Lillian Mae Boyles, who works for a chicken farmer near this Eastern Shore town, has become the first woman in Maryland to seek court-ordered support and property from a man with whom she lived but never married.
It is neither furs nor riches that the gray-haired, grandmotherly woman is seeking, but rather a pickup truck, a tractor, at least one car and a modest list of household items.
That may be chicken feed compared to the $1 million lawsuit that Michelle Triola Marvin filed against actor-roommate Lee Marvin, but in Boyles' eyes it is no less important.
"Didn't take no guts to do what I did," Boyles said, standing in the doorway of her small cottage, a paring knife in one hand and a raw onion in the other.
"After living with the man for 36 years and what he did to me, I weren't gonna take it no longer."
So last year, she hired a Cambridge, Md., lawyer and went to court to force farmer John Boyles Sr. -- with whom she had reared a son -- to live up to what she said was his promise to "provide her with a living as though married."
Circuit Judge Clayton C. Carter recently ruled against her request for living expenses, but left open the possibility of a property settlement.
Lawyers agree that the demand by Lillian Mae Boyles, who now works as a housecleaner, for "palimony" is destined to wind up in the appellate courts or the legislature before the matter is settled.
Feminist chic Lillian Mae Boyles is not.
She was born a Sedgwick, and her relatives with that name still live outside the tiny town of Cordova several miles from here, in a cluster of tar paper-shingled homes.
In 1942, she was pregnant when the promises were allegedly made and she moved in with John Boyles, according to his attorney. A marriage license was obtained from Talbot County, but the two never tied the knot.
However, Lillian Boyles alleged, John asked her to live with him "as his wife," and she accepted, performing over the years housewifely chores and contributing money she earned outside the home to family expenses and "personal assets including automobiles, household furnishings, cash, agricultural equipment, agricultural products and real estate."
In those days, when cohabitation was frowned upon and before the women's movement became fashionable, she readily took John's last name, they named their son after him, bought the farm in 1961 and acquired a small adjoining parcel 10 years later.
In 1978, however, she was forced to leave him, she said in court papers, because of "his drunken, vicious and brutal conduct." At that time, she said, John told her she would have to pay her own way from then on.
John Boyles declined comment, on the advice of his lawyer, after telling a Baltimore newspaper Lillian Boyles' allegations were "a bunch of damned lies."
The judge, in a scholarly 14-page opinion, declined to characterize the charges but concluded, "Lillian received everything she bargained for as long as she lived with John as his wife."
Common-law marriages that take place in states where they are legal are recognized by Maryland. Those that originate in Maryland are not, the judge wrote. "Therefore, Lillian is not entitled to support and maintenance or alimony, which are incidents of marriage."
Nor are "lump sum benefits to jilted mistresses" appropriate, Carter ruled. Courts from California to New Jersey have ordered such payments, but, he said, that amounted to "judicial policy-making" better left to the lawmakers.
In the midst of publicity over the Marvin case, the judge said, Maryland passed a law giving courts new powers to divide property in divorces and annulments but "nowhere" granting authority to make such judgments "in the case of unmarried couples."
Since John and Lillian Boyles held joint title to the vehicles and the land, however, Carter said that this property at least could be sold and the proceeds divided between them.
The judge, according to the head of the Maryland Bar Association's family and juvenile law section, was merely "reiterating the policy of the state since time immemorial."
"He feels any change must be by the legislature," said lawyer Daniel F. Thomas. "I don't feel the legislature will be so inclined. Basically, you're asking them to come out in favor of living in sin, which is not politically wise."
Beverly Ann Groner, a Bethesda family law specialist who heads the Maryland Governor's Commission on Domestic Relations Laws, said she plans "at some point" to invite the Eastern Shore judge to meet with the panel to discuss the problem, "but the commission is very preoccupied right now with divorce reform."
When time allows, she said, "I think we will take a very serious look at the subject. There is not a large body of case law yet. It's a developing area."
Far away from the erudite legal thinkers and the women's movement strategists, Lillian Mae Boyles' relatives pondered the turn of events recently in their homes in Cordova. Nowadays, they don't see too much of Lillian Mae, they said.
All these years, I thought she was married," said a sister-in-law. "Me too," said a niece. "She said she was."