The Tragic 1891 Murder Of Helen Potts By Her Secret Husband

Helen Potts, a vivacious 19-year-old, suffered from recurring headaches. It was one such attack that forced her to beg off going to a concert on the night of January 31, 1891. Her three roommates at the posh boarding school they attended in Manhattan went without her. When they returned a few hours later, Helen awoke from a deep sleep. "Girls, I feel as though I were going to die," she told them, according to Pearson's Magazine. "Really, I do feel queer. All numb and chokey, but I guess it was because I was sleeping so soundly."

While her friends were enjoying their concert, Helen had taken some medicine given to her by her friend, Carlyle Harris, who was in medical school at Columbia University, per Murder by Gaslight. But as the world would eventually learn, Harris was more than just a friend. He was in fact Helen's secret husband. And as Helen's symptoms began to manifest — she had trouble breathing and lost the ability to move — before she finally succumbed the next morning, the authorities would come to believe Harris was also Helen's killer who had given her a lethal dose of morphine.

A scandal

Helen Potts met Carlyle Harris in the summer of 1889 through mutual friends while he was vacationing on the Jersey Shore in Ocean Grove, where Helen lived with her family, per Pearson's Magazine. After Helen's family moved to Manhattan, Harris began to court Helen, which her mother tried to prevent since her daughter was still in her teens. On February 7, 1890, under the pretense of going to visit the New York Stock Exchange, Helen and Harris were wed at City Hall under assumed names, unbeknownst to either of their families, according to Murder by Gaslight.

Soon, Helen became pregnant and Harris performed a botched abortion on his new wife who nearly died. She went to an uncle in Pennsylvania, a doctor who had to induce labor of the dead fetus. It was then that Helen's mother learned of the secret marriage, according to "The trial of Carlyle W. Harris for poisoning his wife, Helen Potts, at New York."

A scoundrel

It turned out this wasn't even Carlyle Harris' first secret marriage. He was already wed to another at the time of his marriage to Helen, according to New York Magazine. He had drunkenly bragged about his sexual conquests and his secret marriages, per Murder by Gaslight. Eighteen months after meeting Harris, Helen would die of morphine poisoning. Harris claimed he gave Helen quinine with a small amount of morphine for her headaches. Police and prosecutors believed Harris had knowingly put a lethal dose of morphine in one of the pills in an attempt to rid himself of her, per "The trial of Carlyle W. Harris for poisoning his wife, Helen Potts, at New York."

Harris' murder trial in Manhattan, in which he actively participated in his own defense by questioning witnesses, ended with the jury finding him guilty on February 2, 1892, according to Pearson's Magazine and the Chicago Tribune. The court handed down a death sentence and the state executed him on May 8, 1893, via the electric chair at Sing Sing State Prison, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He protested his innocence with his dying breath. Harris' mother never believed her son was guilty and had "Murdered by Twelve Men" followed by "If the Jury had Only Known" inscribed on his headstone, according to Murder by Gaslight.