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The House on Church Street pt. 1: An Illinois True Crime Story

Standing outside the McNier/McCoole house in a quaint neighborhood in Decatur, Illinois you’d hardly know the turmoil going on inside. William McNier was a popular druggist in town. Ed McCoole was a newcomer who quickly made a good impression. And both their wives were beautiful and well-liked. When the two couples moved into the house on Church Street no one could have predicted that, within three months, one of them would end up dead.

The McNiers

William McNier (early 1900s)

William McNier grew up on his family farm throughout the 1870s and 1880s. (1) But he knew the farm life wasn’t for him and by 1890, he left home for Chicago, where he attended Rush Medical College and studied to be a druggist. (2) After graduating, William opened his first drugstore in Chicago. (3) 

It was while he was working at the drugstore that he met Cora Coon. The couple married in 1892. (4) Not long into their marriage, they relocated to Sadorus, Illinois, where William briefly ran another drugstore. (5)

Just a few months later, they relocated again to Illiopolis, Illinois where, again, William opened a drugstore. (6)

It seemed William had finally found a place to lay down permanent roots where he could have a successful drugstore. The couple quickly settled into their new community. In 1896, Cora gave birth to a son, Cecil. But tragedy struck the couple when Cecil died at just seven months old. (7)

Determined to have a successful drugstore, the McNiers moved again. William had worked out a partnership with another druggist named Edward Horrell. The two agreed to buy a drugstore together in Decatur, Illinois. (8)

The McCooles

Ed McCoole grew up in Conway, Arkansas. In the early 1890s, he and his younger brother, Claude, moved to Illinois in search of work. The two eventually settled in Mansfield, Illinois. (9)

Pyrle (pronounced Pearl) Herriott was born and raised by — her recently widowed mother — in Mahomet, Illinois. (10) Tragedy struck in 1894, when her sister, Fanny, was involved in a runaway horse accident. Her condition was improving for months when in December she took a turn for the worst and died at the age of 27. (11) Then just a few weeks later, with Pyrle still reeling from the sudden loss of her sister, her mother died. (12)

With nowhere else to turn, Pyrle moved in with her sister’s sister-in-law’s family, Harry and Mary Scott in Mansfield, Illinois. 

Pyrle and Ed’s wedding photo (c. 1895)

When Pyrle and Ed met it didn’t take long for them to fall in love. The Scotts, however, didn’t care for Ed. They told Pyrle he wasn’t the type of man who would make a “proper companion.” She vowed never to see him again. But within two months, the two were back together.(13)

In 1895, Ed and Pyrle were married.(14) Shortly after the marriage, the couple moved to Champagne, Illinois.(15)

Again, following his brother Claude, Ed took up a job at the correspondence school in Decatur, Illinois. At the end of 1902, Pyrle and Ed moved to Decatur, Illinois. Ed’s new job found him traveling out of town for most of the week.  He would come home late on Saturday and be back on the road early Monday morning, leaving Pyrle and Ed very little time together.(16)

The House on Church Street

Shortly after moving, Ed’s brother, Claude, introduced him to William. The two became friendly, and the drugstore became his favorite place to hang out when he was in town. It wasn’t long before they were “the best of friends” and Ed had introduced him to Pyrle.(17)

Ed wasn’t the only one making friends in his new town. Pyrle had really hit it off with Beulah Scribner. Beulah and her husband, Leonard, lived on the floor above the McCooles. Beulah kept Pyrle company while Ed was gone so often.(18)

Within a couple of months of meeting, William asked Ed if he and Pyrle wanted to move in with him and Cora. The way William saw it, it would be good for their wives, since Ed was on the road so often and William had to put in so many hours at the drugstore. Their wives could keep each other company.(19) Plus, Cora had mentioned it might be nice to have another woman around the house.(20) Ed thought it was a great idea.(21)

William made arrangements for the couples to move into a two-story house on Church Street. When Pyrle saw the house, she didn’t think it was big enough for two couples to live in. But William was insistent and the couples ultimately moved in on February 14, 1903. 

They were all in agreement that the McCooles would have three rooms upstairs and the McNiers would have the entire downstairs plus one bedroom upstairs.(22)

Not long after, the Scribners moved in around the corner and the three couples developed a special bond. They often spent their nights together playing cards and dancing.(23)

But the fun didn’t last long. Pyrle started spending a lot of time in the McNiers’ part of the house. Cora didn’t say anything about it to anyone, but she wasn’t a fan of Pyrle encroaching on her space.(24) Cora, however, was able to look past this for a couple of months and she, Pyrle and Beulah became very close friends.(25)

It became obvious to Pyrle that William didn’t mind her spending so much time in their part of the house. With Ed out of town most of the time, she was getting attention from William that she wasn’t getting from her husband. It wasn’t long before their relationship grew into something more than friendship.(26)

But they had few opportunities to be alone without arousing suspicion, so they started sneaking letters to each other. These letters can only be described as sappy and over the top romantic filled with declarations of love, promises of spending the rest of their lives together and anguish over not being able to be together.(27)(28)(29)

Pyrle started to find every excuse she could to go to William’s drugstore. Oftentimes she’d recruit Beulah to go with her. With Beulah there, William and Pyrle could laugh, joke and even flirt openly without attracting suspicion.(30) 

But when Pyrle started going back to sit with William at his desk, his business partner, Edward Horrall didn’t like it. He confronted Pyrle about it. When she mentioned it to William, he told her not to worry about it, saying he was the boss at the drugstore and she could go wherever she wanted to.(31)

Stranger on the train

On the way back into town for Easter Sunday, Ed met a man on the train. Ed mentioned he spent a lot of time at William’s drug store. The man then told Ed that he’d heard William was a “foxy fellow and he was foxy with a young married woman” who lived with him. 

Ed was taken aback, but ultimately wrote it off as petty gossip. He knew both William and Pyrle better than to believe there was anything more than friendship going on between them. Determined not to let it ruin his Easter, he cast the whole thing from his mind. 

That evening, the Scribners, McCooles and McNiers shared a meal and played cards at the house on Church Street. Ed hadn’t thought about what the stranger had said. But later in the evening when he went downstairs into the parlor, he saw Pyrle and William with their heads together whispering. Ed couldn’t help but think whatever they were talking about was incredibly intimate. When they noticed him, William leaned back casually in his chair and Pyrle turned white with a look of guilt on her face. Ed said nothing.(32)

“I am your best friend in Decatur and I’m surprised you’d accuse me of anything wrong.”

William McNier

Ed, unable to get the image of Pyrle and William out of his head, couldn’t enjoy the rest of the night. Cora bore the brunt of his frustration. During the card game, he was short-tempered and snapped at her a couple of times.(33) Later, when Cora offered to show him how to dance, he told her he wasn’t feeling well and went upstairs. In his room, he packed his bag with every intention of leaving. 

Later, Ed confronted Pyrle about what he saw in the parlor earlier. She couldn’t believe what he was insinuating and was incredibly offended. She called for the McNier’s and said they wouldn’t believe what Ed had just accused her and William of.

Ed told them about what the man on the train had said and what he had seen in the parlor. William couldn’t believe what he was hearing, saying, “I am your best friend in Decatur and I’m surprised you’d accuse me of anything wrong.” 

Cora also tried to smooth things over by assuring him that if there was anything going on between William and Pyrle, she would know, since she was home more than he was. She told him she hadn’t noticed anything suspicious between the two of them. 

After having slept on it, Ed decided he had overreacted. He trusted both William and Pyrle and knew there was nothing to the rumors. William was glad to hear he had come to his senses, telling him it would be best to forget the whole thing and to not mention it to anyone. He figured if this sort of thing got out — even if it wasn’t true — it would be bad for them saying, “we are neither of us in a position to have any talk going on and it would hurt both of us in business.”(34)(35)

In reality, however, Pyrle and William were still slipping each other passionate love letters and doing everything they could to be close to each other without arousing suspicion.(36)(37)(38)

Declaration of Love

The afternoon after Easter, Pyrle asked Cora if she would allow her to have a five minute, private conversation with William. She told her she couldn’t remember what she and William had been talking about when Ed walked in on them. She thought it might be a good idea to ask William and see if he could remember. Cora didn’t mind. 

Cora went about her business and made some dinner. When she went up to her and William’s bedroom to call him for dinner, she found him lying on the bed with Pyrle sitting on the edge of it, holding his hand. Pyrle said he wasn’t feeling well, and she was trying to comfort him. To that Cora replied, “if he needs his hand held I’ll do the holding.” 

That night, William’s condition continued to worsen, and he stumbled up to his bedroom, where he collapsed. Cora was hesitant to call a doctor because she thought he might be drunk or under the influence of morphine. Cora urged Pyrle to leave so she could take care of her sick husband, but Pyrle seemed anxious and wouldn’t leave him. 

As the night progressed, William became more and more incoherent. Pyrle was attending to him when he threw his arms around her. Within earshot of Cora, William told Pyrle he couldn’t live without her. Cora couldn’t believe what she was hearing. 

The next day, William still wasn’t feeling well. Cora decided he was in no shape to go to work. She left the house to call the drugstore to inform them that William wouldn’t be going to work. 

When she came back into the house, she heard her bedroom door closing. She rushed up the stairs, thinking William had gotten up. But instead, she found Pyrle standing in front of the closed door. Pyrle said she thought she heard him call for someone and wanted to check on him.

When Cora confronted William about what had happened the night before, he said he couldn’t remember anything. Telling her he’d taken some morphine for a heart condition and reacted badly. He wasn’t in his right mind, and if he had declared his love for Pyrle, he didn’t mean it. Cora decided that if he was under the influence, she knew he didn’t mean what he had said and decided to try to cast the episode out of her mind. 

But now she had her doubts. Not about William, but about Pyrle. She started to notice Pyrle’s behavior wasn’t — in her opinion — appropriate for a married woman towards a married man. Jokes she once found funny were actually — in her opinion — quite inappropriate and crude. She noticed how Pyrle always managed to sit next to William during card games and they sometimes danced with each other. All of these things hadn’t bothered her before, but now they didn’t feel quite as innocent as before. William, however, never discouraged this behavior.(39) 

Over the next couple of days, Cora confronted Pyrle about her behavior. To Cora’s face, she insisted that she hadn’t done anything wrong.(40) But privately to William she expressed her doubts, she wasn’t sure if what they were doing was right. They were hurting both Cora and Ed. William assured her they weren’t doing anything wrong. And he even blamed Ed for all the trouble she was having with Cora.(41)

Enter Maxwell the Clairvoyant

Pyrle continued to have her doubts about her relationship with William. To soothe her worries, William wrote to her trying to assure her that what they were doing was right. In fact, she shouldn’t just take his word for it. He gave her money and urged her to go see a clairvoyant by the name of H.L. Maxwell.(42)

Maxwell claimed to be the greatest master of “psychic forces the world has ever known.”(43) 

Pyrle was hesitant; she’d seen fortune tellers once or twice before but didn’t think much of them. William assured her that he “will probably tell you something you want to know,” so she agreed to go.(44)(45)

I want to thank you with all my heart for you giving yourself to me, Pyrle, my own darling […] My darling, we had a fine time last night; you made me so happy.

William McNier

Pyrle went to Maxwell with a fairly closed mind. She wasn’t expecting to hear anything life changing. But when he started talking, she changed her mind. He told her things there was no way he could have known. For example, he knew of the unique way she had spelled her name, knew her husband’s name, profession and what he looked like. He even knew some things about her past. She was especially impressed when he told her that she was having doubts about being with her husband and that there was a new man in her life. He told her this new man was the man she was destined to be with.(46) From that day, she visited him almost daily for two weeks.(47) 

After her first reading, Pyrle’s doubts were eased. She finally let her guard down and agreed to go on a buggy ride with William. This would be the first time the two of them were able to be alone since the couples moved in together.(48) The next day he wrote to her saying, “I want to thank you with all my heart for you giving yourself to me, Pyrle, my own darling […] My darling, we had a fine time last night; you made me so happy.”(49)

Maxwell’s message

Over the next couple weeks, Maxwell had fewer visions, complaining he’d had many challenging clients lately, so wasn’t always able to divine things. But then a very significant vision appeared.

Pyrle had planned a trip to Sullivan, Illinois to meet up with some girlfriends from the area. Maxwell had a severe warning for her about the trip. He told her, under no circumstances should she meet a man while she was there. She was confused. She didn’t have any plans to meet a man. Then she remembered Ed planned to meet her there. She took this as another sign that Maxwell really could see the future. 

Pyrle was having serious doubts about her marriage. She only saw her husband for two days out of the week. She had a man who was giving her the attention her own husband wasn’t and she had fallen in love with him. William had told her on more than one occasion that he was willing to leave his own wife to start a new life with her. Plus, there was also a clairvoyant involved who was telling her she was destined to be with this new man. 

To add to Pyrle’s confusion, William continued to send her love letters the entire time she was in Sullivan. He couldn’t stand to be apart from her and begged her to return home.(50)

By the time Ed showed up in Sullivan, she was seriously reconsidering her life. And he noticed she seemed distant and wasn’t being her usual affectionate self.(51) 

Pyrle wasn’t the only person William was writing letters to. While she was away, he wrote two letters to Maxwell. The letters were short, but urgent. One letter read, in full:

“Dear sir and brother,

For God’s sake send me Pyrle’s letter. You can willingly keep the money I gave you for what you have done for me. But my god, send her letter to me; it contains everything. Please do. I shall never say one word to nobody about anything else.” 

However, Maxwell had skipped town and the letters were never delivered.(52)

When Pyrle returned home, William was waiting for her. He told her that before Maxwell left he had an urgent message for her. He told her Maxwell had divined that Ed was unfaithful to her.(53) 

Before Pyrle had time to come to terms with this information, Cora confronted her about her behavior towards William. Cora unloaded all her grievances she’d been holding in for the last few weeks. She told her she should be ashamed of herself and that she wasn’t acting the way a married woman should toward a married man. Pyrle responded by saying it wasn’t her fault if William preferred her company over Cora’s.(54)

Pyrle wasn’t the only target, Cora unloaded a slew of wrongdoings William had committed throughout their relationship. Some of which William didn’t have trouble owning up to. But when Cora implied that he had [not treated their son well], he put his foot down. He flatly and adamantly denied it. Later he told Pyrle in a letter he said, “I will even not sully my lips in repeating what she said. See how she accused me of acting with our own child, which God knows was dear to me.”(55)

Still has her doubts

Pyrle couldn’t stand the way Cora continued to talk to and about her. She thought it might be best if she and Ed moved out of the house on Church Street. But, she said, if William thought it was best she stayed, she would stay. In a letter written the day after the explosive argument with Cora, he told her it was ultimately her choice.

In that same letter, William answered more questions Pyrle had. Like why he couldn’t just leave Cora so the two of them could be together. She was ready for them to leave their old lives behind and start a new life together. In response, he went into detail about when and how he was planning to leave Cora. The way he saw it, his career wouldn’t be able to handle the scandal of him leaving his wife for another woman. He told her he had to arrange things first. He wanted to save up enough money to give to Cora to tide her over until she was able to find another husband. That — he said — was the honorable thing to do.

He went on to say he had every intention of leaving her the night she accused him of mistreating their infant son. But it was knowing Pyrle was there that kept him from leaving. He went on to beg Pyrle to stay in the house. Telling her it was her “duty to stay and guard” him from leaving Cora before the proper time and ruining his reputation.(56)

Talk of Pyrle’s character

When Ed returned home the next day, Pyrle was waiting for him at the train station. She complained about the way Cora had talked about her the night before. 

Ed wanted to get another side of the story so he went to the drugstore to talk to William. But when he got there William ignored him. He tried several times to get his attention. When he finally did, William confirmed there had been some tension in the house. Cora and Pyrle were arguing and Cora didn’t want to have anything to do with William. William blamed everything on Ed. He figured if it wasn’t for him accusing Pyrle of being with him then none of this would have happened.(57) 

Ed went home and tried to smooth things over with Cora. He told her he was mistaken about what he had seen that Easter Sunday and he’d overreacted. He asked her if she had noticed anything between them while he was away. Cora’s reply was that she would never say or do anything to come between someone else’s marriage. Knowing it was a backhanded comment about her, Pyrle took offense and told her to stop insulting her.(58)(59)

The two women continued to exchange insults. Cora told Pyrle that maybe it was better if she and Ed moved out. Pyrle said she wasn’t going to leave the house for her benefit. Cora, fed up with everything that had been going on, told Pyrle she probably had nowhere to go, anyway. She didn’t have anyone to run to who would take care of her. Cora, on the other hand, could go to her parents in Chicago. Pyrle, assuming this was an obvious slight about her dead parents, was hurt and offended. She told her there wasn’t anywhere in the world that Cora could run to that would protect her. Wherever she went, Pyrle would be there, making her life hell.(60)

Cora had had enough. She went to the Scribner’s house saying she couldn’t stay under the same roof as Pyrle any longer. 

William urged her to come back home and talk it out with the McCooles. He tried to convince her that everything was a misunderstanding. Cora refused to go back to the house on Church Street and instead, the McCooles went to the Scribner’s house. Ed hoped the truth would come out once and for all.(61)(62)(63)

To be continued

What do you think will happen when the couples confront each other? Let us know what your predictions are in the comments! Then hop over to part two to read the thrilling conclusion!

Read the letters

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