In 1889, Carlyle Harris first saw Helen Potts. The attraction was mutual and immediate. 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 and pronounced her dead.
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 publicly acknowledge their marriage. Later, a New York jury found Carlyle Harris guilty of poisoning his wife.
Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts revisits this case in granular detail. Author George R. Dekle Sr., (Bob) a former legal skills professor, studied 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.
Bob Dekle will present his book at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25 in the Foundation Room at Headquarters Branch.
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, Harris 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 a 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, tapping at the heart of Dekle's narrative is the fact that the evidence proving Harris's culpability was only circumstantial.
In Six Capsules, Dekle dissects not only Harris's murder trial. 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 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, including, 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, but he also reminds us that many of these same weaknesses exist today.
Above is a modified, edited portion of a full review of the book published by Stephanie Hoover.