Lydia Atley was born into a sad life, which makes her sad death tragically unsurprising. She was born in the small and largely impoverished English village of Ringstead around 1826. Her father, a miller, disappeared from her life early on, whether from death or desertion is not clear. Her mother was a pauper, meaning that from a very young age, Lydia and her sister were forced to scrape together a bare living any way they could. Lydia made simple lace, and did whatever errands and odd-jobs she could find in the village. It all kept her alive, but did little else.
Nature did not give the girl any additional advantages. Contemporary accounts bluntly describe Lydia as exceptionally plain, slow-witted, and easily led. (This last characteristic was believed to explain how she came to have an illegitimate child of unknown paternity, who was placed in the local workhouse.) However, for all her difficulties, she was a good-natured girl who seems to have inspired a certain protective fondness from many of her peers.
Unfortunately for Lydia, she brought out much uglier qualities in the local butcher, William Weekly Ball. Despite the fact that he had a wife, in 1850 he was conducting a open liaison with Atley—so open, that it was no secret that in the summer of that year she was about to give birth to his child. Ball was, for Ringstead, fairly wealthy, and although he could not marry Atley, she expected him to at least provide financial support for the upcoming child. She told her brother-in-law, Joseph Groom, that if Ball did not give her money, “there would be a row.”
It was to arrange this aid that she met with Ball in his orchard on the evening of July 22, 1850—and there was indeed a row, although it was not like anything the poor woman could have anticipated. Groom, who was near the orchard at the time, later testified to overhearing a fierce argument between the two, culminating with Atley crying, “Get off me for I believe you mean killing me tonight, Weekly Ball. The lord have mercy on me, if I am going to die in the state that I am in.” He then heard an odd screaming sound.
Whether Groom was miserably cowardly, incredibly callous, or simply an idiot is unrecorded, but for whatever reason, he ignored what he had heard. Another neighbor also heard the sounds of Atley and Ball fighting, with Lydia insisting that her upcoming child was Ball’s, and she would see to it that he would take responsibility. This witness, like Groom, said nothing about it until much, much later. Clearly, the residents of Ringstead were overly anxious to disprove the stereotype of “nosy villagers.”
This was the last anyone knew of Lydia Atley. Her disappearance was a perplexing mystery, for at this point, Groom and the other neighbor were still keeping what they had heard to themselves. The local police made some attempts to investigate, and hand-bills were circulated asking for information about her, but these efforts proved futile. A local resident then received a letter from her son saying that he had just seen Atley in Northampton, and this was enough to make the authorities shrug and forget the matter.
The citizens of Ringstead were not nearly so easily convinced there was no foul play afoot. We know little about Ball’s reputation before Atley vanished, but local opinion had no difficulty in assuming the very worst about her fate, even though diligent searches failed to uncover her body. There was even a ballad, “The Cruel Butcher of Ringstead,” which became a local sensation:
“About that time we all do know
Up to the Black Horse that man did go
And for to have a glass of ale
And there he told a dreadful tale
A cruel Butcher he hung should be
For killing of Lydia Atlee…”
Admittedly, the lyrics weren’t exactly Cole Porter, but they had their effect. In 1851, Ball wisely packed his bags and moved to the village of Ramsey. Atley’s disappearance was never forgotten in Ringstead, but as the years went on, it naturally faded into the background.
It was not until fourteen years went by that the missing woman was brought back to everyone’s attention. On February 4th, 1864, a local man was cleaning a dike. As he was digging, his spade hit something hard about two feet from the surface. It proved to be a human skeleton. Examination established that it was of a female, who had been buried for some years. The skull had a missing tooth.
The citizens of Ringstead had been convinced from the start that Ball murdered Atley, and they felt they now finally had the means to prove it. They were quickly able to convince magistrates to issue a warrant for Ball’s arrest, and he was put on trial. There was a parade of witnesses with fourteen-year old memories. Groom and the other neighbors who heard the fight between Atley and Ball finally revealed their information. Another brother-in-law of Atley’s stated that, about two weeks before she disappeared, he had extracted one of her teeth—in the same place, he believed, where this skeleton was lacking a tooth. The man who had written the letter claiming he had seen Atley in Northampton now admitted that Ball himself had persuaded him to write it.
The public was convinced that poor ill-used Lydia Atley would finally get some justice. And then, something unexpected happened that pulled the rug out from this seemingly air-tight case. In the spot where the skeleton had been discovered, another set of bones was unearthed. And then, in the very same place, another skeleton was found. And yet another.
This sudden superfluity of skeletons doomed the prosecution. The case against Ball was withdrawn, and he triumphantly left the courthouse a free man, if not exactly one without a stain on his character. He returned to Ramsey, where he seems to have been considerably more popular than in Ringstead, and led a quiet and prosperous life until his death in 1896.
Lydia Atley’s fate remains a mystery. Was Ball, as many people believed, a murderer, or did the unhappy woman commit suicide when she realized her lover refused to help her? In either case, where is her body? If Ball did kill her, how could he have disposed of her remains so quickly and thoroughly? Who were all those skeletons that were discovered in 1864? Was Lydia's among them?
Unsurprisingly, Atley’s spirit was believed to be a restless one. Local legend describes her haunting the village for many years later. The more colorful accounts state that she would appear in front of amorous couples hoping to make a trysting-place of the area where she was last seen, as a way of warning other women not to follow her “immoral” example.