Saturday, June 8, 2024

The Pokomoke Tragedy.

Ella Hearn.
Ella Hearn and Lilly Duer were two young women living in Pokomoke City, Maryland, in 1878. Accounts differ as to their exact ages, but both girls were around 19. Both were from socially prominent families and had recently graduated with honors from an academy where they lived as roommates.

Both Ella and Lilly were considered beautiful but were opposites in nature. Ella was quiet and retiring with a delicate build and ladylike manners, while Lilly was described as “a madcap, independent sort of girl, and exceedingly eccentric.” Lilly wore her hair short and, on hunting expeditions, would dress in male attire.  She enjoyed target shooting and had pockets sewn into her dresses to carry a small revolver unobserved.

As roommates, Ella and Lilly became quite intimate. In 1878, the word “lesbian” was not in common parlance, so the newspapers used elaborate explanations to describe their relationship. The New York Herald said, “The freaks of human nature which give us womanly men and manly women are among the most curious and occult because it often happens that there is little or no exterior guide to the psychic anomaly.”   

Lilly Duer.

By that November, however, Ella was far less committed to the relationship and was growing tired of Lilly’s possessive jealousy. The turning point of their relationship occurred that October when the girls took a walk in the woods to pick berries. They had gotten separated, and Ella was walking ahead. Lilly called out, asking her to stop. When Ella did not heed her, Lilly pulled out her pistol and fired three shots, narrowly missing Ella. As Lilly ran up behind her, Ella turned, knocking the pistol from her hand. 

“Did you intend to shoot me?” Ella said.

“I only intended to frighten you and make you stop,” Lilly replied.

Ella said she would never go into the woods with her again, and the relationship effectively ended.

In Lilly’s mind, the relationship was far from over. On November 4, she sent Ella a message asking her to come over that evening. Ella went, accompanied by her younger sister. Lilly tried to persuade her to go into the woods with her the next day. Ella refused.

“Before Almighty God, Ella Hearn,” said Lilly, “if you don’t go into the woods with me tomorrow, I’ll never ask you to go anywhere else.”

The next day, Lilly went to Ella’s house. She attempted to kiss her, but Ella pushed her away and started laughing. She told Lilly to go home and leave her alone. 

Lilly asked her if she loved Ella Foster, another of their schoolmates. 

She replied, “Yes.”

“Repeat that, and I’ll kill you,” said Lilly.

A moment later, a neighbor passing the house heard a pistol shot followed by a woman’s scream. He ran inside to find Ella Hearn lying on the floor with her hands clasped over her mouth to stop the bleeding. Standing over her, holding the still-smoking pistol, was Lilly Duer. Lilly asked him to run for a doctor, then she began to weep bitterly.

As Ella’s father began legal proceedings, Lilly left town. She cropped her hair, borrowed one of her brother’s suits, and, disguised as a man, took a train to Baltimore.

Ella was bedridden and treated by a physician. The bullet had gone through her lip, broken a tooth, and lodged somewhere in her head. As she slipped in and out of consciousness, she sometimes accused Lilly of shooting her intentionally. Once, she sat up in bed and, glancing wildly about her, exclaimed, “Don’t, Lilly, please don’t; I’ll marry you.”

Other times, she would speak kindly of Lilly and even requested that she be brought to see her. Lilly, who had returned from Baltimore, did call but had no sooner reached the bedside when she was promptly ordered away by the wounded girl.

Ella held on to life for a month, then died on December 5. Lilly was indicted for first-degree murder. She was released on $2,500 bail pending her trial.

Lilly told police that the shooting had been accidental. She said, “I had the pistol in my hand after giving up the attempt to kiss her and was looking at the cartridges, counting them, when the pistol went off.   I am not a murderess.”

When her trial began in Snow Hill, Maryland, on May 29, 1879, Lilly was housed in the National Hotel across the street from the courthouse. She was in the custody of the sheriff, who believed that jail was no fit place for any young woman.

Lilly would not let her attorneys plead insanity, so they argued that the shot had been entirely accidental. They also raised the possibility that the shot had not been fatal, but Ella’s death was due to chloral administered by a physician.

The people of Maryland had been evenly divided as to Lilly’s guilt, but as the trial progressed, sympathy turned in her favor. When the verdict was read on June 19, Lilly was found guilty of manslaughter. She was fined $500, but keeping with the sentiment that jail was no place for a young woman, she was given no prison sentence.

“A Beautiful Girl Kills Another,” READING DAILY EAGLE, December 10, 1878.
“The Hearn-Duer Mystery,” Morning Herald., December 13, 1878.
“Lillie Duer Fined $500 for Shooting Ella Hearn,” EVENING STAR., June 20, 1879.
“Lilly Duer's Passion,” New York Herald, December 13, 1878.
“Miss Duer Indicted for Murder in the First Degree,” The Sun, May 22, 1879.
“Miss Duer Indicted for Murder in the First Degree,” Smyrna Times. [volume], May 28, 1879.
“Miss Lillia Duer's Trial,” Sun, May 28, 1879.
“My Maryland,” Morning Herald., December 18, 1878.
“News Article,” Smyrna Times. [volume], November 13, 1878.
“The Peril of Playing with a Pistol,” daily dispatch., November 13, 1878.
“Pocomoke's Tragedy,” New York Herald, May 28, 1879.
“The Pokomoke Mystery,” Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 28, 1879.
“A Remarkable Eastern Shore Case,” DAILY TRUE AMERICAN., May 22, 1879.
“Remarkable Tragedy,” daily gazette., December 13, 1878.
“Sensational Shooting,” Cincinnati Commercial, December 8, 1878.
“A Shooting Case,” daily gazette., December 9, 1878.
“A Tom-Boy's Terrible Love,” READING DAILY EAGLE., May 26, 1879.
“Was Miss Hearn Killed With Chloral! ,” New-York Tribune., June 10, 1879.
“Women Who Love Women,” Sunday Mercury, June 1, 1879.


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