The citizenry of Pocomoke, Maryland, knew Miss Ella Hearn as a quiet, pleasant young woman. While she may not have been beautiful, she struck observers as refined and ladylike. Her bosom companion, Lillie Duer was the exact opposite; she preferred to dress in men’s clothes, and had “decidedly masculine manners, such as smoking, boxing, climbing trees and jumping posts and fences.”
Women of the period regularly embraced, kissed, held hands and expressed their love, so contact of that sort between Lillie and Ella excited little comment, but then the small town did not know of how often the two women disappeared into the wood alone, or locked themselves behind the Hearn’s parlor doors, away from prying eyes. The girls had been roommates at seminary school, and had become friends. Ella’s parents suspected nothing of the true nature of the relationship; in fact, Mr. Hearn had encouraged Lillie’s visits.
For three or four years, their companionship continued, but both girls were growing into women, and by the time she was 18, Ella was attracting the attention of several young men about town. Lillie’s competitors also appeared in female form, Ella Foster, who shared a name and at least a friendship with Lillie’s beloved. Alarmed by the growing jealousy, Ella called off the relationship, and requested that the daily visits cease. For a time, Lillie complied and busied herself studying medical textbooks, but soon she was back, begging Ella to relent.
Ella agreed and the walks resumed, but things did not smoothly go back to the way they were before. Lillie was suspicious, Ella standoffish. In late October, 1878 the two had a falling out while they were out in the woods, ostensibly picking tea-berries. Ella declared in a huff she was going home; Lillie pleaded with her to wait; Ella refused. Lillie whipped out her pistol, fired two shots in Ella’s general direction, and then broke down crying. Ella snatched the gun from her, asking if Lillie had intended to murder her. “No,” the weeping woman responded, “I only intended to frighten you and make you wait for me.”
Lillie had indeed frightened Ella, and the walks in the woods ceased. As Ella withdrew, Lillie began sending frequent, desperate letters. She proposed marriage, claiming the thing could be done if Lillie disguised herself in men’s clothing. There was no response. On November 4, Lillie sent one of her frequent notes, requesting that Ella pay her a visit. This time Ella came, accompanied by her younger sister. Lillie made what seemed on the surface such a simple request, another walk in the wood,s but Ella made no answer. Lillie fell to her knees, grabbing at the hem of Ella’s dress; “Before God Almighty Ella Hearn, if you do go into the woods with me tomorrow I’ll never ask you to go anywhere else.” Ella left, and Lillie hoped she’d show up the next day.
Ella failed to make an appearance and Lillie went storming to the Hearn house. She found Ella quietly sewing. The two fought, Lillie got up to leave, sat down, got up to leave again, then standing over Ella, grabbed her sewing and threw it to the ground. Lillie started for the door; Ella followed her into the hallway. Lillie, in tears, asked Ella to take it all back and start fresh, and tried to kiss her. Ella shoved her away, knocking Lillie to the ground. Lillie rose, and tried to get her love to listen; but Ella ordered her from the house. Lillie couldn’t understand; did she love one of the men who’d been calling, did she love Ella Foster? “Yes,” came the response.
Lillie stepped back, “Say that again, and I’ll kill you.” The look on Ella’s face made no response necessary; the pistol she habitually carried appeared in her hand. Ella raised her arm to her throat, and started to scream, but the sound of the shot drowned out the cry. The pistol ball grazed Ella’s wrist, then lodging in her upper jaw, smashing her teeth and knocking her to the floor.
The family came running. Someone sent for Dr. Truitt, who pronounced the wound as non-life threatening, but he deemed it wise not to extract the ball. Lillie fled in the commotion, cutting her hair and donning men’s clothes. She turned up in Philadelphia, but second thoughts sent her back to Pocomoke. She even visited Ella. The first time Ella was conscious; she asked Lillie if the shot was intentional. Lillie shook her head no and collapsed onto Ella’s chest, holding her tight. Lillie came again two weeks later. By then the shot, combined with Ella’s nervous disposition, had rendered her delirious. She screamed at the sight of Lillie, and drew the covers over her head.
A week later, Ella was dead. Her father swore out a charge of first degree murder. Lillie’s defense centered on Ella’s nervous disposition hastened her demise, and even Dr. Truitt conceded that the pistol shot hadn’t been the sole cause of death. The jury found Lillie guilty only of manslaughter. The court levied a $500 fine and left it at that. Anonymous friends raised the funds, and Lillie was free. She announced an intention of going on a lecture tour, to take advantage of her momentary celebrity, but there is no indication it happened. A few years later, newspapers reported she’d gotten married, and then Lillie disappearedfrom the record.