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Doctor Reilly is Jailed

3/4/2004:

About this time in 1911, the town of Milton and the surrounding communities were reeling from a series of events that led to the murder trial of one of the town’s most highly regarded citizens, Dr. J. J. Reilly. It started on February 23rd with the unexpected death of 22 year-old Mrs. Will Drury, who had married just 7 weeks before.

Cavalier County knew her as Lilly Sweet, a well-liked schoolteacher who had spent much of her youth in the area. She was in Milton visiting friends when she became violently ill. She died the next day before her husband could get there from Langdon. The cause of death was given as blood poisoning.

Because Lilly’s death was so unusual, County Coroner Gibson was called in. The next day, the coroner’s jury heard the results of the autopsy and returned a verdict that Lilly had died of complications from an abortion; Dr. Reilly was promptly arrested for second-degree murder.

At Dr. Reilly’s preliminary hearing, townspeople got another jolt. Reilly’s main witness, a 23 year-old nurse named Nellie Gande (Gandy), was arrested for manslaughter after she testified. Gande, in addition to being a nurse, was also a teacher who had accompanied Lilly from Langdon to Milton. While Lilly was under Dr. Reilly’s care, Nellie served as her nurse.

In July, Dr. Reilly’s trial started off with a mis-step when his attorney objected that the coroner – who was bringing the murder charge against Reilly – had participated in soliciting a jury panel. The judge sustained and directed the county sheriff to find a new panel of jurors. The defense attorney pointed out that the sheriff was William Drury senior, Lilly Drury’s father-in-law, so the deputy sheriff was given the job of finding a new panel from which to choose jurors.

Medical witnesses stated that Mrs. Drury died of a septic infection “brought on from without” during an illegal operation. Dr. Reilly pled not guilty, and stoutly maintained his innocence. Nellie Gande was on the witness stand for almost a day and a half, during which she stated that Dr. Reilly had performed a minor operation on Lilly for hemorrhoids, and later one on her womb, but that they’d done nothing illegal or negligent.

With the topic of abortion being very delicate for the times – especially with Lilly’s father-in-law being a prominent citizen – the case is hard to understand because of the way it was reported. An article in the Langdon Courier Democrat suggests that Lilly’s abortion was self-inflicted and that Gande and Reilly were trying to contain an infection when the girl died.

A week later, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, and Reilly was sentenced to 10 years, and Nellie Gande’s charges were dismissed in a surprise move from the prosecution.

In the Bismarck Penitentiary, Dr. Reilly was put in charge of the hospital and given every liberty allowable. Still maintaining his innocence, he abruptly died on May 10th, 1915 – just one month before many of his friends and colleagues believed he would be pardoned. Ironically, he became ill with tonsillitis, developed pneumonia and died less than 24 hours after developing his symptoms.

The Milton Globe reported, “Dr. Reilly stood well (here) and was one of those physicians who neglected his own business on behalf of his patients and never refused to answer a call, no matter what the weather or the financial condition of those who needed his services. Time and time again he (provided) both medicine and services to struggling pioneers who were without money.”

Written by Merry Helm