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Murder!  Were William Avery’s wife and former business partner guilty or innocent?

Like Franklin Avery, his younger brother William was born in Ledyard, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and came west to seek his fortune.  William arrived in Fort Collins in 1881 with his wife Mary and daughter Pearl. By 1890 he was a wealthy and influential businessman. In May of that year, he became ill. Diagnosed with gastritis, a stomach disorder, he died in early June.
Soon afterward, public grief turned to shock when his widow was discovered to have secretly married William’s former business partner 12 days after the death of her husband.  The two were arrested, and according to one newspaper account of the day, “narrowly escaped lynching.”  An investigation began, the body was exhumed and tested, and a dramatic trial began in January of the following year.  
According to two excerpts from the Fort Collins History Connection...
“A sensational, but distressing murder trial took place in 1890.  [Actually, the alleged murder took place in 1890; the trial began in early 1891.]  Franklin Avery's brother, William, died of what originally was thought to be a stomach disorder brought on by natural causes. However, when his wife secretly married again twelve days after William's death, foul play was suspected. It was discovered that William had died of arsenic poisoning.”

“William H. Avery was worth over $100,000. The lovers were acquitted on charges of feeding William enough arsenic which, according to one expert, was enough to kill 50 people. The strongest point in their defense was the fact that the prosecution could not prove that William had not administered the poison to himself...  The lovers were acquitted.”

Other accounts of the scandal were more lurid.  This dramatic report appeared in the May 9, 1891 issue of 'The Deseret Weekly,' published in Salt Lake City, Utah:
“The case in the annals of criminal jurisprudence, will rank with the great trials of the country. It commenced on January 27th, last, and did not end until the 28th of April…
“In 1884 Frank Millington and W. H. Avery entered into a business partnership. Avery was the leading business man of Fort Collins. His wife was a society leader, and an organist in one of the churches. Frank Millington and Mrs. Avery became very intimate, and gossip began to whisper scandalous suggestions.
“In May, 1890, Avery was taken sick.  He died on June 3, 1890. The rumor was soon circulated that Mrs. Avery poisoned her husband. It was ascertained that she was secretly married to Millington at Hastings, Nebraska, twelve days after her husband's death.
“The body was exhumed, the stomach analyzed, but no traces of poison could be found. A second analysis made by experts from Chicago disclosed considerable arsenic in the bones and muscles of the body. A servant girl was found who stated that the goings of Frank Millington and Mrs. Avery were strongly suspicious long before Avery died. The people of Fort Collins took up the matter, and Millington, his sister Dillie and Mrs. Avery were arrested, and narrowly escaped lynching."

>> Read the full article
This report appeared in the Fort Collins Courier, March 12, 1891.  Here the judge presents the case -- and explains why Franklin Avery helped finance high-powered legal help for the prosecution!
"Judge Ballard to the Jury. Opening Statement of Counsel for the People in the Millington Case.

"The interest the people of Larimer county take in the trial of Frank W. Millington, Mary E. Millington and Dillie Millington, charged with causing the death of Wm. H. Avery by poisoning, now in progress in Denver, is our excuse for reproducing, from the Denver News of March 5, Judge Ballard’s masterly presentation of facts in the case, as the prosecution expects to show them by competent testimony.
"This is undoubtedly the most celebrated criminal case ever tried in the courts of Colorado, and its many sensational features make it one of the most famous murder trials ever heard in the courts of this country.
"'Judge Ballard began addressing the jury at 2 p.m., on Wednesday, March 4, and closed his remarks about 11 a.m., the following morning.
“'If it’ please your honor and gentlemen of the jury, it had been intended upon the part of the prosecution that the district attorney would open for the people, but owing to his presence being necessary at the McCartney trial, it devolves upon counsel for the state to make the opening argument and it has fallen upon me to open the case.”
“'Gentlemen, before entering into any statement I wish to say something in the way of disabusing your minds of certain things which have been spread broadcast. It has been represented and it will be represented upon the part of the defense, that the prosecution is a ruthless persecution, and not a prosecution. I wish to disabuse your minds upon this subject. It will be represented by counsel for the defense that this is a persecution gotten up by the relatives of the deceased. The true facts are these: The brother of the dead man has all the affection which you have for your brothers for his brother. He believes that his brother has been foully murdered. Believing so he has not stinted the expenditure of money to secure justice. His sole aim and purpose has been to ascertain whether his brother’s death was a foul murder or was from natural causes.
“'It will be told that he spent money to employ counsel to prosecute this case. He has done so, but I ask you, gentlemen, if you would not do the same thing if it were your brother. Would you do anything less if it were your brother? Much has been said about the employment of private counsel. Gentlemen, the state has a right to be represented by the most learned counsel that could be secured. The commissioners of Larimer county have employed a distinguished gentleman learned in the law, Mr. Luther Laflin Mills. They have employed him, but his compensation does not all come from the commissioners, for Mr. Frank Avery has contributed from his means toward paying this man. Two of the most adroit and learned lawyers west of the Missouri river have been employed by the defense. Do you see anything wrong that the state in order to cope with these two distinguished men have employed private counsel?'"

>> Read the full article


William Avery and Frank Millington were partners for several years before Avery died and Millington was charged with his murder.  This ad appeared in the "Fifth Annual Fair of the Larimer County Fair Association," September, 1888, promoting abstracts, loans, real estate. (Fort Collins Local History Archive H19438)

The late William H. Avery*

Mary Avery (Millington)*

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* Sketches from Fort Collins Courier article, March 12, 1891