Hal Roth - June 2007

Old News from Delmarva:
A Fatal Attraction (Conclusion)
Hal Roth

     In November 1878, after a long and often anxious relationship, Lillie Duer, a decidedly masculine woman in her early twenties, shot Ella Hearn, a beautiful girl of seventeen. Hearn died a month later and Duer was charged with her murder.
      Opening arguments in the trial of Lillie Duer were offered on June 2, 1879, and newspapers around the country reported the details under headlines such as “MISS DUER’S DEED” and “THE TRIAL OF THE GIRL MURDERESS.”
      To the surprise of everyone, the defense announced its intentions to prove that Ella Hearn had died from the effects of chloral, administered by her family, and not from the gunshot wound inflicted by Duer.
      Chloral is a colorless, oily, pungent liquid derived by adding chlorine to ethyl alcohol or acetaldehyde. If you combine chloral with water, the product is chloral hydrate, the first depressant developed (1832) for the specific purpose of inducing sleep and which continues to be legally marketed today in both syrups and capsules.
      C. C. Lloyd, a druggist, testified to the court that according to his recollection and records, five ounces of chloral mixed with forty ounces of water were delivered from his store to the Hearn family between November 18 and December 4.
      Doctors Jones and Tygio described the properties and effects of chloral and concluded that the pistol wound was not the cause of Hearn’s death.
      The amount of chloral bought by members of the Hearn family was ruled out as evidence by Judge Wilson unless it could be proved that it was actually given to the patient.
      Herbert Klug and Littleton Duer, Lillie’s father, told of conversations with Dr. Truitt, in which they claimed the doctor had informed them that the wound in Ella’s mouth had healed and he anticipated no further trouble from it. The doctor also offered, they testified, that Ella had kidney disease and might have a hard time before she got through that illness.
      Calvin Hughes attested that on the afternoon of Hearn’s death, he met Dr. Truitt, who said Miss Hearn would be well in a few days; then at seven o’clock that evening Hughes heard of her death.
      Milnor T. Miller reported that Dr. Truitt told him half an hour after Miss Hearn’s death that he was never so much surprised by anything in his life.
      Dr. Isaac Coster participated in Hearn’s post-mortem examination and described the properties of chloral and the symptoms of death from an overdose. In his cross-examination he said he never thought Miss Hearn died from the effects of the wound––that he could not conceive it to have been the cause of her death.
      Dr. McMaster, who also had a role in the post-mortem examination, substantially supported the testimony of Dr. Coster. He thought the wound might have been a remote but not a direct cause of Hearn’s death.
      The judge then agreed to admit the testimony of druggist Lloyd as valid in showing the quantity of chloral administered to Ella Hearn.
     “It may lead to the acquittal of the prisoner,” one newspaper predicted.
      We continue with several newspaper accounts of the trial.

     Snow Hill, Md., June 4, 1879––In the trial of Lillie Duer for the murder of Ella Hearn at Snow Hill, Md., yesterday, the witnesses examined for the prosecution were James Hearn, the father of the deceased, Mrs. George Truitt and two colored women named Clara Fields and Louisa Bailey. They testified in regard to the scene at Hearn’s house when the shooting took place and also in regard to the ante-mortem declarations of Ella Hearn, that the shooting by Miss Duer was intentional. Mrs. Truitt also testified that Miss Hearn told her of a previous shooting attempt by Miss Duer while the girls were walking together in the woods.

     Snow Hill, Md., June 9, 1879––In the Duer trial at Snow Hill, Md., on Saturday, Matilda Duer, a sister of the prisoner, testified to the intimacy between the latter and Ella Hearn, and to the visits paid by Lillie to Ella during Ella’s last illness. Miss Ella Bohne gave similar testimony, identified the pistol with which Miss Hearn was shot and said that herself and Miss Duer once walked out into the country and shot at a mark with that pistol. The witness frequently visited Ella Hearn during her illness but heard no conversations about death.

     Snow Hill, Md., June 10, 1879––The progress of the trial may be likened to that of a team of oxen jogging its tedious, weary way through the sand––both move sluggishly along, and both sway from side to side. Today the scales are as evenly balanced as they were at the beginning. The shooting, with its preceding and succeeding events, has to a certain extent been concealed in a cloud of dust from the first. So unnatural and unprecedented was the occurrence that a mystery apparently impenetrable gave it a notoriety more than passing. Take from it its veil of mystery, and you rob it of its widespread interest.
      It was not the fact that one young girl had shot another––intentionally or accidentally, as the case may be––but the wild rumors in connection with the affair which were flying hither and thither and were openly denied, yet secretly credited, which awakened so much curiosity—a curiosity as morbid as the sentiment which gave it birth. In mind and body, Miss Duer was looked upon as a sort of monstrosity. In neither the one nor the other is she such. Her mind is the mind of an ordinary woman––perhaps a little more than ordinary but by no means extraordinary. Since childhood she has been allowed her own way. Her parents are simple, honest people, nothing more. Wayward in fancy and fond of books, she has pursued a course of promiscuous reading, letting her imagination run riot with the ideal at the expense of the real. Byron, her favorite author, seems to have exerted the same influence over her that he does over every reader who reads him to satisfy the cravings of a sickly appetite. At night, long after the witching hour, she would sit in her room and pore over her books. Reading taught her to write. A female Byron, she thought, had by some strange freak of nature been born of humble parents in the little town of Pocomoke.
      As a writer she was by no means the genius that she seems to have imagined, but to her neighbors she appeared a prodigy of learning, “For,” said they, “is she not a contributor to a country newspaper?”
      This delusion was heightened by the poor girl herself, who, by aping the eccentricities of others, flattered herself into the belief that she resembled them in other respects. Then, too, she added to the effect thus produced by cultivating an oddity or two of her own invention. To part her hair as Byron parted his did not necessarily prove that the head that graced her shoulders contained as much as the one that graced his, and yet she thought so.
      When she was nineteen years old––she is now twenty-two––she met and began to associate with Ella Hearn. Owing to their native refinement and manners, these two girls were admitted into the best society of Pocomoke City. Their friendship was pretty much the same as that between girls generally, and they seem to have loved each other devotedly until the jealousy created by Miss Hearn’s preference for Miss Ella Foster began to torment Miss Duer.
      The tragedy that terminated Miss Hearn’s life may have been the sudden development of the jealousy. Miss Duer claims that while talking and laughing with Miss Hearn, the pistol, which she held in her hand, trifling with it, unconscious of danger, became entangled with her glove and was accidentally discharged. On the other hand, Mrs. George Truitt testifies that on her dying bed Ella declared that the shooting was intentionally done, the quick expression that passed over Lillie’s face warning her of Miss Duer’s purpose.
      Dr. Truitt, the attending physician, testifies that after the shot had been fired, the two girls left the room together with their arms around each other; and Louisa Hearn relates that when Ella, while lying in her bed, sent for Lillie, the latter went to the bedside and there the two girls remained locked in each other’s embrace until Miss Duer was told to leave the house. Miss Duer says that Ella put her arms around her neck and looked up into her face, saying, “You did not mean to hurt me, did you, Lil?”
      The belief now frequently expressed is that, prompted by jealousy and driven on by laughter and teasing, Miss Duer, in a moment of frenzy, while holding the pistol in her hand, fired. In a moment she saw what she had done and would have given her own life to recall it. Such is the theory of the act, and it is understood to be the object of the prosecution to prove this and claim a verdict of manslaughter. But on the other hand, it is alleged that the pistol was the indirect, and that chloral was the direct cause of death.
      The independence of look and action that characterized Miss Duer during the early part of the trial has disappeared altogether. To see her at recess, leaning heavily on the arm of the sheriff as they walk toward the hotel opposite, is to pity her.
      The poor girl’s spirit, which, she said, if it could stand the shock of Ella’s death, would easily triumph over this, is almost broken. “She is more to be pitied than condemned,” is the language now heard at every corner. As composedly as she stands the ordeal when the eyes of the crowd are on her, the moment her room is reached she is said to give way to tears. One very prominent feature of the trial is that while the men, even those who think her guilty, are lenient with her, the women, one and all, condemn her.

     Snow Hill, Md., June 14, 1879 – Miss Lillie Duer, the prisoner, took the stand and testified substantially as follows: She is 21 years of age and has resided nearly all of her life in Pocomoke City, has known and been intimate with Ella Hearn for four years and walked with her frequently in the woods and in all parts of the city. Upon being shown the pistol with which Miss Hearn was shot, she recognized it as hers. Said she had bought it at Miss Hearn’s suggestion and had it since a year ago Christmas. They were in the habit of using it together in shooting at a mark. She did not have it for two months before the shooting, having lent it to Mr. Corbin.
      On the afternoon when the shooting occurred, the witness had received her pistol and called on Miss Hearn to get her to go for a walk and shoot at a mark. Their mutual feeling was amicable and friendly. Miss Duer related in detail the circumstances of this visit and the whole conversation that occurred. Both were laughing and joking all the time. Miss Hearn could not go to walk but accompanied Lillie to the door when she left. Lillie told Ella she had her pistol, then took it out and said she intended to shoot at a mark that afternoon if they had gone out together. Ella was leaning against the door and Lillie was leaning over the banisters at the foot of the steps, the pistol in her right hand, holding it at half cock with the thumb and turning the chambers with the left hand, looking to see which were charged, as she knew some were not. That moment the hammer slipped and the pistol was discharged. She had not the least intent to fire the pistol; it was purely unintentional. When she heard the report and looked up, she saw Ella’s mouth bleeding. Lillie opened the door, and Ella went into the sitting room. Her mother ran as far as the table and exclaimed: “My God, she is shot,” and ran out the door. Mr. Clark and the neighbors then came. Afterwards, she does not remember sufficiently to tell what took place. She was so much surprised that she was utterly confounded. There was no hostility between her and Ella; they never had a second’s quarrel and only a few spats. The last spat was about six or eight months before. She never had any jealousy or unkind feelings of any sort towards Ella and had never shot at Ella in her life.
      The witness then said she called at Mr. Hearn’s the next morning and offered assistance. On Thursday she was sent for and had an interview about the shooting and also with Ella. Ella put her arms around the witness’s neck and asked her to kiss her. Ella then said, “You did not intend to do it, did you? They told me you intended to kill me dead and would do it again. Would you?”
      Lillie told her: “No.”
      Ella asked Lillie if she did not love her, and Lillie told her she loved her too well to be shooting her.

     Snow Hill, Md., June 18, 1879––The case of Lillie Duer for the alleged murder of Ella Hearn was given the jury tonight.

     Snow Hill, Md., June 19, 1879–The jury in the case of Lillie Duer, charged with the homicide of Ella Hearn, returned a verdict of guilty of murder with a recommendation to the mercy of the court. Judge Wilson informed the jury that the verdict must be formal, and the reply must not be guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.
      The formal answer was made, but before the clerk recorded the verdict, Mr. Crisfield, of counsel for the defense, demanded a poll of the jury. The panel was called and a formal answer was made of “guilty of manslaughter” until the eighth juror was called, when he answered, “Not guilty.” The reply created a sensation. Judge Wilson then said as the jury had not agreed, they would again retire. They did so, and returned in a short time with a verdict of not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.
      In sentencing the prisoner, Judge Wilson said, “Lilian Duer, you have been tried by a jury of true and honest men for one of the most heinous offenses known to the law, and they have found you guilty of manslaughter. In view of the fact that there is no stain upon your previous life, the jury has recommended you to the mercy of the Court, and the Court is glad of it. The law permits imprisonment in the penitentiary or common jail or to a maximum fine of $500. The Court will not sentence you to imprisonment, but, as the offense was of so grave a character, the Court will impose the highest fine that the law provides. The Court, therefore, sentences you to pay a fine of $500 and to stand committed until the fine is paid.”

     Snow Hill, Md., June 20, 1879–The friends of Miss Lillie Duer and others made up and paid the fine of $500 this morning, and she was released and went home with her father.

     Snow Hill, Md., July 2, 1879––Judge E. K. Wilson, who presided at the trial of Lillie Duer, said in conversation on Tuesday that had the defense of monomania been made, the accused would doubtless have been acquitted. Such a plea, he thought, would have been strengthened from the facts developed in the case that she is strangely eccentric and at times under monomaniacal influence.

     But national interest in Lillie Duer’s trial did not immediately end with the verdict.

     The Atlanta Daily Constitution, July 3, 1879––When it is borne in mind that whether she meant to shoot her friend Ella Hearn or not, she certainly did shoot her. Miss Lillie Duer has returned from Snow Hill, Md., where she was tried and convicted of manslaughter, to Pocomoke City, her place of residence, in a jaunty and self-complacent frame of mind. A letter says, “She is at home to most everybody who calls and chats in the most lively and attractive manner.” But worse is to come. Miss Lillie Duer has announced her intention of going on a lecture tour, which she thinks the public interest in her trial will make very successful. Of course she is mistaken. It is not probable that she would make her expenses, much less her fortune, but her entertainment for a moment of the notion shows what a flippant and shallow young woman she must be. Somebody ought to tell her that with no qualification save temporary notoriety, lecturers generally hold forth to a beggarly array of empty benches.

     Bucks County Gazette, July 17, 1879–– It is said that the story contributed to a Philadelphia newspaper by Miss Lillie Duer was taken almost verbatim from a book styled Psychology, etc., a Curious Book for Curious People, published in 1869.

     The Atlanta Daily Constitution, July 26, 1879––An Elmira girl took a loaded pistol and shot a comrade after the fashion of Miss Lillie Duer of Maryland. Her victim is not yet dead, but it might be well for the Elmira girl to prepare for emergencies by getting together $500, which is now looked on as the standard price for killing girls.

     Denton Journal, July 26, 1879–MISS DUER AGAIN––There appeared in the Philadelphia Times of a recent date an article called a love story, purporting to have been written by Miss Lillie Duer, who was recently tried for the murder of Miss Ella Hearn and acquitted. [She was, of course, not acquitted but found guilty of manslaughter.]
      The Snow Hill Messenger states that Miss Duer has never written for or furnished the Times with anything for publication. Several years ago, while yet at school, together with one of her classmates, she wrote off the article alluded to, drawing upon her imagination for a part, but copying the greater portion of the same from the printed leaves of a book called Catherine, simply as a matter of practice in penmanship, rhetoric, etc.––the custom being one followed by her class at that time.
      Shortly afterward, a youth connected with the local paper published in the town in which she resides, while visiting her father’s house one evening, took the manuscript from a pile of papers in her writing desk, and in order to tease her, declared his intention to publish the same. Against her remonstrance he took it away with him, and since that time she has not seen or heard of it until informed that it had been published in the Times, as above stated. Nor has she any knowledge as to how the publishers of the Times obtained possession of it. On the 9th of July, at Miss Duer’s request, the editor of the Messenger wrote to the Times, but he received no reply. It seems singular that the publishers of a great paper like the Times should seek to make capital upon the misfortunes of a poor, defenseless woman. An explanation on the part of publishers of that paper in regard to this matter is alike due to themselves, to Miss Duer and the general public.

     My search of newspapers after that date provided no additional information about the life of Lillie Duer.

     You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com