I haven't posted much in the past few months for a number of reasons. I've resolved to post more regularly in the future, and I can't think of a better post than to announce the publication of my latest book, Six Capsules: The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts. You can visit the Kent State University Press webpage for the book by clicking on the title. The publisher describes the book in the following language:
The permanent solution to a wife’s chronic headache
As Ted Bundy was to the 20th century, so Carlyle Harris was to the 19th. 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 famous 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.
The Harris case is all but forgotten today, but Six Capsules seeks to recover this important milestone in American legal historyIt was a lot of fun to write this book, in part because the lawyers involved in the case were such larger-than-life characters. Francis L. Wellman, author of the venerable Art of Cross-Examination, was the lead prosecutor; and William Travers Jerome, who later went on to be one of New York City's most celebrated District Attorneys, defended. William F. Howe, whom history remembers as a thoroughgoing scoundrel, handled the case on appeal.
The defendant was Carlyle W. Harris, who had a drunkard father, a temperance crusader mother, and an insatiable appetite for sexual conquest. Harris was a truly brilliant medical student, and he was charismatic and handsome to boot. Most women readily succumbed to his charm, but Helen Potts was made of sterner stuff. He had to talk her into a secret marriage to get what he wanted from her, and the romance went off the rails when her mother found out about the marriage.
Although nobody remembers the case today, it was a nationwide sensation at the time, and it sealed Francis Wellman's reputation as a deadly cross-examiner. I particularly enjoyed critiquing Wellman's strategy as he systematically destroyed almost every witness called by the defense.