Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Six Capsules

Helen Potts, a nineteen year old student at Miss Comstock’s School in New York City, decided not to join her roommates when they went to hear a concert. Helen was feeling ill, but she had a remedy prescribed by her boyfriend, a medical student named Carlyle Harris. When the girls returned, Helen told them of the wonderful dreams she had been having about Carlyle. But she also complained of numbness throughout her body; before long she could not move and her breathing was labored. The dreams soon vanished, giving way to nightmare, revealing a world filled with deceit, betrayal and ultimately murder.

Date:  January 31, 1891

Location:   New York, New York

Victim:  Helen Potts Harris

Cause of Death:  Poisoning

Accused:   Carlyle W. Harris


After the girls at Miss Comstock’s School had gone to bed, the night of January 31, 1891, Helen began moaning and had difficulty breathing. They sent for their principal, Miss Day who tried, unsuccessfully to have Helen sit up. Miss Day sent for the school physician, Dr. Fowler and his assistant, Dr. Baner. By the time they arrived, Helen had lost all muscle control, her pupils were almost completely constricted, she was bathed in cold perspiration, and her breathing rate was two breaths per minute. The doctors tried to revive her with whiskey, caffeine, atropine, and digitalis, with little success. Helen rallied briefly then fell into a deeper stupor. A third doctor, Dr. Kerr was brought in, and they applied electric shock, and this failed as well. As a last resort they tried artificial respiration to keep Helen breathing, but nothing would revive her. She died before dawn.

Carlyle W. Harris
From the symptoms, Dr. Fowler was convinced that Helen had died from an overdose of morphine and he began searching her room for signs of the drug. All he found was an empty prescription box with a label that read “one before retiring” and was signed “C. W. H., student.” When he asked the identity of C. W. H., the girls replied that it was Helen’s boyfriend Carlyle W. Harris, a medical student at Columbia University. Though the hour was late, Dr. Fowler sent for Carlyle Harris and had him brought to Helen’s room.

Harris’s first response upon seeing his dead girlfriend was “My God, what can they do to me?” When asked why they would do anything to him, Harris responded that he had made out the prescription but he was not yet a physician. Harris told Dr. Fowler that Helen had complained of headaches, and he had prescribed twenty-five grains of sulphate of quinine and one grain of sulphate of morphine. He instructed the pharmacist to put the mixture into six capsules, so that each capsule would contain only one-sixth of a grain of morphine. He had given her only four of the capsules to reduce the risk of overdose. Harris knew she had already taken three of the capsules, because Helen had told him they were not working. He had urged her to take the fourth capsule as well.

Dr. Fowler remarked that no one had ever died from one-sixth of a grain of morphine, and even if she had taken an entire grain it would not have produced the effects he saw. There must have been a terrible mistake. The two capsules Harris had kept were examined and, just as he had said, each contained only one-sixth grain of morphine.

Upon learning of her Helen’s death, her mother hurried to New York from her home in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The coroner wanted to perform an autopsy but Mrs. Potts asserted that Helen had always suffered from heart problems; she was convinced that her daughter had died of natural causes. The body was taken for burial in New Jersey.

Authorities in New York remained unconvinced and managed to get a warrant to exhume the body. Fifty-five days after she was buried, the body of Helen Potts was disinterred and autopsied. The examination revealed that her heart and other internal organs were perfectly healthy, but her brain was in a congested condition, indicative of opiate poisoning. A chemical analysis of her stomach and intestines showed significant traces of morphine, but, though quinine is the more stable of the two drugs, not a trace of quinine was found.

When questioned under oath, Mrs. Potts admitted that she had lied about her daughter’s heart condition. She knew that an autopsy would bring unwelcome publicity and she was anxious to get her daughter’s body back to New Jersey as soon as possible. Mrs. Potts then made another startling revelation: Helen Potts and Carlyle Harris had been secretly married for nearly a year.

They had met in the summer of 1889 when Helen was eighteen years old and Carlyle had just finished his first year of medical school. Introduced by mutual friends, they spent time together in Ocean Grove, New Jersey where both families were staying. In the fall, Harris resumed his studies at Columbia and the Potts moved to New York. When Carlyle came to call, Mrs. Potts was first glad to see a familiar friend but when his visits became more frequent and is attention to Helen more marked, Mrs. Potts became concerned. When her daughter spoke of engagement, Mrs. Potts put her foot down, and tried to separate the two, telling Harris that Helen was too young.

On February 7, 1890, Helen was invited to go see the stock market by Carlyle Harris and his brother McCready, and, since both brothers would be present, Mrs. Potts gave her permission. Carlyle picked her up at 10:00, but they never met up with McCready, and they never went to the stock market. Instead, they went to City Hall and were married by an alderman. At Carlyle’s insistence, they used assumed names: she was Helen Neilson (her middle name) and he was Charles Harris (his father’s name.) They did not reveal the marriage to Helen’s mother or to anyone else.

Within six weeks of this date, Mrs. Potts noticed that Harris was visiting her daughter much less frequently. While this pleased Mrs. Potts, it greatly distressed Helen. The family had moved back to Ocean Grove and Harris would make plans to visit, only to break them at the last minute, leaving Helen in a constant state of sorrow. To cheer her up, Mrs. Potts invited a friend of Helen’s a Miss Schofield, to spend some time with them at Ocean Grove.

When she next saw Carlyle Harris, Helen insisted that he tell Miss Schofield about their marriage. After some argument he agreed. The reason she was so adamant was that Helen was about to undergo an abortion and wanted someone to know about the marriage first; the reason Harris agreed was that Helen refused to have the abortion if he did not tell. Harris told Miss Schofield about the marriage and she said he must tell Helen’s mother. Harris refused.

Later the same day, Harris himself, attempted to perform an abortion on his secret wife. The operation left Helen week and pale, and when she did not improve she went to see her uncle Dr. Treverton, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Dr. Treverton had to perform a second operation; Harris had killed the fetus, but had not removed it.

The marriage could no longer be kept a secret from Mrs. Potts, who of course became livid on hearing the news. She demanded that the marriage be made public immediately and that the couple have a proper church wedding. Harris insisted that revealing the marriage would ruin his career and convinced Mrs. Potts to wait until he graduated before making the announcement. He also suggested that she send Helen to Miss Comstock’s school, an elite finishing school in New York, where she could learn how to be a doctor’s wife. Mrs. Potts agreed, but also demanded that Harris give her a copy of the marriage certificate and an affidavit stating that, though they had used assumed names, he and Helen were truely married.

While still in Scranton, Carlyle Harris, had a discussion with one of Dr. Treverton’s friends, and after a few drinks,  he began bragging of his amorous conquests. He said when he could not overcome a girl’s scruples with fast talk, he would use ginger ale, secretly laced with whiskey, to break down her inhibitions. When this did not work, he had been known to go so far as marrying a girl, just to get her into bed. Helen Potts had not been his first bride, and hers had not been his first abortion.

When this news got back to Mrs. Potts, she wrote to Harris with an ultimatum: either he agree to a church wedding on February 7, the anniversary of their secret wedding, or she would go public with the story herself. On January 20, 1891, Harris wrote back saying, “All your wishes shall be complied with, provided no other way can be found to satisfy your scruples.”

After Mrs. Potts revealed all of this information to the New York authorities, a warrant was sworn out against Carlyle W. Harris for the murder of Helen Potts Harris.

Trial: January 14, 1892

In Carlyle Harris’s trial, the prosecution proposed the among that four capsules that Harris gave Helen Potts, was one capsule filled with as much as five grains of morphine. It would not have mattered what day Helen took the capsule, as long as she followed his instructions and took a capsule every day, one of them would kill her. If it had been one of the first three, the remaining capsule or capsules would indicate that only one-sixth grain of morphine had been in each. If the fourth capsule was the lethal one—as it in fact was—then the two capsules still in Harris’s, though less convincing, would still tend to show that each had only one-sixth grain of morphine.

It came out in the trial that, within ten days of Helen’s death, one of the classes Harris took at medical school had been focused on the effects of morphine. A large bottle of morphine had been shown to the class, and the students had unsupervised access to it. There would be no way to know if someone had taken any of the morphine, and it was believed that Harris obtained the drug this way.

Harris handled much of the examination of witnesses himself. He brought out testimony stating that some people were especially susceptible to morphine poisoning and could die from as little as a sixth of a grain. The prosecution countered that by taking the first capsule with no ill-effect, she had proven that she was not one of these people.

Carlyle Harris’s motive for killing his wife was strong. Though the evidence against him was circumstantial, it was compelling. The jury was convinced that the simple, but sophisticated plot by Harris to kill Helen Potts had been uncovered. He was found guilty of first degree murder.

Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder


The case was appealed, but the appeal failed and Harris was sentenced to die.

Shortly before his execution, Harris issued a statement professing his innocence of murder but admitting that his life had been immoral. He hoped his execution would serve as an example to other young men who might fall into evil ways with women.

Carlyle W. Harris died in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on May 8, 1893 while more than 1,000 people stood on the hill outside the waiting for the black flag to be raised, signaling the prisoner’s death. His last words, before the switch was pulled were:
I have no further motive for any concealment whatever. I desire to state that I die absolutely innocent of the crime of which I have been convicted.

Harris’s mother remained thoroughly convinced of her son’s innocence. On May 9, 1893 she placed the following ad in a New York newspaper:
Harris, Carlyle Wentworth, eldest son of Charles L. and Frances McCready Harris. Judicially murdered May 8, 1893.
She had his tombstone engraved with the words the words:
Murdered by Twelve Men
          If the Jury had Only Known.

Harris, Carlyle W. The Trial Of Carlyle W. Harris For Poisoning His Wife, Helen Potts, At New York: For The People: Francis L. Wellman. Charles E. Simms, Jr. For The ... A Taylor. Wm. T. Jerome. Chas. E. Davison... New York: [s.n.], 1892.

Snively, H.M.. "The Six Capsules." Pearson's Magazine Jan. 1919: 17-22

"Carlyle W. Harris is Dead." The New York Times 9 May 1893


Nikki says:
February 20, 2012 at 3:37 PM

Very strong words: "judicial murdered". Gives me a chill!

Nikki says:
February 20, 2012 at 3:38 PM

"judicially" I meant!

Anonymous says:
August 7, 2012 at 1:43 AM

I think that Carlyle was a cold-hearted, evil man. Who could kill someone you're supposed to love? I think it's fairly mean to lie about your own child having heart problems, as Helen's mother claimed. I can't imagine what poor Helen must've been thinking in her final moments of life. If she had any suspicions, she was probably trying to convince herself that her husband had just made a grave mistake. He hadn't meant to poison her. The sad truth is that he did, and I'm glad he was punished for that. Sometimes, I think killers on death row should die the way they killed their victims. Then, they could feel the exact same pain and horror that their victims were feeling. Then again, that would mean some people would die awful deaths. But, an eye for an eye.

Anonymous says:
October 27, 2012 at 1:50 PM

I have just recently read a full account of this terrible murder. What a heartless psychopath! When called to her bedside as she was dying, all this monster could say was "What is going to happen to me?". Typical, thinking only about himself to the end.

By all accounts, Helen was a kind, gentle young woman who deserved so much better. May she rest in peace. As for Carlyle..there must be a special corner in hell for him.

Unknown says:
August 20, 2015 at 2:27 AM

I wonder how many other brides he killed to save himself.

Midwest Mama says:
April 26, 2018 at 4:44 PM


Jazzymom says:
September 26, 2020 at 6:47 PM

Why do these men have mommy issues?! Disgusting.

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