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Ashburton Murder

Ashburton Murder

It becomes very apparent that in a lot of the murders committed on Dartmoor there is the recurring association with a town fair. Obviously the occasion would merit the gathering of people and the consumption of alcohol which both could be the precursors to violent actions. It would also appear that a great many of the people attracted to such occasions were travelling itinerants and rogues on the look-out for some easy coin.  An occurrence on the 11th of August 1843 once again demonstrates the above theory, it happened in the moorland town of Ashburton and comes from a newspaper extract of the time:

This town has been thrown into the greatest consternation by the discovery, on Friday last, of a most horrid murder. About 1 o’clock in the afternoon of Friday, as a boy was picking ferns in a field near the Denbury or Broadhempston road, about a quarter of a mile from the town, he saw the clothes of a woman under some broil or hedge cuttings, with a basket on the top of it. He immediately ran into the town to get someone to go and see what it was, and having got two men, named Harris and Morrish, they went to the field, and found it was a woman, who had been killed and covered with two faggots of broil. The body was in the hedge drain at the corner of the field. Being the only persons on the spot they did not remove anything, but informed the authorities of it. The overseer and Mr Hele, a medical gentleman, with a great number of people, proceeded to the spot, and, on removing the broil and basket, a shocking sight presented itself. The body of a woman was lying on its face, the bonnet being off. The head appeared in a dreadful state, a great quantity of blood entangling the cap and hair. She was quite dead and stiff, and on taking her out of the drain a thrill of horror ran through the people present, about 25 or 30, who had arrived first on the place. On examining her the head was found terribly mutilated, and a large wound on the right side of the head above the ear; another on the forehead fracturing the skull, and a heavy blow near the left ear. The eyes were swollen close with blows, and the face was otherwise shockingly mutilated. Her right hand and arm were dreadfully bruised, and the hands clenched, as if defending herself from her assailant. A man named Harding immediately recognised her as being Rebecca Tooley of Totnes, who was here on the fair-day, Thursday the 10th inst.

The body was taken to the Old Bottle Inn-house, Lawrence Lane, where the surgeons examined it, and found, in addition to the above dreadful wounds, that the whole of the ribs on the left side were broken in, as if she had been jumped on by a heavy person; altogether a more savage murder was never heard of. The deceased was of small stature, and attended fairs, selling nuts, &c. Her basket contained her nut bag, but no nuts. Her bonnet was under her, and a large quantity of blood was under her face. An inquiry was opened in the evening at the London Inn by J. Caunter, a magistrate, in the absence of the coroner, and a great deal of evidence was procured as to who she was and where seen last.

On Saturday, Mr J. Gribble, coroner opened the inquest at the London Inn, before a respectable jury, Mr T. White, Pear-tree house, foreman. The inquiry was adjourned to Monday, and as yet nothing more than the most vague suspicion as to the perpetrators of this horrid deed had transpired. She was seen with horse-jockeys in the evening at the end of town; but it would be premature to state anything further, until the investigation has closed, which does not appear at present likely to be for some days. This melancholy event has thrown this town and neighbourhood into great confusion, every person seeming anxious that the diabolical villains may be speedily recovered.

On Monday the 4th of December the following newspaper report was printed:

A report was circulated in this city (Exeter) on Wednesday, that a convict under sentence of transportation had offered, on condition of being assured of a free-pardon, to give information respecting the perpetrators of the late cruel murder at Ashburton… It will be remembered that a man named Stone was sentenced to transportation at the July sessions for stealing a watch. He was of notoriously bad character, and had long been under the eye of the police before he was apprehended. It is said there is evidence to show that he was in Ashburton on the day when the murder was committed – both by his own confession to an Exeter policeman, and from testimony of persons who observed him there; that he was seen to walk up a lane with a woman, on the evening before the murder, towards the spot where the body was found; that he was afterwards met on the road from Ashburton to Exeter by Petherbridge, the carrier, and that he returned with him as far as Buckfastleigh; that he asked a bystander in a stable at this place  whether there was any blood on his clothes, as he had been carrying part of a carcass; and that he there cleaned off, with some straw, what appeared to be blood from part of his dress. At Buckfastleigh he is said to have left the carrier, with whom he went that far, and entered a cart in which were some women, one of whom had been in custody on suspicion, at the time of Mr Bennett’s murder in Exeter. These facts have been communicated to the proper authorities, and they have corresponded with the Secretary of State, who promises that Stone shall be sent back to Devonshire, if a case should be made out. Mrs Meringo’s daughter-in-law and a man from Kennford are also in custody on suspicion of being concerned in the murder, and the police are on the look out for an Exeter man, who, if taken into custody, will make four supposed to be concerned in the transaction.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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