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Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts

Author: George R. Dekle, Sr.
Publisher: Kent State University Press
Release Date: May 2019

In 1889 in Ocean Grove, New Jersey - then known as the "Queen of Religious Resorts" - Carlyle Harris first laid eyes on Helen Potts, daughter of a wealthy railroad contractor and mine owner. The attraction was mutual and immediate and the two began dating. Far too quickly, they were secretly married under false names. On February 1, 1890, a doctor by the name of Fowler closed Helen's eyes, arranged her hair and pronounced her dead.

Review Continues Below

Before the #MeToo movement, and well before society's broad acceptance of a woman's right to control her own reproductive choices, Helen Potts suffered the consequences of her husband's insatiable sexual appetite. Pregnant several times over, Helen was convinced again and again to abort the fetuses. In return, Harris promised to - eventually and reluctantly - publicly acknowledge their marriage. But all women reach their breaking point, even demure 19th century ladies with a great deal more social standing to lose than their modern sisters. Helen Potts reached hers, and she died because of it. A New York jury found Carlyle Harris guilty of poisoning his wife. These jurors relied heavily on circumstantial evidence to reach their decision. Years after the trial and execution, many wondered if it was indeed sufficient basis for the death penalty. Or, did the state electrocute an innocent man?

Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts revisits this case in granular detail. Author George R. Dekle Sr., a former legal skills professor, studied (among many other resources) contemporaneous news accounts of the death and trial, medicolegal manuals produced in the day and, of course, trial transcripts. The result is a detail-rich account and analysis of a courtroom spectacle that captured the nation's attention.

In his portrayal of Carlyle Harris, Dekle effectively depicts a young and ambitious - if not hard-working - man. His excessive charm and desire for sexual conquest led Harris to menace countless women. Helen's were not the only abortions to which Harris's lovers acceded and, in several instances, the medical student performed these operations himself.

As the book's title implies, Helen's cause of death was morphine poisoning. Because it was Harris who prescribed the capsules that killed her as treatment for Helen's headaches, he was the obvious suspect. The fact that Harris was not yet licensed to write such a prescription added little to his credibility. His horrifying history with women worked further against him. Still, nibbling at the heart of Dekle's narrative is the chafing fact that the evidence proving Harris's culpability was purely circumstantial. Prosecutor Francis L. Wellman argued it was more than sufficient to establish guilt. Defense counsel John Taylor countered that the prosecution's case required unbiased and skeptical judgment. As for Harris, he proved to be a far less charming litigant than a lover.

In Six Capsules, Dekle dissects not only Harris's murder trial but also the social proprieties framing it. Although comparisons of Carlyle Harris and Ted Bundy are invoked, these more accurately illustrate Harris's dangerous charm than his quantity of victims. Helen's was the only death with which he was associated although he clearly abused and destroyed countless women's emotional and physical well-being.

Part true crime, part legal analysis, and part social history, Dekle's book asks a number of disturbing questions, not the least of which is: Was Harris executed because he was a heartless cad, or did he truly mean to murder his wife? In studying this long-forgotten case, Dekle unearths not only the shortfalls of the 19th century system of justice, he reminds us that many of these same weaknesses exist today, whether we want to believe it or not. ~SH/TRP.


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