George R. Dekle Sr.’s new book Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts (Kent State University Press, 2019) takes a look at the Harris case of the 19th century, an important milestone in American legal history.
Carlyle Harris was a charismatic, handsome young medical student with an insatiable appetite for sex. His trail of “debauched women” ended with Helen Potts, a beautiful young woman of wealth and privilege who was determined to keep herself pure for marriage. Unable to conquer her by other means, Harris talked her into a secret marriage under assumed names, and when threatened with exposure, he poisoned her.
The resulting trial garnered national headlines and launched the careers of two of New York’s most noted prosecutors, Francis L. Wellman and William Travers Jerome. It also spurred vigorous debate about Harris’s guilt or innocence, the value of circumstantial evidence, the worth of expert testimony, and the advisability of the death penalty.
Six Capsules traces Harris’s crime and his subsequent trial and highlights what has been overlooked ― the decisive role that the second-class status of women in Victorian Era culture played in this tragedy.
George R. Dekle Sr. served as a legal skills professor at the University of Florida, where he directed the Prosecution Clinic. His most recent book, Prairie Defender: The Murder Trials of Abraham Lincoln, won a Superior Achievement Award for Scholarship from the Illinois State Historical Society and Gold Medals for Biography and Politics from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.
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