The case of Carlyle Harris was a classic of its time and links well into another of New York’s classic murders, that committed by another doctor named Robert Buchanan a couple of years later. I’ll be covering the Buchanan case in due course but, for now, we’ll be looking at Harris’s crime.
Carlyle Harris was a medical student in New York in the 1890’s. Like so many murderers he was outwardly respectable, charming, polite and something of a ladykiller. In his case, literally. Behind the respectable exterior lay a darker, more cynical, more ruthless personality. He enjoyed being seen as a respectable young man-about-town, but he also enjoyed extra-marital sex, drinking and money. He had expensive tastes by the standards of a typical student and was keen to preserve his outwardly reputable image. So keen, in fact, that he was prepared to kill for it.
So he did.
On February 1, 1891 his paramour, a nice, decent young lady named Helen Potts, was found dead at the Comstock Finishing School in New York. Initially, her death was attributed to a stroke, at least at first. It wasn’t long before doctors noticed something odd and more than slightly suspect about her body. When they examined her eyes they noticed that her pupils were pinpointed which isn’t a symptom of a normal, typical stroke. It is, however, a normal symptom of something altogether more sinister.
The first thing doctors needed to do was to establish whether or not morphine poisoning was the actual cause of death and this, in the 1890’s, wasn’t as easily done as it would be today. Today’s toxicologists would simply order blood tests and use simple procedures that could ascertain both the presence of morphine and even how much has been administered. In the 1890’s it was a major exercise in forensic science even to prove its mere presence in a deceased person. Carlyle Harris, a medical student and who just happened to be Helen Potts’s fiancé, would have known that. Which was probably why he chose morphine as his weapon of choice. He was probably reasoning that morphine might not even be noticed in an autopsy which would allow him to commit the perfect murder. The perfect murder isn’t the murder where authorities investigate without finding a murderer. It’s the murder that authorities don’t even know has been committed in the first place. Carlyle Harris was clearly a very clever and very ruthless young man.
Harris met his fiancé and victim in 1889 at their Ocean Grove cottage. The attraction was both instant and mutual. Harris enjoyed the attentions of a young and well-mannered young woman and Helen Potts was equally smitten with Harris. To her he was brilliant, charming, intelligent, witty and, in general, a fine young gentleman. He was so keen that, despite being barely 20 years old, he proposed marriage. Unfortunately for both of them her parents vetoed the idea due to the young couple being just that little bit too young for their liking.
Neither Harris nor Potts were pleased by her parents’ decision but, not wanting to cause havoc by simply eloping, elected instead to marry in secret without the consent or even knowledge of either his family or her own. Had they simply eloped and been able to marry openly then the future may have been very different in that Potts might not have been poisoned and Harris might not have taken a seat in ‘Old Sparky.’ As things turned out, despite being legally married, they were obliged to enjoy married life and a sexual relationship in secret. It was a situation that would, in time, seal both their fates.
On February 8, 1890 they were married in secret. Helen Potts elected to marry under a false name, that of Helen Nielson, and Carlyle Harris simply became Charles Harris, at least according to their marriage certificate. Their deception, crude though it is by modern standards, proved successful. So successful, in fact, that it wasn’t until August of 1890 that her mother discovered that they (fraudulently) became man and wife. In August 1890 Helen became dangerously ill as a result of post-operative infection, what was then called ‘septic poisoning’. She’d had a number of operations in her young life, operations performed by none other than her ‘husband’ Carlyle Harris, still himself only a medical student and not a qualified doctor. She finally confided in her uncle when the illnesses became too much to bear. He, in turn, informed her mother. Their secret was now out, at least between the two families. Within a couple of months it would make headlines all across the United States.
The couple still weren’t living together. Harris had a place of his own and he’d induced Helen’s mother to pack her off to an exclusive boarding school until arrangements could be made to introduce the young couple onto the New York society scene in what was then considered the proper manner. The irregular nature of their relationship was to be concealed where possible and glossed over where necessary to preserve the names and reputations of both families. Unfortunately, that plan died with Helen Potts in February 1891. Now Helen Potts, Carlyle Harris and the social reputations of both families were about to be consigned to history.
Harris had been clever when he plotted Helen’s death. He knew that she was suffering from insomnia as she’d complained to him regularly and, equally regularly, asked him if he could obtain something to help her sleep. He supplied her with a sedative made up by the teaching hospital pharmacist in the form of capsules. She was to take one a day with water to try and ease her insomnia. Unfortunately for her, Harris, who by now considered his young ‘wife’ more of a burden that anything else, wanted his freedom and to preserve his decent outwardly respectable image. If their domestic arrangements were exposed, reasoned Harris, then he would be personally and professionally ruined. In those days how gentlemen conducted themselves in private often impacted on their professional prospects and Harris knew full well that his medical career would be ruined before it really started if his love life came to light. He decided to solve the problem by permanently silencing his troublesome spouse, thus freeing himself to continue being outwardly respectable while philandering his way through New York’s débutantes.
Harris’s plan was simple and it very nearly worked. He knew where Helen kept her sleeping capsules, he knew the ingredients, and he also knew exactly where to obtain the right quantity of morphine and how difficult it was to detect after death. In order to be able to feign shock and surprise at Helen’s impending ‘accidental’ death he simply opened one of the capsules, removed the medication, and replaced it with a lethal dose of morphine sulfate. His plan for after Helen’s death was simply to blame the pharmacist and accuse them of bungling the prescription, thereby ruining them and diverting any attention or suspicion away from himself. Essentially Harris was playing Russian Roulette, not knowing exactly when Helen would die but knowing, as certainly as any poisoner can do, that she would definitely take the doctored capsule sooner or later. On February 1, 1891 would be the day she did exactly that.
Her mother was instantly suspicious and started pressing for a formal investigation of her death. Once the initial idea of a stroke had been discounted and her pinpoint pupils noted, doctors began looking for morphine. To Harris’s surprise, dismay and ultimately his downfall, Doctor Allan Hamilton and one of New York’s senior medical figures, Professor Rudolf Witthaus, managed to prove conclusively that Helen Potts had been poisoned. On March 23, 1891 Carlyle Harris was arrested and a Grand Jury promptly indited him for capital murder.
The trial began on January 19, 1892 and was a media sensation. Not since the case of Chester Gillette (immortalized by famed author Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’) had New York society and gossip columnists had something so juicy to chew over — a secret marriage, pre-marital sex, a defendant who was outwardly respectable but soon exposed as having so scandalous a personal life and suchlike. And, of course, prior to 1965, this whole sordid melodrama was conducted in the shadow of the electric chair. Trial watchers and gossip columnists had a field day recounting every sordid detail of Harris’s secret personal scandals and the jury’s verdict was awaited with ever-increasing tension. Would Harris walk free having been acquitted? Or would he be given the ultimate sentence and walk instead from a cell at Sing Sing along the dreaded Last Mile and pay for his crime before an invited audience? As the jury deliberated, reporters, gossip columnists, New York high society and people all over the country were asking that very question.
On February 2, 1892, almost exactly one year after Helen Potts unwittingly took Harris’s lethal capsule, the jury reached their verdict. Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy. The prosecution case had been so overwhelming that they had deliberated for only eighty minutes. Recorder Smyth promptly passed the mandatory sentence under New York law, condemning Harris to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair during the week beginning on March 21. An appeal was immediately filed by Harris’s defence team.
It wasn’t until January, 1893 before the appeal was heard. It took far less time for it to be denied. Harris’s lawyers then filed affidavits with Recorder Smyth, claiming to have new evidence that hadn’t been heard at the original trial. Recorder Harris considered them carefully before, on March 16, denying their request for a new trial. On March 20 Recorder Smyth was sat on the bench and he set Harris a new date of execution. His new date with death was set for May 8, 1893.
Their legal options exhausted, Harris’s supporters turned to the Governor of the State of New York, Governor Flower. They showered him with requests to commute Harris’s death sentence and, the case having been a national sensation, similar requests began pouring into Flower’s office from almost every state in the Union. Flower was pushed into appointing a special commission to examine whether or not Harris really deserved a commutation. The commission looked again at the case, the evidence, and Harris’s colorful life and decided he didn’t. On their recommendation and with the execution date looming ever closer, Governor Flower finally made a decision. He wouldn’t intervene.
On May 8, 1893 Carlyle Harris walked his last mile. His head was shaved and he walked wearing the then-traditional garb of New York’s condemned, a black shirt and trousers with shower shoes. His right leg had also been shaved so the second electrode would make a clean contact when the switch was thrown. Before an invited audience composed of prison officials and reporters he made a final plea of innocence before he sat down and was swiftly strapped in. With everything ready the Warden made a silent signal to ‘State Electrician’ Edwin Davis, who promptly slammed the switch into position and watched Harris’s body carefully, manipulating the voltage to avoid burning Harris’s body more than was necessary. After a two-minute cycle Davis shut off the power and the prison doctor stepped forward to make the standard check.
Carlyle Harris was dead.
Shortly after Harris was electrocuted another medical man, Doctor Robert Buchanan, acquired a habit of sitting in bars loudly and openly stating that Harris was a bungling incompetent. In Buchanan’s opinion, of course it was possible to disguise morphine poisoning simply by dripping atropine into the victims eyes and dilating their pupils, thus removing the most obvious indication of morphine poisoning. What nobody knew at that time was that Buchanan, tired of his wife and after her sizable insurance policy, had every intention of proving his theory with a practical demonstration. His bar-room boasting would later form part of the prosecution’s case that sent him to ‘Old Sparky’ as well.
But that’s for another time.