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The Murders Written in Stone

The Ardwell House East Lodge sits right on the edge of A716 that runs along the east coast of the Rhins of Galloway, in southern Scotland. Located on the grounds of the 18th Century Ardwell House and Garden, this tiny cottage with great views across Luce Bay is billed by developers as “the perfect romantic getaway for couples”, and it is, until you wander around the woods surrounding the lodge and come face-to-face with an old weathered rock with a single word chiseled across its face—MURDER.

murder stone

A murder stone at St Catwgs, Cadoxton, Wales. Photo: waymarking.com

This rock is a memorial and one of handful of “murder stones” erected across the UK during the 1800s to mark spots where violent crimes were committed. Often these were crimes that shocked the community. The stones served to commemorate the life of the victim as well as warn would-be-criminals of the consequences of committing such ghastly acts.

The murder of the Laird of Castle Clanyard during the mid-16th century must have been gruesome, because whoever erected this murder stone at Ardwell, three centuries later, believed that the single-worded inscription would serve enough as a memorial to this infamous killing. Other murder stones are more verbal.

One murder stone in the cemetery at St Catwg's church in Cadoxton, Neath, carries a description of the crime followed by a curse:

1823
To record MURDER

This stone was erected over the body of Margaret Williams aged 26, a native of Carmarthenshire living in service in this parish who who was found dead with marks of violence on her person in a ditch on the marsh below this churchyard on the morning of Sunday the fourteenth of July, 1822.

Although the savage murderer escaped for a season the detection of man yet God hath set his mark upon him either for time or eternity, and the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible righteous judgement.

murder stone

The murder stone of Miss Margaret Williams. Photo: Ian Rees/Flickr

Newspaper accounts of the time report that Miss Williams was working as a servant for a local tenant farmer when she was impregnated by the farmer’s son, as Miss Williams claimed. Ten weeks after she had revealed the name of the father, Miss Williams was found strangled and drowned in the marshes near the town. The finger of guilt naturally pointed towards the farmer’s son, but because there was no strong evidence or eye witness tying him to the crime, the suspect was released.

The community was outraged at the verdict but there was little they could do. A year after the death, a murder stone was erected over her grave. The epitaph was composed by a local Quaker and well-known orator.

The murder stone in Cadoxton is the only one in Wales. Likewise, the murder stone in Ardwell is the only one in Scotland. But there are plenty of them in England.

The murder of Bessie Shepherd by Charles Rotherham is another well known story in Nottinghamshire that’s remembered with a murder stone.

On 7 July 1817, Elizabeth “Bessie” Sheppard, a seventeen-year old girl, was returning home in Papplewick from Mansfield, where she had gone to apply for a job, when she was attacked by Charles Rotherham, a 30-something Napoleonic War veteran from Sheffield. Rotherham beat her to death, stole her shoes and umbrella, and threw her body in a ditch, where quarryman discovered it the next day. Rotherham had sold Bessie's shoes and was on his way to Loughborough when he was arrested. He confessed to the crime and even showed the constable the hedge stake he had used to kill Bessie.

Rotherham was hung for his crime, while the local people banded together to raise money for a memorial stone, which was placed on the site where she was attacked.

murder stone

The Murder Stone of Elizabeth Sheppard. Photo: Chris Daley/Flickr

While most murder stones are erected in outrage of the crime and in memory of the victim, there is one in Warwickshire that attempts to put the blame on the victim for having "incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement, without proper protection."

The story behind Mary Ashford's death and trial has significance in Britain’s legal history as well.

Mary Ashford, a 20-year-old housekeeper, had gone to a dance in Erdington, Birmingham, with her friend Hannah Cox, whom she planned to stay with the night before returning to her place of work in a neighboring village. At the dance, she met Abraham Thornton and the two were seen having spent time together. In order to lose her friend so that she could spent more time with Thornton, Mary told Hannah that she would spend the night at her grandparents' home, and Thornton and Mary went off together after the dance. Mary returned to Hannah's house at 4 in the morning, changed her dancing clothes and set out for home. Two hours later, she was found drowned in a water-filled pit on the fields. Examination showed that Mary was raped.

Thornton was arrested and tried, but several witnesses placed him at another location at the time of Mary’s death, and he was acquitted. But the story doesn’t end there.

Mary Ashford and Abraham Thornton.

Mary Ashford and Abraham Thornton.

Mary's brother William Ashford brought an “appeal for murder” against Thornton. Thornton was rearrested and brought to trial a second time. It was then Thornton played his trump card. Thornton claimed the right to trial by combat, an archaic law that had never been repealed by Parliament. Under this law, the two parties met and dueled until death. Ashford, who was frail and smaller than Thornton, declined the battle and Thornton was acquitted.

The Ashford v. Thornton case drew considerable attention, and a few years later, both the Wager of Battle, and the Appeal of Murder were removed from English law. The murder of Mary Ashford was also an opportunity for moralists to warn young women against certain behavior. Her stone is a chilling example of the sorry culture of victim blaming.

As a warning to Female Virtue, and a humble Monument to Female Chastity: this Stone marks the Grave of MARY ASHFORD, who, in the twentieth year of her age, having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement, without proper protection, was brutally violated and murdered on the 27th of May, 1817.

Worth mentioning is the murder stone of Nicholas Carter, a 55-year-old farmer from Bedale, Yorkshire, who was killed by a farm laborer as he rode home from market. The killer was apprehended, and he became the last man to be hanged at York. A murder stone was laid at the murder site in Akebar, with a very simple message inscribed along with the date of his death, May 19, 1826. It reads—”DO NO MURDER”.

Unfortunately, the stone was destroyed in January 2018 when a car crashed into it.

murder stone

Penrice Murder Stone, Penrice Churchyard. Photo: Explore-Gower/Flickr

murder stone

The murder stone of William Wood, of Eyam, Derbyshire. William was murdered by three men who robbed him of £100 in 1823. Photo: karl sinfield/Flickr

References:
# BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-45651931
# Canmore, https://canmore.org.uk/site/61109/ardwell-the-murder-stone
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashford_v_Thornton
# University of Birmingham, https://blog.bham.ac.uk/legalherstory/2018/03/10/the-murder-of-mary-ashford-how-the-case-of-ashford-v-thornton-protected-the-strong-over-weak-and-silenced-female-voices/ 
# The Northern Echo, https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/15892977.historic-murder-stone-monument-bedale-leyburn-demolished-crash/

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