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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Concerning Popular Sympathy.

In January 1892, Carlyle W. Harris was convicted of murdering his wife, nineteen-year-old, Helen Potts Harris. It was a particularly ugly story—Harris had bragged about his amorous conquests, saying he had gone so far as to marry a girl to get her into bed, then dump her later. This appeared to be the case with his marriage to Helen Potts; they eloped, kept the marriage a secret, and at his insistence they used assumed names at the ceremony. When Helen’s mother found out and demanded they make the marriage public, Harris decided to murder Helen instead. In spite of an elaborate plot to make the death appear to be accidental poisoning, Harris was convicted and sentenced to the electric chair. The whole story can be found here: The Six Capsules.

As was often the case, in the period between the murderer’s final appeal and his execution, public sentiment began to turn in the prisoner's favor. Through the efforts of Carlyle Harris’s mother and sympathetic newspaper articles, a petition circulated, gathering thousands of signatures, requestiong the governor of New York to pardon Carlyle Harris.

Harris in his Cell, New York World
The cartoon above and the editorial that follows, originally published in the magazine Puck, in April 1893, are a reaction to the maudlin, “sentimental cranks” seeking a pardon for a heinous murderer. Puck blamed New York newspapers for generating popular sympathy making a martyr of a murderer. Though not specified by name, Puck was referring the New York World, who ran a series of features about Harris (often in their “For and About Women” section) referring to him as a “perfect gentleman” and a “man of more than ordinary education and refinement.” One article applied palmistry and found “strong will,” “active mentality” and a “kindly disposition” in the lines of Harris’s hands. As Puck points out, the stories were accompanied by illustrations of Harris in “characteristic attitudes.”

Here is Puck’s reaction:
Concerning Popular Sympathy.

Since Carlyle W. Harris was convicted of the murder of his wife, New York has had a very distressing exhibition of the working of popular sympathy. If Harris had brained his wife with an ax in a fit of anger, the public would have regarded him with loathing and let him alone. But his crime was devoid of brutality and sufficiently fiendish to be interesting. So ingenious was his plot that there was but one chance in four that suspicion would fall upon him. Twelve men listened to the evidence for and against him. Competent lawyers secured for him all the privileges which our generous laws grant to accused persons. The jury found him guilty and its verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court of New York. The Court of Appeals reviewed the evidence upon which he was convicted and concurred in a decision that not only did every circumstance point to his guilt, but that, taken together, they precluded any other conclusion. Popular sympathy then rose up and said: “I don’t know much about the case, except what little I’ve read in the papers, and judging from that, I don’t believe he is guilty. I guess the Governor ought to pardon him.” That is the irresponsible sort of thing that popular sympathy is when it is perceived by a newspaper which persists in making a martyr of a murderer. This paper creates and fosters a morbid interest in the murderer’s personality. It recounts the daily routine of his prison life; its artists draw him in characteristic attitudes; it tells what he eats, how he likes it, how many cigarettes he smokes each day, and his manner of dress; it descants upon his taste in literature, and prints the verses which he writes. It gives the impression that he is the victim of malevolent persecution, and throws about him an alluring glamour of romance. Is it any wonder that popular sympathy is so corrupted that it forgets the parents of the girl who was coolly murdered by this man because he inconvenienced him? Is it surprising that popular sympathy should picture him a martyr rather than what the highest Court of the State has found him to be: a libertine, who boasted of his power over women and wielded it mercilessly; a cold-blooded murderer who did not flinch from killing a girl when he was through with her; a man thoroughly depraved, who has exhibited no sign of humanity save selfishness?
Sensational journalism impairs popular respect for the law; it stultifies justice. But it will have other crimes to answer for in its treatment of this inhuman being. It would be an interesting study, if it could be made, to follow out the murders of which it must be the inspiration. There are, at this moment, as certain number of women who are going to be murdered, whose deaths will be more or less directly due to the treatment which Carlyle W. Harris has received from certain New York papers. The publishers of those papers will be as guilty as the men who shall commit the crimes. There will be two other accessories before the fact: popular sympathy will be one; the other will be the man who gives his support to such a paper.

"Carlyle Harris's Hand." New York World 25 Mar 1893.
"Concerning Popular Sympathy." Puck 5 Apr 1893: 0.
"In his Death Cell." New York World 24 Mar 1893.


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