St Mark’s Church. Simon was standing in for his father, who was the minister of the church. Barbara was a youth worker at the church too. Everyone enjoyed the service as it was lovely to see the young couple work together.
After the service, they decided to go out for a night on the town, as the following day was Whit Monday, a Bank Holiday,. They went dancing and then visited a couple of pubs in Handsworth and Birmingham city centre.
Simon walked her to the Colmore Circus bus stop in Birmingham at 1am, where Barbara waited for the Number 67 bus. He said goodbye and jumped onto his own bus and headed home to Moseley, heading in the opposite direction.
Mary lived by herself in an apartment in Erdington. The bus ride from Colmore Circus to Tyburn was a 20-minute bus ride, then she still had a 10-minute walk to get home. Erdington was a safe area and Barbara had no reason to fear for her safety.
When Barbara did not show up at her work on Tuesday morning, co-workers at the Pype Hayes Children’s Home tried to reach her at home, but there was no answer on her phone. Barbara worked at the Children’s Home as a nurse and was very reliable. It was very unusual for her not to notify them if she could not make it in to work.
Barbara’s family notified police and the search for the well-loved 20-year-old was on. Pamphlets were distributed and everyone from their church and community helped looking for Barbara, desperately hoping that she had left on her own volution.
On the 4th of June, eight days after she was last seen alive, the worst was confirmed. Barbara Forrest's body was discovered in the grass of Pype Hayes Park, a short distance from her home. She had been raped and strangled and left half naked, covered with foliage in a ditch off the busy Chester Road.
Who could have committed such a heinous murder, and why? Soon after police opened their investigation into Barbara’s murder, they found another murder case with so many similarities – it could not be ignored. The strange thing, however, was that the other murder was committed 157 years before Barbara was killed. What was going on?
In 1817, Erdington was a small town outside the big, bustling town of Birmingham. It was a working-class village with small cottages and a couple of public houses, or pubs. The mainly catholic community was made up of large families and everyone knew each other.
The most significant industry was Penns Mill, owned by the Webster family. It was a large farm estate that also held a wire factory. Most of the men from Erdington used to work there, but as it was a time of hardship, many men had been laid off. In order to secure an income, many people took jobs farther afield. To get to work, they walked long distances, regardless of the weather. Erdington was a place of early risers: milkmen and milkmaids, farmers, barge operators and pedlars.
20-year-old Mary Ashford’s family had lived in the Erdington area for many generations and most people in town knew Mary. She was friendly and sprightly and always open to conversation. Mary was well-liked in the community and many men were keen on her. But although she enjoyed the attention, she had a good moral compass and did not go around with men, saving herself for marriage.
Mary worked as a housemaid on the farm of her uncle John Coleman. It was a small farm at Langley Heath, about three miles from Erdington. Mary helped her uncle on the farm too and sold his dairy products at the market in Birmingham.
The morning of Sunday the 26th of May 1817 was no exception. She left Erdington for Birmingham where she set up her stall in the usual spot outside the Castle Inn. It was the day before Whit Monday and with spring making the days brighter and warmer, there was a festive feeling to the day.
After her day’s work, Mary visited her best friend, Hannah Cox. Mary and Hannah grew up together and were like sisters. Hannah was also a housemaid and lived with her mother in a cottage in Erdington Green. Mary spent a lot of time at Hannah’s home and she was also close to Hannah’s mom, Mrs Butler.
That Sunday night, the girls were excited about the Whitsuntide dance at the Tyburn House Inn. Mary had bought new shoes and a new dress, a beautiful white creation that suited her perfectly. Mary and Hannah were happy as they got ready for the dance. They left Mrs Butler’s cottage between 7 and 8pm – up Bell Lane, then turned into Holly Lane then Chester Road.
The dance at Tyburn House was not a grand ball or anything out of a Jane Austin novel, rather a jolly get together of workers such as farm hands and housemaids. At the dance, Mary had a great time and was seen spending most of the evening in the company of a 24-year-old bricklayer called Abraham Thornton. He knew her sister and was interested in getting to know Mary better.
Abraham did not have the best reputation, but that did not put Mary off. She was intrigued by this man’s man. He was nearly 6ft tall with a thick neck and tree trunks for legs. At the time, the language used to describe him, said that he ‘had a reputation for laddishness and was given to boasting and lewd talk.’ In today’s world, he would perhaps be a stereotypical over-confident, loud-mouthed frat-boy.
Like Mary, Abraham Thornton also lived in the Erdington area. His father was a builder and although the family was not wealthy by any means, they lived in a large farmhouse and they were in a position to employ servants.
Hannah spent her night talking to her sister and dancing with her fiancé, a local farmer called Benjamin Carter. The dance ended at midnight and Hannah found Mary, still in Abraham’s company. Hannah said that it was time to go and they all left together: Hannah, Benjamin, Mary and Abraham.
When they reached a fork in the road, outside another pub called Old Cuckoo, the group split up. Mary said that she was going to sleep at her grandfather’s house in Bell Lane, as it was closer to work in the morning. Hannah frowned, as she knew Mary’s work clothes was still back at her mom’s house, but she didn’t say anything, as she sensed that Mary was not yet ready to say goodnight to Abraham.
Hannah veered off and went home while Benjamin walked up ahead of Mary and Abraham in the direction of his home. Abraham offered to walk Mary to her grandfather’s house.
At 3am, a local man called John Humphage saw Abraham Thornton and a woman in a white dress walking down Penns Lane. He saw them at a stile – that is some steps that go over a fence, so pedestrians could cross, but livestock would stay inside a field. When John walked past, Abraham greeted him, but the woman looked down and John could see she was pre-occupied with her skirt, trying to tuck it behind her. John immediately assumed that the two young people had had ‘improper relations’, a passionate roll in the hay so to speak, so went on his way to avoid any further awkwardness.
The location of the stile where John saw Mary and Abraham was quite a way north from Hannah’s home, but with the next eyewitness testimony, it is fair to assume Mary went straight to Hannah’s after the encounter with John Humphage.
At 3:30, Mary was seen walking towards Mrs Butler’s cottage at Erdington Green. She was alone and walking at a slow pace. She arrived at Mrs Butler’s cottage and called outside Hannah’s window for her friend to let her in. Hannah looked at her mother’s wind-up clock at it was 4:40am. Once inside, Mary changed out of her party dress, back into her working clothes as it was almost time to clock in for work. She told Hannah that she had spent the night – literally a couple of hours – at her grandfather’s house. Then she asked Hannah to come around to Langley Heath to see her later in the day, which was not unusual as the two would often meet up in the day. Before she left, Mary pulled a comb through her hair, laughed and said:
“Don’t I look like a rake!”
Hannah said that Mary was in a hurry to get to her uncle’s home before he left to go to the market in Birmingham. She was rushed, but did not seem anxious in the least. When Mary left 20 minutes later, she was wearing her new white shoes and carried the party dress and the half-boots she had left at Hannah’s the day before in her arms.
After that, two witnesses saw her in Bell Lane, walking alone. That was the last time Mary was ever seen alive.
At 6:30am on Monday the 26th of May 1817 a labourer, George Jackson, was on his way to work at Penns Mill when he saw a bundle of clothes with a woman’s bloodstained half-boots. At that moment, he noticed 40-year-old William Lavell who lived in the worker’s cottage closest to the scene. Lavell was coming out the front door as he was on his way to work. Jackson told him about his odd discovery and the men went back to where the clothing was bundled on the ground.
Jackson saw some drops of blood on the ground and a bit farther away, a larger puddle of blood – which he referred to as a ‘large lake of blood’ near a tree. From the pool of blood the men followed a zig-zag trail of blood that took them to a water pit. Afraid of what they were about to discover, the men agreed that Lavell would stay at the location while Jackson went to nearby Penns Mill to get help. At the Mill, he found a couple of colleagues who were just starting the day’s work and they all went back to the field with him. One man ran to inform their boss, Joseph Webster, the owner of Penns Mill.
Back at the scene, several men climbed down the flooded sandpit, where they found a female body. They fetched a heel rake and long reins to pull the body out of the pit. Just before 8am, they finally managed to pull the body out. It was a woman wearing a pink dress and a red spencer, which is a short jacket. Mud covered her face and there was a trickle of blood coming from her nose. There was a lot of blood on her dress – between her thighs – and on her shoes. William Lavell immediately recognised her as Mary Ashford. He remembered seeing her only hours before at the dance at Tyburn House.
Jackson did not want to risk getting into trouble at work, so he left at this point. Before he left, he had a good look at footprints in the freshly ploughed field and agreed with Lavell that there were no footprints matching Mary’s shoes anywhere near the flooded pit. They made the conclusion that she was thrown into the pit.
It would take a while for law enforcement to arrive, as the closest constable was in Birmingham and had been sent for. In the chaos of the moment, William Lavell took it upon himself to investigate the scene. He went to the public footpath, which crossed the field diagonally, but could not find any footprints that looked like they were made by the small boots found beside the pit.
He was able to find footprints around the edge of the field, however. There were two sets of footprints: smaller ones that matched Mary’s boots and larger ones, sunken into the ground, giving the impression that it was made by a heavy-set man. Near the pool of blood, just off the footpath was a patch of sand with many footprints, there had quite obviously been a scuffle.
On the other side of the pit, on the steep bank, Lavell noticed a single footprint made by a man’s left foot. It was fair to assume the killer had stepped onto the bank to steady himself as he disposed of his victim. Then, crossing the field towards the Castle Bromwich Road, the footprints changed, like the person who made them was running away from the pit. From the footprints, a theory about Mary’s last moments alive emerged. It appeared that Mary was chased by a man, raped, then thrown into the pit. Once she was dead, the man ran away.
At this point, owner of Penns Mill, Joseph Webster arrived. He was of higher social standing than Lavell, so he took charge. He sent some men to fetch a door that was off its hinges at the Mill to serve as a stretcher. He also sent for the magistrate, William Bedford, who lived in Birches Green, South of Erdington.
Lavell showed him the footprints and Webster agreed that it was of great significance. Webster told Lavell to cover the prints with boards so the evidence would not be compromised once police and other onlookers arrived.
Among the onlookers who gathered, was Mary’s brother William Ashford. He stood in shock and disbelief as he saw the men from Penns Mill and other villagers take charge of the murder scene. Everyone was too busy to even realise he was there.
They carried Mary’s body on the door and took her to William Lavell’s cottage. His wife, Fanny stepped in and washed Mary’s body, preparing for the coroner’s arrival. Mary Smith, a friend of Fanny’s came to help her. The first thing Mary Smith noticed was that the victim’s body was not yet cold. The women worked meticulously to remove all the layers of Mary’s clothes: a spencer, a dress, an underdress, a skirt and detachable pockets. Mary was small, only 5ft4 (or 1.6 metres) and of slender build. Both ladies said that it was clear to them that Mary was on her period, but she was not prepared, as she did not wear a menstrual cloth as was customary at the time.
Dr George Freer and coroner Francis Beynon Hacket performed the post mortem examination in William and Fanny Lavell’s cottage. They concluded that Mary’s cause of death was drowning, as there was duckwheat in her stomach, the same duckwheat found in the pit where her body was discovered. This meant that Mary was still alive when she was thrown into the water.
She was wearing many layers of clothing and there was a lot of blood between her thighs. Her hymen had been ruptured, showing that she lost her virginity that night. The coroner also noted bruises on her arms, above the elbow, that looked like it was made by the fingers from a large hand.
The conclusion was that she was raped and that she was on her period, because there were two types of blood on Mary’s thighs. It was difficult to ascertain how much of the blood was from her period and how much came from her injuries. The doctor did feel that the puddle of blood in the field was NOT menstrual blood, however, which meant that her injuries were quite severe. There were lacerations on her vagina. The autopsy concluded that the injuries were recent, but neither Dr Freer nor Coroner Hacket had any idea what had caused it.
The owner of the Tyburn House, Daniel Clarke, heard about Mary’s death and remembered that he saw her leave with Abraham Thornton the night before. He immediately went to look for Abraham and asked him if he knew what had happened to Mary. When Abraham Thornton was told about Mary’s death, he was shocked. He said:
“I cannot believe she is murdered; why, I was with her until four o’clock this morning.”
Abraham went willingly with Daniel Clarke, back to Tyburn House – to talk with constable Thomas Dales in order to clear himself of any suspicion.
In the interview, constable Dales noticed that Thornton had blood on the cuff of his shirt. When he asked him about it, Thornton explained that he had been ‘concerned with a girl’ but with her consent. She had told him that she was not ‘fit’ (meaning she was on her period), but he had said that he didn’t mind. Constable Dales would later testify about Thornton’s story – that he had sex with Mary – but he did not write it in the official statement. When asked why, he said that he believed Thornton when he said it was consensual and did not want to upset Mary’s family any further by reporting the details of how Mary spent her last hours alive.
Thornton’s shoes were taken off him and sent to the scene of the murder where Lavell and helpers compared it to the footprints in the harrowed field. It was exactly the same size. However, the shape did not match 100%. The footprints in the mud were quite shapeless, whereas the soles on Thornton’s shoes were cut in precise left and right shapes. But then there was a nail lodged into the front of Thornton’s right shoe, a distinctive anomaly that was consistent with a mark on the footprints.
Abraham Thornton was completely confused when he was arrested later that same day and swore that he was innocent. He was kept in remand while the magistrate built a case against him, with some help from the Erdington community.
Firstly, magistrate William Bedford, went to speak to Hannah Cox. Hannah Cox was understandably shaken up, but she tried to help as best she could. She told him about Mary’s brief visit in the pre-dawn hours and said that she did not get the sense that anything was wrong. Remember, Hannah was Mary’s best friend and they had known each other all their lives. If something was bothering Mary, Hannah would definitely have picked up on it. Hannah made it clear that Mary was a virgin and that she would not have slept with someone as a one-night stand, out in the field. Hannah was also sure that if Mary had somehow succumbed to temptation, she would definitely have told her.
This did not make Thornton look all that good. Most people were convinced that they were dealing with case of sexual assault rather than consensual sex. Abraham Thornton stuck to his original story, admitting that he did have consensual sex with Mary, but he denied assaulting and killing her.
He made it clear that, after they had said goodbye to Hannah and Benjamin, they walked hand-in-hand over a field and went to sit down on a stile to chat. He said that Mary never went to her grandfather’s house that night, she had lied to Hannah, probably because she was ashamed of him taking liberties with her.
He said that he offered to walk her to Mrs Butler’s cottage in Erdington Green. They walked for a while, then he had to relieve himself. Mary walked ahead and he never caught up with her again. He waited outside Hannah’s place for a couple of minutes, but when Mary did not come out, he left to go home.
Witnesses saw him waiting for her and also saw him walking home when he said he did. A gamekeeper called John Hayden even stopped and talked to him for fifteen minutes.
At 4:30am a milkman, William Jennings saw him. Three other witnesses also saw him walking alone. Law enforcement could not find any evidence that Abraham saw Mary again that morning.
Owner of Penns Mill, Joseph Webster realised that it was essential to establish a timeline of events. Back in the early 19th century, time was mainly determined by a single source in a village like a clock tower or church bell. Wall clocks had to be wound up and more often than not, they either ran too slow or too fast. At best clocks were used to estimate time.
Webster went on a mission to check the time of all the witnesses’ clocks and matching it to their testimonies. He himself had a pocket watch, which was set to Birmingham time and used that as the guideline.
His research set the timeline as such: Mary, Hannah, Benjamin and Abraham Thornton left Tyburn House at midnight. This was a fixed time as it was when the party was officially over and guests were asked to leave. They parted ways about half past 12 at the Old Cuckoo. Mary went with Abraham Thornton out of her free will. They walked over a field and stopped at a stile. Presumably, they mostly talked and Thornton tried his luck but was rebuffed. That was when the awkward encounter with John Humphage happened, when Mary looked down and tucked her skirt behind her. From there, Mary went to Hannah’s mother’s cottage.
Hannah first said that Mary arrived at 4:40 on her mother’s clock and left just around 5am. But witnesses saw Hannah walking away from Hannah’s home before 4:30. Joseph Webster was able to establish that the clock in Mrs Butler’s cottage was slow and that Mary actually arrived at 4am and left 4:20am. Which is when she was spotted in Bell Lane.
At the same time, 4:30, Thornton was seen by multiple witnesses. At ten minutes to five, Thornton was seen near the floodgates, having a conversation with gamekeeper John Haydon. Webster was also able to confirm that George Jackson passed by the scene closer to 6am, not 6:30 as he had originally said.
This complicated things, because you see, Thornton was engaged in conversation, with no rush to head off anywhere at 5am. He was 2.25 miles away from the spot where Mary’s body was found an hour later. On average, it would take someone about 30 minutes to walk two miles. That would mean, even if Thornton ran, he would have had to find Mary, sexually assault her, render her unconscious and throw her body into a pit in less than half an hour. Of course, this is not impossible, but witnesses who saw him at the floodgates felt it was implausible, as he was in a relaxed mood, heading home, greeting every passer-by. They did not think that he was in the state of mind to have committed the crime that he was being accused of. That is the charge of ‘Wilful Murder’ as the coroner concluded that they could not say for certain whether Mary was raped or not.
The story was big news at the time. The Birmingham Gazette reported that a ‘respectable young female’ had been found murdered near Penns Mill and that a ‘young man of respectable connections’ had been arrested. That was a polite attempt to protect the dignity of both the victim and the suspect.
Abraham Thornton’s trial was held on the 8th of August 1817 – three months after Mary’s murder – at the periodic court in Warwick. A crowd gathered from sunrise in front of the courthouse – they believed Thornton was guilty and wanted to see justice done.
Prosecution’s theory was that, after Mary shot Thornton down, he returned to the field and waited for her, as he knew she would cross the field to get to work. He forced himself on her, strangled her and then threw her into the pit where she drowned.
Thornton’s defence attorney, Edward Sadler called 11 witnesses to construct an exact alibi for Thornton. He also refuted the footprint allegations. He posed the possibility that the footprints were made before the sexual encounter – earlier that evening. He pointed out that Mary was happy and chatty when she arrived at Hannah’s home in the early morning hours. She did not appear like someone who had been violated or raped, she was on a high and herself.
After six minutes deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of NOT guilty and Thornton was free to go. His acquittal caused an outrage in the community and they raised funds to support Mary’s brother when he said that he wanted to appeal the verdict. At the time, English law allowed the family of a victim to appeal against a verdict.
The retrial took place on the 17th of November 1817, this time at the Court of the King’s Bench in London. It was a sensational crime and all of Britain followed the story in the newspapers. Despite strong community support, William Ashford did not really succeed in building a stronger case against Thornton.
In court proceedings, when Thornton was asked to enter his plea, he said:
“Not guilty; and I am ready to defend the same with my body.”
He then threw a gauntlet onto the floor, in the centre of the courtroom. There was a moment of confusion in court, that was cleared up when defence attorney Edward Sadler explained, Thornton wished to have ‘Trial by Battel’. Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough allowed Thornton to choose this archaic option. ‘Trial by Battel’ came into common UK law shortly after the Norman invitation of England in 1066. It went out of practice around the 16th century and at the time of Thornton’s trial it had not been in use for over 200 years.
What Thornton meant by throwing the gauntlet down, was that he was challenging William Ashford to a physical fight for justice. He was prepared to profess his innocence, even if it could cost him his life.
The men would be taken to a public square where they would both be given a wooden stave and then, they would attack each other. The only way out – other than death – was to surrender or if one became incapacitated during the duel.
If Thornton won, he would be a free man. If he surrendered to William, he would be executed. He would literally be taken from the spot and hanged on the same day. If the sun set and both men were undefeated, Thornton would be free.
Prosecution protested, but Lord Ellenborough made it clear that it was a rightful option within English law at the time.
However, William Ashford was not quite the fighting type. A description of him said that he was:
"…a plain country young man, about twenty-two years of age, of short stature, sandy hair, and blue eyes."
Abraham Thornton, on the other hand, was a burly twenty-something bricklayer. It was obvious that Thornton would win a physical fight, which meant William Ashford was in danger of losing his life. By the end of April in the following year, Ashford had yet to respond to Thornton’s challenge. The court ruled that Ashford surrendered, and that all charges against Thornton were dropped.
But the damage was done. Back in Erdington, Thornton was despised. Everybody felt that he was guilty and that he had gotten away with murder. During his trial, a witness testified that, on the night of Mary’s murder, he had overheard Thornton boasting to a friend that he had had sex with her sister three times before and that he was going to have Mary too – or die for it. This enraged the community who knew that the Ashford sisters were good girls who would not sleep around.
After the trial, Thornton could not find work, as nobody wanted to employ an accused murderer. He decided to emigrate to America, but even that proved to be challenging. When fellow passengers on the ship to the US learnt about his past, they refused to sail with him. He was then asked to disembark by the captain of the ship before the ship left the UK. He did eventually made it to New York where he married and lived a prosperous life.
In 1819, the law was changed to exclude the retrial request by a family member as well as the notion of ‘Trial by Battel’. To this day, the murder of Mary Ashford remains unsolved. Thornton is still the most likely suspect.
As for Mary, she was laid to rest in the churchyard of Sutton Coldfield. Her headstone bears the inscription:
“As a warning to female virtue and a humble monument to female chastity this stone marks the grave of Mary Ashford who on the twentieth year of her age having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement without proper protection was brutally murdered on 27th May 1817.”
Rumours milled around town that perhaps Mary had ended her own life, as she felt guilty about losing her virginity to Abraham Thornton. But there was absolutely no evidence to support this theory.
Mary Ashford’s murder would probably have been forgotten, but when another murder occurred in Erdington, her case came back to haunt investigators. The cases bore many similarities, but there was no way they could be connected, as 157 years had passed since Mary’s murder in 1817.
In 1974, Barbara Forrest was raped and strangled and left to die at Pype Hayes Park. The exact location of her body was only 300 yards from where Mary’s body was found all those years ago.
Barbara had disappeared after a night out on the town with her boyfriend. He last saw her at the Colmore Circus bus stop, where she was supposed to take the bus home. But Barbara never made it home. Her body was found more than a week later.
Barbara’s mother, Margarete said:
“She was a wonderful girl. This is the sort of thing you hear of happening but never think it can happen to you.”
More than one hundred law enforcement officers were involved in the investigation. They went door to door in a massive effort to find information. Posters were everywhere, pleading with the public for information. They even staged and filmed a reconstruction with a female police officer dressed in a similar outfit to the one Barbara wore when she was found, getting off the bus in the early hours of the morning and walking home. But it yielded no significant results.
Also, police could not find any witnesses who could place Barbara on the No 67 bus on the night she disappeared. They could not say for certain if she got onto the bus in the first place. Because of this, two theories were constructed: Firstly, that Barbara was abducted from the bus stop at Colmore Circus or that she accepted a ride from someone she knew who then turned out to be her killer. The second theory was that Barbara was taken moments after she got off the bus. It was a 10-minute walk from the Tyburn bus stop to her home, she could have been taken as she was walking. Police had to approach both areas around the bus stops as possible crime scenes.
A witness came forward and said that at the time of Barbara’s disappearance he saw a blue car parked on the road near Pype Hayes Park that seemed out of place. It was the first piece of the puzzle that led them to a suspect. In September 1974, police arrested a 38-year-old child care officer, who was a colleague of Barbara’s at the Children’s Home and lived on Chester Road with his mother. His name was Michael Ian Thornton.
Police found bloodstains on his pants and his alibi for the time of the murder was later proved to be false. It was provided by his mother who had lied to protect her son.
Michael Thornton stood trial for Barbara’s murder in March 1975, but was acquitted. The reason for his acquittal was that the case against him was mainly circumstantial. To this day, Barbara’s murder is unsolved.
The biggest difference between the two cases probably has to do with the discovery of the bodies. Mary’s body was found on the day that she was murdered. However, with a more populated Erdington, that had become a part of Birmingham by 1974, it took more than a week to find Barbara’s body.
There are certainly more similarities than discrepancies in these cases. And the parallels between the murders of Mary Ashford and Barbara Forrest have kept both cases alive somehow. Both women were 20 years old when they were murdered. Looking at a sketch of Mary Ashford and a photo of Barbara Forrest, one cannot deny a strong resemblance between the two: both had fair skins, similar facial features and dark brown hair. And unbelievably, the two victims even shared a birthday.
Some people believe that the probability theory called, The Birthday Paradox or The Birthday Problem, offers an explanation about the similarities between the two incidents. It’s the idea that, if there were 23 people in a room, there is a 50-50 chance that two of them would share the same birthday. In a room with 75 people, there is a 99% chance of two people having the same date of birth. It is not that improbable that two people, living in the same neighbourhood, albeit more than 150 years apart, would have the same birthday. The same counts for the day of a person’s death.
Mary and Barbara went dancing on a Sunday night, the 26th of May, the night before Whit Monday. Whit Monday is a shifting holiday and its date changes every year in relation to Easter. Both Mary and Barbara were killed in the early morning hours of Monday the 27th of May. They were raped and strangled and their bodies were left in the same area, a couple of yards apart.
Shortly before her murder, Mary Ashford said to her friend Hannah’s mom that she had ‘bad feelings about the week to come’. Ten days before her murder, Barbara Forrest also had a premonition that something bad was about to happen to her. She told a friend at work:
“This is going to be my unlucky month. I just know it. Don’t ask me why.”
In both cases, a man with the last name of Thornton was arrested, but later acquitted.
Both Mary and Barbara’s siblings refused to give up, and insisted on retrials. In Mary’s case, William Ashford was the one who pushed for a retrial. In Barbara’s case, it is her sister Erika. In 2012, Barbara’s family urged authorities to have another look at Barbara’s case. If they could look at DNA from the case, perhaps they could solve the case for good. However police said that there were no ‘further forensic opportunities to explore’ in the 40-year-old cold case.
Barbara’s family remembers samples being taken and stored at the time of her death, but they suspect that the evidence has either gone missing, or have become compromised over the years. However, police have not confirmed or deny this suspicion.
Sadly, the uncanny resemblance between the two murders, meant that it became the defining factor for both cases. With all the witnesses and evidence from the Mary Ashford case no longer surviving, chances are, her case will forever be unsolved. However, there should still be a chance to close Barbara Forrest’s murder case.
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