Lovers' Madness: The Ohio Man Who Murdered His Wife Out of 'Mercy'

In Depth
Lovers' Madness: The Ohio Man Who Murdered His Wife Out of 'Mercy'

101 is the age at which David Tilley will be released from jail if he serves out his full prison term in the Hocking Correctional Facility in Nelsonville, Ohio. 18 years is the term of his sentence—fairly light, considering the crime, which is murder.

The picture on the front page of the Athens, Ohio newspaper showed an old man with unwashed hair, pale spotted skin. His eyes were colorless; his hair and beard wild, a color more yellow than white. His mouth hung open. The headline read: Guysville Man Arrested in Wife’s Fatal Shooting.

The first report was brief: A man, 83 at the time, had called the sheriff’s office to tell them his wife had been shot. He would be waiting for them on the porch, he said. In his wheelchair (he had recently had one leg amputated), his hands in the air. He talked with the dispatcher for some time, over 15 minutes, though he never told her who had done the shooting. At one point, he whispered—not to the dispatcher—“I did it for you.”

The woman was named Hope. She had been married to David Tilley for over 20 years. David had shot her in the head while she was sleeping. He said she had asked him to.

The Tilleys had come to southern Ohio to retire. Hope wanted to live on a farm, according to David, and after years of following her husband around for his job, David said it was her choice where they would end up. She chose Guysville.

An unincorporated town of less than two thousand people along the Hocking River, Guysville is long low hills, roads crumbling into gravel. There are quilt stores, collapsing barns, farms—mostly, it’s just farms—a single gas station. Guysville is centered on a crossroads, the lonely intersection of US Route 50 and State Route 329, where the devil might make a deal. The banks rise high and wooded. You can buy land cheap in Guysville. You can see no one for days.

Before retiring in 1993, David Tilley had had a long career in academia, working at several colleges over the years, including Knox College in Illinois. It was at Knox in the 1980s that David met Hope, then a student at the college. There was a 37-year age difference between David and Hope, but they began a relationship. She went on to Yale, to graduate school, and David went with her.

She and David were married in New Haven in 1987. David was 61 at the time; Hope was just 23.

Hope, by then, had already distinguished herself. A member of Phi Beta Kappa in college, graduating summa cum laude, she received the Faculty Scholarship Prize at Knox, an honor bestowed upon a single student who displayed “exceptional ability both in scholastic pursuits and in at least one extracurricular activity.”

But despite her academic gifts, it was sometimes difficult for Hope to focus. Restless and an idealist—spirited to the point of belligerence, according to friends—she was committed to a variety of social justice causes, but she seemed to have trouble seeing a task through to completion.

Her passions were intense, but fleeting. She had a series of jobs: teaching at the college level, tutoring, volunteering. She published with David a newspaper called Sawmill Press (until they ran out of money), operated with David a restaurant (until they ran out of money), owned a pet supply business called Daisy Field Supply (which had multiple complaints filed against it). She went for another master’s degree, this time at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and eventually worked in special education for a nearby school district.

Then she was fired, for reasons that are unclear, though in 2011, David theorized that Hope’s relentless crusading for underserved students “didn’t play well with the authorities.”

Friends of the couple present Hope as vivacious, intelligent, charitable, loving, and bright. Also: intense, distractible, desperate, and hurt. She had so many dreams, ideals, and causes. She also had fears to rival them.

It is not clear when her anxieties began to control her. “All along,” The Athens NEWS reported, which also said her anxieties “increas[ed]” during the marriage, but eventually Hope was afraid of driving. Of eating food. Of swallowing—a phobia called phagophobia, which is symptomatic of a severe anxiety disorder.

Her worst fear was that David would die before her—understandable given David’s illnesses and age—and that she would be unable to care for herself alone, a somewhat reasonable concern given her mounting anxieties.

As he aged, David had had multiple health scares, which had caused him to be hospitalized. Shortly before Hope’s death, he had lost his left leg at the knee due to complications from diabetes. He was losing his hearing. His vision was bad.

Hope had health issues as well, something requiring medication (anxiety?), the cost of which was another of her worries—but David took care of her the best he could; she had done the same for him, after all. He credited Hope with sticking up for him in the hospital and managing his care, “[driving] the doctors crazy,” and, as he said, “she saved my life two or three times, because she forced them to re-think things that weren’t working.” They were a good team.

Folie à deux means madness of two. Means: lovers’ madness. Means: mental illness can be contagious, a psychosis shared; thoughts festering, spreading. In such closeness, we began to talk the same. In such closeness, we began to fear.

The phrase was first coined by French psychiatrists in the 19th century. Early case studies included a couple who believed someone was breaking into their house and wearing down the heels of their shoes; importantly, both members of the couple believed this. Other cases of shared psychosis include sisters, and whole families (one case even included the family dog). Those suffering from folie à deux live together, share delusions, and are usually isolated with little or no contact with other people, no one outside their circle of two.

According to David, the couple moved around the country for his work in academic administration, choosing to settle based on his employment, not hers. It’s not clear, during the many years they were together, that Hope had meaningful work—not consistently, anyway, not as benefitting someone with an Ivy League education and multiple graduate degrees. When they lived in Connecticut, she had taught classes at Quinnipiac College. In Ohio, she volunteered. She worked temporary jobs, but she never seemed to stay anywhere long.

Even Daisy Field Supply, the pet supply business, which, according to Hope’s obituary, she ran for years, was in trouble. Given a C- rating by the Better Business Bureau, there were a dozen complaints about the business, mostly for products that never arrived, dated 2010, the year Hope died.

Her obituary requested, in lieu of flowers, that donations be sent to a dog rescue.

Just a few weeks before her death, a tornado hit southern Ohio.

The funnel ripped the roof off an auto body shop, took shark-sized hunks out of the newspaper building, the very place where, in a few short weeks, phones would buzz with news of Hope’s death; hands would type furious headlines, words like suicide, murder, assisted, mercy—words that, once written, could not be taken back. The Columbus Dispatch reported, “It was the first tornado to touch down in Athens County since May 1980,” and quoted Ryan Fogt, director of the Scalia Lab, a weather science and research lab at Ohio University, as saying: “a tornado in Athens County is quite rare… We don’t have as much training in how to respond.”

The tornado destroyed the high school football stadium. One year and $3 million dollars later, it re-opened, with a winning game against the Dawson-Bryant Hornets of Coal Grove.

Later, David said that the whole thing was Hope’s idea.

She was in pain; she needed him to end it. David said, among Hope’s many fears, was a specific fear of medical professionals, fear of psychotherapy, fear of medication, fear of getting help. David said, “She was definitely afraid of them, and really all medical things.” David said she thought there was no help for her, really, and that the only solution was to finish her life before it became even more unbearable or out of her control. David said she thought she couldn’t end her life herself. David said once he agreed to do it, what he said she wanted, peace settled over her, but, like a spell, it was short-lived: “then it became, every day, ‘Why am I still alive?’ That anger about that,” David said. David said they didn’t plan the date. David said she wanted him to do it without him telling her or warning her. David said, David said, David said.

In September 2010, David put a gun to Hope’s head while she was sleeping.

Hope, before she died, had written things.

Her writings were found scattered in the house after she died, according to The Columbus Dispatch, journals or notes which perhaps give an insight into her state of mind, perhaps asking for the ending David said she wanted. But these writings were never made public.

The picture of Hope printed with her obituary is at least 20 years old. She is thin with bright dark eyes, short brown hair feathered off her face. She wears a beige blazer and a striped navy and white polyester shirt. It looks like a school portrait, maybe a picture of her senior year. The picture has faded to sepia, drained of life and light.

But her eyes look so hopeful, so alive, focused on the distance.

In the only recent picture I could find of Hope, she has long, lank hair. She’s gained weight. She wears men’s clothes: baggy pants, a shapeless shirt, a long yellow duster coat. There’s a strange grin on her face, a hat hiding most of it. She’s holding a raccoon or groundhog—dead—by the tail. There’s a gun tucked into her waist.

In a picture of David, taken after the murder, David is in jail, the left leg of his blue prison uniform flopping out of his spindly, prison-issued wheelchair. The cloth drags empty, his leg long amputated. The pants are too short, rolled up to expose a skinny limb on the right side, falling-down socks and a thick, black orthopedic shoe. His prison-issued glasses are crooked and brown. His hair is shorn, his beard gone. He is not smiling. He has lost weight.

Though the reporter of the 2011 piece that ran with the jailhouse photograph of David would go on to write a benevolent story, sympathetic, David was reluctant to reveal details of Hope. He refused to admit anything personal or specific about her life or their life together or her mental state in the days and months and years leading up to the murder. He had confessed to the murder, he said, because he did not want to have a trial, because he did not want there to be a story. He did not know how much longer he had left to live. He was prepared to spend the remainder, without Hope, in prison. He was prepared to die there. He was donating the little money he had saved to charities both he and Hope had once believed in.

Maybe, now that David is 88, now that he is housed in the medical unit of the prison, maybe it is not right to talk about it again.

Aside from David, no one knows what happened except the dead. Hope’s mother did not want the case discussed in the papers; she called it “see[ing] [her] daughter exploited again”—and she especially did not want David portrayed as merciful “for [doing] something that is really murder.”

A link to David’s jailhouse interview on the newspaper’s public Facebook page had the following, chilling comment: “You should have just left this alone.”

Hope’s mother did not believe Hope was suicidal. But no one knew what to believe. David was religious. He had Bible study with friends, study he brought Hope to.

A 2012 article memorializing the previous year’s crime victims in the county, lists Hope Tilley’s death as “a kind of assisted suicide.” No mention of shared psychosis. No mention of anxiety or illnesses. No thought of “lovers’ madness.”

Or murder.

Because David confessed in closed court and was sent to prison so swiftly, because he will probably die there, we will never know. That label will never be challenged, never tested; a doctor never consulted; David’s friends never interviewed more than they already have been (everyone hesitant); Hope’s writings never produced and read; more pictures of Hope never unearthed; a fuller portrait of her years before David and with David never painted.

But Hope was bright. She was idealistic; she was in love. She was alive. And then she was not. Why? He said mercy. A mercy killing. Was it mercy to allow her to leave the dogs and the hills and the spiraling sky and the mounting years and the nights and the fears? Mercy to leave her alone, as she wanted (did she want it?). Mercy. Is that mercy? Even I believed at the onset that this piece would be about an old man, the “broken” woman he wanted to “save.” But I can’t write that. Not without her.

Alison Stine’s first YA novel SUPERVISION was published by HarperVoyager this month. Also the author of three books of poetry, she lives in the Appalachian foothills.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

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