Hi, listeners, you may already be familiar with another show I host called Solved Murders True Crime Mysteries, but I want to share a recent episode I found incredibly compelling.
It's the story of Helen Potts, whose murder became one of the most sensationalized cases of the 19th century. Coming up, Helen falls sick under suspicious circumstances.
Due to the graphic nature of this murder case, listener discretion is advised this episode includes dramatizations and discussions of violence, drug use and pregnancy loss that some people may find offensive. We advise extreme caution for children under 13.
On the night of January 31st, 1890, young ladies of the Comstock Finishing School returned to campus after an evening at the New York City Symphony. It was late, nearly p.m., and they were ready to go straight to sleep. The girls filed into their rooms and prepared for bed. Three of the young women, Francis Carson, Rachel Cookson and Bertha Rockwell, took care to keep quiet because their roommate, Helen Potts, was asleep.
Helen had been feeling sick, complaining about frequent headaches. At night, she decided to stay home and rest. The girls tried not to disturb her, but Helen woke up anyway. Oh, I'm sorry, Helen, were we too loud? Girls, I've been having such beautiful dreams, I dreamed I was with Karl.
Oh, you better go back to sleep then. The man of your dreams will be missing you.
The girls turned down the gaslamp and went to bed. But before they had a chance to drift to sleep, a low moan filled the room. Mm hmm. Although Helen had seemed in good spirits minutes before her health had taken a sudden turn for the worse, one of her roommates rushed to her bedside.
What's wrong, Helen? I feel so strange, tingly and numb.
Don't try to talk. Just lie still. Oh, my dear. I think I'm going to die. Welcome to Solved Murders, True Crime Mysteries, a podcast original, I'm your host, Carter Roy, and I'm your host, Wendy McKenzie. Every Wednesday, we step into the world of true crimes, most fascinating murder cases, and tell the tale of how real life detectives closed the case. You can find episodes of Solve Murders and all other precast originals for free exclusively on Spotify to stream solve murders for free on Spotify.
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This is our first episode on Helen Potts, a beautiful young woman who attended an elite finishing school in late 19th century New York in part one will follow the clandestine relationship Helen carried on with a young medical student.
The affair threatened to destroy her family's carefully guarded reputation up until and even after her tragic death.
In part two, we'll discuss how the police and district attorney's office neglected the case of a dogged journalist set out to uncover the truth and how Helen suspicious death turned into a sensationalized murder investigation found.
We have all that and more coming up. Stay with us. At 1:00 a.m. on February 1st, 1891, Dr. Edward Fowler rushed to see a patient at New York City boarding school. When he arrived, he found 19 year old Helen Potts had lapsed into a coma. Dr. Fowler quickly ushered Helen's friends and classmates outside the room. They waited in the hall, hushed and frightened while he worked desperately to wake Helen.
Had she been born 50 years later, she might have been revived through mouth to mouth resuscitation. But the technique hadn't been invented yet. Dr. Fowler had to make do with the means at his disposal.
He attempted to resuscitate her the old fashioned way by pulling her arms up and down to extend her chest and draw in air. He also shocked her with an electric battery and plied her with coffee and whiskey. He even tried administering digitalis, a medicine to strengthen her heart. But despite his best efforts, Helen grew steadily weaker.
Her lungs came to a near standstill. Her body starved itself of oxygen, and Dr. Fowler looked on helpless and paralyzed.
Fouler tried to keep Helen comfortable and clung to the hope that she would keep fighting to stay alive. But around 10 45 a.m., Helen took her last breath.
Dr. Fowler collected himself, then did the only helpful thing he could think to do determine the cause of death.
Her symptoms and pale visage implied a death by poisoning or overdose. He noted a prescription pill bottle among her possessions. She was taking a mix of morphine and quinine.
The prescription only contained six pills and directions on the label, said that each capsule possessed just a sixth of a grain of morphine. This was considered to be a harmless dose at the time. Helen was supposed to take a single pill each night, but even if she had taken all the pills at once, it shouldn't have been enough to kill her.
Her death didn't make sense. The doctor wondered how such a bright and vivacious young life was cut so cruelly short.
Born on May 3rd, 1871, Helen Potts was the only daughter of George and Cynthia Potts. Her father was a successful railroad contractor and the family lived a comfortable life in the prosperous enclave of Asbury Park near the Jersey Shore.
Friends remembered Helen as one of the most beautiful and popular girls in the neighborhood. She was an excellent student, and she excelled at singing and music.
And outgoing teenager Helen took advantage of her town's social scene. The summer she turned 18, she attended a dance held in the ballroom of the Coleman House, an elegant beachside hotel, that night. She met a 19 year old medical student named Carlyle Harris Carlisle attended university in New York City, but he was passing the summer at his mother's house in the nearby town of Ocean Grove. Carlyle, who was handsome, charming and immediately enamored with Helen Potts.
According to George Are DECL Seniors Book Six Capsules The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts. Carlyle later recalled, She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was tall, with remarkably large, dark eyes and olive complexion, and possessed the crowning glory of all a mass of chestnut hair. Carlisle was in luck that night, Helen's escort to the dance was an old friend of his, he angled for a formal introduction to the young lady and the two were soon embroiled in conversation.
Do you dance?
Always. Are you all right?
I have a confession. I can't keep up with you, but you were so keen to steal me away from my dance partner. Do you have any regrets?
I regret making a fool of myself on the dance floor. I'll never regret getting the chance to meet you.
What should we do with ourselves now that we've met?
For starters, you have to give me a chance to redeem myself. I may not be much of a dancer, but do you play tennis?
During this summer of 1889, Carlyle and Helen were inseparable. He paid regular visits to her home.
They were tennis parties, beach trips, sailing excursions and picnics. Carlyle even began attending Helen's church to see her sing in the choir.
Helen's parents seem to approve of Carlyle. Young man came from an impressive background. His maternal grandfather was a widely respected physician in New York.
Carlile's parents had separated when he was a child, which was unusual for the time. But his mother, Frances, supported the family by publishing popular Christian literature under the pseudonym Hope Ledyard. She and Helen's mother, Cynthia, were fond acquaintances between his grandfather and mother.
Carlisle grew up with principled, intellectual role models behind her.
As a youth, he pushed back against their influence. Unlike the successful student Helen Potts, he had dropped out of school at the age of 13.
He drifted aimlessly from one job to another, including a stint as an actor in a theatre company which scandalized his mother.
His family worried that he might never settle down in a respectable profession. They were relieved when he decided to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and go to medical school in his first year. His grandfather was so pleased with Carlisle strong academic performance he promised to pay the young man's tuition going forward. Suddenly, Carlyle's prospects seemed much brighter.
But even as Carlisle started down the path to success, he didn't spend much time pondering the future. He was much more concerned with having a good time in the present. The pots didn't know that Carlyle had earned a reputation as a playboy. His medical school friends later recalled his enthusiasm for seducing women and bragging about it later, when he found a girl he liked. He did whatever it took to get her into bed that summer. He put all of his efforts into winning over Helen Potts.
If you would like to accompany me home, my brother and mother are away.
It wouldn't do for us to be without a chaperone. Helen, I love you. What will it take for us to have a moment alone together?
My feelings for you are beyond anything I have ever felt before. But if I give in to fleeting passion now, I might jeopardize my chance at a happy marriage later.
You don't need to worry about that. What makes you so certain?
I'm certain that we will be married.
Do you mean it's the two young people discuss their potential futures often. But when the summer came to an end, Carlyle returned to New York for medical school. It seemed as if the courtship might be over, but in fact it was only just beginning. Coming up, Helen and Carlisle construct a web of deceit to conduct a secret love affair. Now back to the story. In summer, eighteen eighty nine, nineteen year old medical student Carlisle Harris fell in love, or at least in lust, with a beautiful 18 year old woman named Helen Potts.
They spent most of the summer together near their family homes on the Jersey Shore. But once the summer was over, Carlisle returned to New York City.
The young couple was soon reunited when the Potts family decided Helen should study music in New York City. The family rented an apartment not far from Carlile's medical school. He continued to visit her over the next few months, so much so that he began to wear out his welcome.
Soon enough, Carlisle broached the topic of marriage with Helen's mother. Although Cynthia liked Carlisle, she balked at the idea she thought they were too young. She assumed the pair were caught in the grip of a passing infatuation. If they really were in love, she told them, they should at least wait until Carlisle was finished with his education before entering a serious arrangement. Until then, she advised that they remain platonic friends.
Carlisle was frustrated with Cynthia's refusal of his marriage proposal. But Cynthia Potts objections weren't the only snag in his pursuit of Helen Carlisle's younger brother, McCreadie. Harris was also interested in dating Helen McCready.
What do you mean by calling on the parts? I've got just as much right to see Helen as you do. She prefers me all the more reason to cure her of that misfortune. You haven't got a chance. We'll see about that.
Carlisle The brothers rivalry only increased Carlisle's determination to capture Helen's heart. Carlyle consulted a lawyer friend about the prospect of elopement, but his friend also warned Carlisle that it was a bad idea.
But Carlisle didn't want to wait, especially once he learned that his brother McCreadie was badmouthing him to the Potts family.
Mrs Potts, you must watch out for my brother. He's a villain. Oh, I won't hear such talk. We've been so homesick since leaving New Jersey. It's lovely to see Carlile's familiar face.
You don't know him like I do. He has designs on Helen. It's a harmless affection.
I'm sure nothing about Carlisle is harmless. If you let him worm his way into your lives, you will see his true face for yourself. McCreadie continue to pursue Helen, hoping that she would forget about Carlisle and fall in love with him instead on February 7th, 1890. He invited her to visit him at the New York Stock Exchange where he worked.
When Carlyle heard about this, he worried that he was losing his grip on Helen early the next morning before Helen could leave for her plan to date with McCreadie, Carlisle showed up at her apartment.
He told Helen's family that he planned to escort her down to the New York Stock Exchange to see his brother Helen and Carlyle left together early that morning, shortly after McCreadie arrived at the Potts residents to pick up Helen when he discovered she was already gone. He was furious about Carlile's deception. He correctly guessed that his brother had no intentions of bringing Helen to see him.
Instead, Carlyle brought Helen to City Hall when they got there. He cajoled her with sweet talk.
Wouldn't it be romantic if we got married right here? Right now?
I couldn't do such a thing. Imagine us husband and wife. Nobody could stop us from being together. But my mother, once she sees how happy we are, how could she possibly object? Do you really think so? Of course, darling. Perhaps you're right.
You do want to marry me, don't you?
More than anything, Carl, that morning, Carlyle Harris and Helen Potts got married in secret under false names for as much as Carlisle said he wanted to marry Helen, he didn't want anyone to know they were married.
Shortly thereafter, Carlisle and Helen found enough time alone to consummate the relationship. Once they slept together, Carlyle promptly lost interest in her for the remainder of the spring. Carlyle hardly went to visit her. When he did see her, he acted cold and aloof. Helen urged Carlisle to make their marriage public or at least allow her to tell her mother. But Carlisle refused. He said his future prospects and reputation would be ruined if she revealed that they had rushed into marriage without their family's consent.
Carlisle didn't just forbid Helen from sharing the news. He went out of his way to hide their marriage. He even burned their marriage certificate. Helen was distraught. She didn't know what she had done wrong. She hoped things might change after Carlisle's medical school term ended. And by June, both Carlisle and the Potts family had returned to New Jersey for the summer. But unlike their previous summer of love, Helen and Carlisle hardly spent any time together. Carlisle found other projects to occupy his time.
He borrowed six hundred dollars from his grandfather and used it to open a cafe in Asbury Park, just down the road from the Coleman House Hotel, where he and Helen first met.
It seemed like an innocent endeavour to anyone dining on the ground floor, but those who visited the second and third levels discovered something else entirely.
Carlyle turned the upper rooms into a private members only gentlemen's club called the Neptune Club, which offered alcoholic beverages and illegal gambling. Carlyle soon became too busy with his new business to pay any thought to his secret wife until something happened that made concealing their relationship difficult. Helen became pregnant. Carlyle was quick to come up with a solution. You have nothing to fear.
I have medical training. I could perform the operation myself and nobody would ever know. Please, Carl, I don't want to lose my child.
There's plenty of time for you to have as many children as you like. But right now the timing is all wrong. It would ruin everything. I'm frightened, Carl, if you don't care for our baby, what about me? It's a dangerous procedure. Good God, Helen, you're so obstinate. Sometimes I wish you would die.
Oh, oh, oh. None of that.
Now, it would be different if you recognized me as your wife. That way, if I should die during the operation, I'd at least still have my honour. I can't bear the thought of dying in disgrace.
Then you'd agree to the procedure if I were willing to reveal our attachment, if that's what it takes, yes. Do you promise to go through with it? I can't be burdened with an infant. Not now, for God's sake. Yes, Carl, I promise.
Carlisle agreed to reveal their secret marriage, but only to one person. Helen decided that this was better than nothing. Early in the summer of 1890, Helen had her friend Mae Schofield come to visit her.
Carlyle also came by to see the Potts family. At the same time, the trio announced they were going for a walk to the beach. But once they left the house, Helen urged her friend to go on ahead with Carlisle. She would catch up. It seems that Palin wishes you to confide in me. You two have been keeping secrets. It's true.
I can guess what you're hiding and engagement more than that.
We married last February. It can't be.
Yes, we did it in secret and haven't told a soul.
Oh, Karl, you must not keep up this charade. I will go back to Helen and press her to share the news. Her mother has to know about this.
You will not. I'd rather both of us were dead than have this come out. You must not say such things.
My life depends on my grandfather's goodwill. If he catches any hint of a scandal, I'll be cut off.
This not occurred to you before you were married.
God, I wish I were out of this. May was horrified by the news. She and Carlyle returned to the Potter's House and found Helen waiting for them.
Did he tell you? What do you think? We will talk about it later. I must go. I'm leaving as well. Wait, Karl, wouldn't you like to stay for a longer visit?
No, I'm going back to the club. I have business to attend to. But remember what you promised me?
Yes, I remember later that day, Carlyle returned to the Potter's House. He told the family he was taking Helen for another walk. Her mother expected that they'd be back within minutes, but they were gone all afternoon.
Carlisle took Helen to a secret location where he performed an abortion. It didn't go entirely as planned. Helen bled so much, Carlisle thought she might die. Fortunately, the bleeding stopped and she survived. That evening, Carlisle escorted his pale, weakened wife back to her parents home. Cynthia Potts noticed that her daughter looked ill. Helen told her she had a headache and went to bed early. For weeks, she remained sickly as she endured the effects of the haphazard medical procedure.
She had little support during this time. She couldn't say anything to her parents, and Carlisle refused to deal with the issue. He had reportedly set his sights on a new conquest. The young actress named Queenie drew witnesses believe they saw the two check into a hotel together for a weekend getaway in upstate New York.
The heartbreak was devastating for Helen Potts, but at that point, her husband's dalliances were the least of your worries. Her body still hadn't recovered from the abortion Carlisle had performed. She seemed to grow weaker by the day, worried her mother sent Helen to stay with her uncle in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her uncle, a doctor named Charles Trevathan, examined her. He quickly deduced that she was four or five months pregnant. Carlyle had botched the abortion procedure. Helen was still carrying the fetus and she was in danger of becoming septic.
Coming up, Dr. Trevathan fights to save Helen's life. Now back to the story. For most of his life, Playboy medical student Carlisle Harris acted with little regard for any consequences if something brought him pleasure. He was going to do it.
But his behavior often had a human cost after marrying 18 year old Helen Potts without the consent of her family. Carlisle impregnated her in the spring of 1890, then nearly killed her with a botched abortion weeks after the procedure.
Helen still hadn't recovered, so she went to see her uncle, Dr. Trevathan, a physician in Scranton, Pa.. After discovering the pregnancy, he tried to treat Helen as best he could. When Helen confessed about her secret marriage to Carlyle, Dr. Trevathan wrote to the young medical student, immediately demanding he come face his ailing wife.
On July 29, 1890, Helen went into labor. She was still having contractions. Four days later, when Carlisle arrived in Scranton, Dr. Trevathan was too busy trying to keep anyone alive to deal with Carlisle. So he sent his nephew, Charles Oliver, to occupy the young men until Helen was well enough to see him. As the two young men visited the local attractions around town, Carlisle bragged to Charles about his way with women. He claimed he could seduce anyone.
Sometimes he plied them with liquor until they couldn't resist him. Other times he found other ways of getting what he wanted.
Some women are frigid until you offer marriage. I've gone so far as to where two women, once you marry them, they can hardly deny you your privileges as husband. Good God, you can't stand by two marriages at once. I don't have to. One girl wants nothing to do with me anymore. I haven't seen her in more than two years. I expect Helen will toss me aside as well once this whole affair is over.
Doesn't that bother you?
On the contrary, all things come to an end. We'll both be better for it.
While Carlyle boasted to Charles Oliver about his philandering ways, Dr. Cheverton finally managed to induce Helen. She gave birth to a stillborn fetus. As she recovered, Dr. Cheverton met with Carlyle to discuss the young man's intentions with his niece.
I can't say I approve of this match after your despicable behavior. Don't be so harsh. I've treated Helen very well. She can't pretend she hasn't found our time together amusing.
But you've destroyed her. She's a fallen woman now. I don't see why that's so. We're very fond of each other. Our only sin is loving each other.
The call of you, you call that love. There was nothing loving about that ghastly operation you performed and on your own wife, no less.
I saw no reason why her youth should be spoiled. She objected and she nearly died. But she's all right now, isn't she?
Dr. Trevathan was outraged by Carlisle's behavior. He considered writing to the young man's medical school in order to get him expelled. But he was afraid this might bring scandal to Helen's family. In the end, he decided to stay silent to protect the Potts reputation, letting Carlisle off with a stern warning once the ordeal was over. Carlyle saw no reason to remain in Scranton. During Helen's recovery, he returned to Asbury Park in New Jersey. He visited Helen's mother and vaguely informed her that Helen was sick and wish to see her.
Then, feeling free of the whole episode, he went back to running his gentlemen's club. But while Carlyle seemed to face few consequences for his treatment of Helen, he couldn't escape the eyes of the law.
On August 20th, 1890, police raided the Neptun Club for Illegal Gambling. They arrested Carlyle and charged him with running a disorderly house.
Carlyle's future was suddenly thrown into disarray once he was released from jail to await his trial, he tried to run damage control. He downplayed his arrest to friends and family, chucking the whole thing up to a slap on the wrist for a minor local ordinance violation.
In the fall of 1890, Carlyle returned to New York City to start his third year of medical school. But as he tried to move on from this new scandal, an old one reemerged on Carlile's advice.
Helen's mother, Cynthia, went to visit her daughter in Scranton, Pennsylvania, after the traumatic pregnancy and stillbirth. Helen couldn't bear to keep the secret of her marriage any longer. She told her mother everything.
Well, mother, I thought he loved me. He told me he did. I never wanted to hide this from you, but I was so afraid to lose you. Oh, my goodness. Oh, my poor child. What will happen to my mother? We must rectify this. We have to set things right.
Cynthia Potts wrote to Carlyle immediately demanding answers. Carlyle admitted that Helen was telling the truth. They had been secretly married for more than six months.
As soon as Cynthia could leave her daughter's bedside, she rushed to New York. She confronted Carlisle, demanding to see proof of the marriage. Carlyle had burned their marriage certificate, but he was able to request another copy worried about the legality of the marriage. Cynthia was horrified to see that Carlyle and Helen had used fake names when they wed.
If everything is as you say, why on earth wouldn't you tell the older men your true name?
I thought it was quite clever for Helen and I to use false names.
You see, I imagined that we might someday grow tired of each other and I thought if we stayed anonymous, we could drop the whole marriage with no one the wiser.
You were going to drop my daughter. As you said, we were very young. It seemed better to give ourselves an out. Who knows how we may feel in time.
Carlyle's brash honesty appalled Cynthia, but she thought it was better to have her daughter legitimately married to a scoundrel than to have rumors spread that Helen had gotten pregnant while unmarried. Cynthia pressed Carlisle to make the marriage public with a new ceremony in a church surrounded by family and friends.
Carlyle had once spent months trying to persuade Cynthia to give him permission to marry Helen. Now that the shoe was on the other foot, Carlyle had no interest in being tied down. He found a way to stall.
He told Cynthia that her daughter wasn't ready to be a doctor's wife. She wasn't sophisticated enough. She was too impulsive. She gave her opinions too freely. She needed training before she could join the society he expected to mingle with.
Carlisle suggested that Helen Anthony Comstock finishing school where she would learn the necessary social graces of being a proper lady, Cynthia agreed that this would be the next best step in November once she had recovered enough.
Helen moved to New York City to begin her lessons. Her studies coincided with Carlile's third year of medical school. Helen hoped that her close proximity to Carlisle might bring them closer together. But again, he was filled with excuses.
Carlisle likely claimed he was avoiding her for her own good. Gossip was still circulating about the Neptun Club raid. Carlisle told the Potts family that he didn't want Helen's name to be dragged down with his.
This didn't stop Helen's mother from working behind the scenes to patch up their relationship. She bombarded Carlisle with letters hoping that he would make good on his promise to marry Helen publicly.
Carlyle hedged for months. He even suggested they keep the marriage a secret for another three years. Cynthia was fed up.
In January 1891, Carlyle received a letter from his mother in law. In this correspondence, she told him point blank that Helen was done waiting to be recognized as Carlisle's wife.
If Carlyle wouldn't set a date for the wedding, Cynthia would set it for him.
She explained that he and Helen were going to have their church wedding on February 8th, 1891, on the anniversary of Helen and Carlisle secret marriage at City Hall. They were to be married by a minister using their correct names, though Cynthia's letter didn't contain a threat.
Perhaps Carlisle thought that if he refused to comply, the Potts family would expose him for the deceitful brute he was. After reading the letter, Carlyle immediately wrote back, All your wishes shall be complied with, provided no other way can be found of satisfying your scruples.
The Potts family was relieved, especially Helen. It had been a horrible year. She somehow still loved Carlyle, but everything had gone wrong since the moment she agreed to marry him. Still, Helen felt hopeful. She thought things were finally going to turn around. She'd soon be free of all the secrets that burdened her.
She would live openly with the husband she adored. Spend the rest of her days as the loving wife of a respected physician. She believed that better times were ahead. But for Helen Potts, time was about to run out. Thanks again for tuning into solved murders. We'll be back next Wednesday with part two of Helen Potts story. For more information on the case, we found the book Six Capsules The Gilded Age Murder of Helen Potts by George, our senior and extremely helpful to our research.
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Murders True Crime Mysteries was created by Max Cutler and is a podcast studio's original. It is executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Michael Langsner with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Isabel Away. This episode of Solve Murders was written by Christina Pelamis with writing assistants by Abigail Kane and the amazing cast of Voice Actors includes Joe Hernandez, Harris and Rebecca Thomas and Jan Wong. It stars Wendy McKenzie and Carter Roy.
Thanks for listening. Part two of this episode on Helen Potts is available right now free and exclusively on Spotify follow solved murders for more true crime stories every Wednesday.