Looking at the evidence of the two Erdington murders, a detective might easily conclude he was looking for just one killer. Both victims were young women, just 20 years old. Both women spent their last night dancing. Both women were killed on the same day of the year, May 27. Both bodies were found in the same spot. And, most telling, the prime suspect in both cases was a man named Thornton.
The only problem: The two murders occurred 157 years apart. Adding to this eerie coincidence, both Thorntons were acquitted, and so both murders remain still unsolved.
On May 27, 1974, the body of Barbara Forrest, a nurse at a children’s home, was found in a ditch on the edge of Pype Hayes Park in Erdington, a ward of Birmingham, England. She had been raped and strangled. Suspicion fell on one of her coworkers, Michael Ian Thornton, who lived nearby. Blood was found on his pants and his alibi for the night Barbara disappeared turned out to be false. But this was a decade before DNA was used as evidence. The case against Thornton was entirely circumstantial, and he was acquitted.
Though tragic, this story would never have attracted so much attention if it weren’t for the fact that it was an almost identical repeat of another murder that happened in the same place 157 years earlier.
On May 27, 1817, the body of Mary Ashford was found in a muddy pool in what would later be Pype Hayes Park. There were footsteps belonging to a man in the mud. Mary’s arms were bruised and authorities suspected she had been raped before she was killed. Like Barbara, Mary had spent her last night dancing. Among the men she was seen dancing with was Abraham Thornton, who was arrested.
Thornton admitted to having sex with Ashford after the dance, but insisted it was consensual and that he did not kill her. It was determined that Ashford died of drowning.
Popular opinion was strongly against Thornton at the trial but, as in the case 157 years later, there was no direct physical evidence and Ashford was acquitted of both murder and rape.
Ashford’s brother demanded a new trial, convinced that Thorton was guilty. Thanks to the old style of law at the time, his request was granted. But Thornton pulled out an even older bit of law, dating back to the Middle Ages. He demanded a trial by battle. At that time, the law was still on the books and, amazingly, the judge allowed it. If Thornton lost the battle he would be hanged, but if he won he would be acquitted. Ashford’s brother declined the battle, and once again Thornton went free.
Despite being cleared of blame, public opinion remained heavily against Thornton. Eventually, after quite some time of intense ostracization, Thornton fled to America to begin a new life.
The strange similarities between the Erdington murders continue to haunt locals to this day. Many who believe that the connection between the cases is more than coincidence will cite the two victims’ words just before their slaying. Mary Ashford told a friend’s mother that she had some “bad feelings about the week to come”; Barbara Forest told a coworker she believed “This is going to be my unlucky month. I just know it.” The girls’ predictions would both come eerily true within days.
Featured photo of Barbara Forrest via Birmingham Mail and Illustration of Mary Ashford via Find a Grave