On February 1, 1890, Helen Potts, a beautiful young woman of wealth and privilege, overdosed on morphine and died while attending a prestigious New York City finishing school. But she wasn’t using the drug recreationally. Her husband, a handsome med student named Carlyle Harris whom she had married in secret, had prescribed her the pills after she complained to him about chronic headaches. But the pills contained enough morphine to kill a person—and Harris knew it. It was his plan all along.
In “Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts,” writer George R. Dekle Sr. dives into the sensational Gilded Age murder, the trial against Harris and the second-class status of women during the Victorian era.
In the excerpt below, reprinted with permission of the author and publisher, we learn how Harris is identified as a suspect in the murder.
Shortly after noon on the day following Helen’s death, Dr. George F. Peabody received a visitor in his office at 57 West 38th Street in New York City. The visitor was a young medical student by the name of Carlyle Harris, and he had a letter of introduction from his preceptor at the medical school, Dr. Robert Abbe. Dr. Peabody knew Harris slightly because the young man had recently attended his lectures on materia medica at the college. Was Dr. Peabody aware of the death yesterday at the Comstock School? Yes, he had read about it in the papers. Harris wanted Dr. Peabody’s opinion on the matter. Harris told Dr. Peabody that he had prescribed a grain of morphine and twenty-five grains of quinine to be divided into six capsules because she had suffered from insomnia and some malarial symptoms, and he thought the combination would be a good one to give her. He had signed the prescription as a medical student and had it filled at McIntyre & Son’s pharmacy. Harris told Peabody about holding two capsules in reserve, and then detailed the circumstances of Helen’s death. Harris wanted to know if he could be held accountable for killing her.
Peabody told him that he had prescribed very stupidly; that there was no warrant for giving morphine to any young girl who was merely suffering from insomnia, as he should have known if he had listened to Peabody’s lectures. Peabody went on to say that it was very bad treatment; that if Harris had attended his lectures he ought to have known it, but that if that was all the morphine she got, Peabody did not think he could be held accountable for her death. Peabody concluded by telling Harris that as a medical student, he had no right to prescribe, and that he must have been aware of it at the time. Harris made no reply to the scolding he received from Dr. Peabody; he left the doctor’s office; and Dr. Peabody did not see him again until Harris testified at the coroner’s inquest.
At the funeral on February 4, George Potts [Helen’s father] thought he saw his daughter move. He refused to allow her to be buried, but ordered that she remain above ground with a twenty-four-hour-a-day guard in case she should suddenly revive. This was, of course, impossible, as she had been embalmed. It was not until February 7 that the grieving father finally admitted that she was truly dead and gave permission for her to be buried.
Harris did not attend Helen’s funeral, but he did return to McIntyre & Son’s pharmacy. Hearn Power, the pharmacist’s assistant who compounded Harris’s concoction of morphine and quinine, was on duty on February 7 when Harris came in with another prescription. “I suppose you won’t put up a prescription for me?” asked Harris.
“If it is from a physician we will,” replied Power. Harris showed him the prescription; it was signed by Dr. Hayden. Power agreed to fill the prescription. As he was filling the prescription, Harris asked if he had seen an account of Miss Potts’s death in the newspapers. Power said that he had.
“You don’t believe it, do you?” asked Harris.
“No, I believe the girl died of heart disease,” said Power.
“So do I,” replied Harris.
During this time Harris did not see Mrs. Potts [Helen’s mother], but he kept up a correspondence with her. Finally, a few days before the coroner’s inquest he came to see her in Ocean Grove. It was around 8:30 p.m., and Mrs. Potts had just received the mail for the day and was beginning to read it when Harris arrived. She had just opened a letter from Dr. Fowler [who attended to Helen at the time of her death] when she became aware that Harris was at the door. She laid the mail on the dining room table with the opened but unread letter from Dr. Fowler on top and admitted Harris to the house. He asked that he be allowed to speak to her alone, and she escorted him through the dining room into a private room.
Harris began the conversation by saying that everyone in the Park had met him very kindly and that more people had shaken hands with him than ever did so before.
“That is because I have told no one the fear that I have felt about you, Carlyle,” she said.
“Mother, you will find that the coroner’s inquest will exonerate me. I am innocent.”
“If innocent, Carl, how did she die?” Mrs. Potts wanted to know.
“It was the druggist’s mistake,” said Harris.
“How could it be the druggist’s mistake when you said all the capsules upon being analyzed would prove all right? The statements conflict.”
Harris replied, “I will have the capsules analyzed if I have to pay for it out of my own pocket. It’s Dr. Treverton. He has influenced your judgment about me.”
“Dr. Treverton does not know one word of the fear I have felt of you,” replied Mrs. Potts, “but he came here believing you guilty of another crime, and after I had assured him that was not the case, he went home on the night of the funeral without our ever having spoken about this fear I am feeling towards you now.”
“Does Mr. Potts know it yet either?” Harris wanted to know.
“No, Mr. Potts doesn’t know.” At this response from Mrs. Potts, Harris laid his head on his arms and appeared to be crying. After a moment he regained his composure, raised his head, and spoke.
“Mrs. Potts, if you give me the affidavit [in which Harris admitted marrying Helen under assumed names] I will forgive you every word you have said.”
“You can’t forgive me, Carl; there is no question of forgiveness between us, because her grave is right there; we cannot cross it.”
Harris replied, “Yes, I will forgive you. I must have that affidavit. It is more valuable to me than I dare tell you.”
“How will you get it?” asked Mrs. Potts, “It is not here.”
“Does Miss Day know of the marriage?” asked Harris.
“Yes,” replied Mrs. Potts. At this Harris turned and rushed out of the room. Mrs. Potts sat for a moment, then got up and left herself. She went into the dining room to return to reading her mail. The letter from Dr. Fowler was not there.
Mrs. Potts feared that Harris had murdered her daughter, but she feared the scandal associated with a murder trial even more. She corresponded with Mrs. Harris, who feared that her son would be charged with murder. The two mothers met and discussed the situation. Mrs. Potts offered Mrs. Harris fifty dollars and urged her to use the money to help her son flee the jurisdiction. When Mrs. Harris arrived back in New York she received bittersweet news—Harris had been appointed house surgeon at Charity Hospital upon his graduation from medical school.
Mrs. Potts made one more effort to cover up the possibility that her daughter had been murdered. She went to Dr. Peabody and urged him to use his influence to cause the coroner’s jury to return a verdict that her daughter had died of heart disease aggravated by the morphine in the capsules prescribed by Harris. Dr. Peabody told Mrs. Potts quite frankly that he suspected Helen had been murdered. After hearing all the testimony, the coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of death by morphine poisoning. The verdict, but not the transcript of testimony, was transmitted to the district attorney’s office, where Assistant District Attorney Vernon M. Davis wrestled with what to do about the case.
Davis found himself confronted with a case in shambles. The coroner’s office did not call in either the police or the district attorney to assist at the scene, and then they bungled the investigation by making repeated mistakes. They lost the pillbox; they did not perform an autopsy; they fumbled their efforts to get the capsule analyzed; and they lost the transcript of testimony before the coroner’s jury. Any one of these blunders could potentially scuttle a prosecution, and all of them coming in one investigation could be expected to be fatal for any case. The police had little interest in the case, and it appeared that if any further investigation was going to be done on the case, it would have to be done by the district attorney’s office.
Bungling and apathy on the part of investigating agencies are well-recognized reasons for a prosecutor to refuse to file charges, but there is also authority for the proposition that when an investigating agency fails to properly investigate a crime, the prosecutor has the power, and sometimes the duty, to step into the breach and do the investigation. There are problems with a prosecutor’s office trying to conduct an investigation. First, prosecutors’ offices are not designed to investigate cases, they are designed to prosecute cases investigated by other agencies. Second, few prosecutors have either the training or the experience necessary for a competent criminal investigation. Third, although many prosecutors’ offices have investigators on staff, they have too few investigators to conduct a major investigation. If a prosecutor’s office becomes involved in the preindictment investigation of a case, it is of utmost importance that the prosecutor’s office work in tandem with a cooperating law enforcement agency. Given the lack of interest shown by the New York police, that was not going to happen in the Carlyle Harris investigation. Given all the negative factors, Davis decided not to prosecute the case.
This decision would have brought the case to a most unsatisfactory conclusion had something remarkable not happened. On March 21, 1891, The New York Evening World printed an article that the World later modestly claimed “startled the world” and led to Harris’s arrest. The editors of the World almost broke their arms patting themselves on the back for the exemplary work they did in resurrecting the case from the dead. In the 1908 edition of the World Almanac and Encyclopedia, they stated:
WORLD reporters followed the case in all its crooked turnings, and forged a chain of evidence about Harris which led to his arrest… The Harris case is cited because of its publicity. The bringing of criminals to justice by THE WORLD during the past twenty-five years, when police methods and professional detective efforts had failed, have led to its recognition as the most powerful sleuth in the newspaper field.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle gave voice to a similar sentiment: “This is one of many instances in which legitimate, aggressive, straightforward and courageous newspaper work has provided a needful impetus to authority at the start, a salutary spur to authority all along and the disinterested aid of law and its official ministers at every stage [of a criminal prosecution].”
Oddly enough, there is a kernel of truth in the World’s bombastic boast. In reality, the “world-startling” article was not the ultimate cause of Harris’s arrest, but one event in the middle of a chain of causation that began with Dr. George L. Peabody deciding that Harris was morally unfit to be a doctor and ended with District Attorney De Lancy Nicoll deciding that Harris was a murderer.
[The affidavits from Mrs. Potts and Dr. Treverton wound up at the district attorney’s office and then copies fell into the hands of a reporter at the World]
Excerpted from George R. Dekle Sr., “Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts.” Copyright © 2019 by The Kent State University Press. Used by permission.