A Woman Scorned?

Review of The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West, by Carole Haber (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013)

Books with words like “sex,” “murder,” and “insanity” in their titles promise a level of excitement and intrigue which their texts too often do not deliver. The Trials of Laura Fair by Carole Haber unquestionably provides a narrative worthy of the hype.

Even if she had not committed and been tried for murder, Laura Fair would have been a colorful subject for historical study. In 1855, at only eighteen years of age, Laura found herself the widow of a man who died under unexplained circumstances in the midst of divorce proceedings. After a short stay in a convent, she married again, this time to an abusive partner whom she abandoned and later divorced. After her divorce, Laura decided to travel west and try to remake her life in San Francisco. She found short-lived financial security and success in marriage to William D. Fair, with whom she had a daughter. But he soon died of a gunshot wound, probably self-inflicted. Desperate to support herself, Laura briefly turned to the stage until she found greater financial and social success as a boardinghouse keeper and investor in silver mines in Virginia City, Nevada.

In 1863, Laura began a tumultuous, long-term love affair with married lawyer Alexander Parker Crittenden. Despite allegedly promising to do so, Crittenden did not divorce his wife in order to marry Laura. So on a San Francisco ferry on November 3, 1870, Laura Fair shot and killed him, announcing “I did it and I don’t deny it. He ruined me and my daughter” (p. 2).

Laura Fair’s crime and subsequent fight for her life sparked the imagination of the nation. Her first trial took place in March and April of 1871. A guilty verdict prompted an appeal, heard in court in September of 1872. Laura’s case curiously inverted the “unwritten law,” which effectively stated that “the accused were justified in murdering any individual who dared to disturb the sanctity of the home” (p. 5). In several previous cases, a husband or ex-husband shot and killed his wife’s lover.

Despite some similarities, however, Fair’s case did not neatly fit the framework. Laura Fair was not the outraged spouse protecting the honor of her household; in fact, she was the “other woman.” Given her colorful past, Laura also did not appear to be an innocent succumbing to the temptations of a nefarious seducer, although both Laura herself and her defense team would attempt to paint her as such.

The unwritten law justifying the violent defense of virtue typically worked in tandem with the legal defense of temporary insanity. Laura Fair’s attorneys argued that she suffered from dysmenorrhea, or severe menstrual pain, which had driven her to a condition of temporary insanity at the time she shot Crittenden. Lawyers and witnesses at Laura Fair’s trials also wrestled with the question of how medical experts and the courts should define insanity in the first place. Was insanity simply the inability to comprehend right and wrong? Or could a person be insane even if he or she technically did know right from wrong? A tricky question and one that Laura Fair’s trials did not answer..

The trials of Laura Fair also raised the question of women’s rights in 19th century American society. Women’s rights advocates, led by Emily Pitts Stevens, attended Laura’s trials and wrote critiques of the proceedings, challenging the all-male composition of the jury, as well as the first trial’s repeated emphasis on Laura’s character and reputation. Pitts Stevens placed full blame upon Crittenden, calling him a “notorious roué and adulterer” and Laura “a poor, wretched, friendless woman” (p. 134). She and other women’s rights advocates including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton asserted that Laura’s situation resulted from her powerlessness as a woman, as well as the sexual double standard which allowed Crittenden to have a very public extramarital affair for years without social censure.

Powerless or not, Fair was able to reinvent herself successfully several times as she married and lost several husbands and moved from city to city. Haber makes a convincing case for the relative ease with which many nineteenth-century Americans could transform their reputations, particularly in the West.

As an active agent, Laura Fair remade her own image, but she also became a symbol used by others for their own purposes. During her trials, lawyers for the defense and prosecution portrayed her in different ways to try to convince the jury of her guilt or innocence. Newspaper reporters also reconfigured Laura’s image. Depending on the goals of the individual describing her, Laura Fair was alternately a “brazen woman who disrupted the public sphere,” a “seductive blonde who used her beauty to destroy good men,” a “prostitute who was crushed under America’s double standard,” or “a devoted mother who sacrificed all for her child” (p. 207). Eventually, the outlines of Laura’s story made their way into the moral mythology of the United States and were evoked when convenient with little regard for the truth.

In The Trials of Laura Fair, Haber expertly evokes a mid-nineteenth-century American West that seems both familiar and foreign. It is a world in which Laura’s long-term drug use probably contributed to her criminal actions as well as a world of unbridled sentimentality in which attorneys used lengthy courtroom readings of Shakespeare to characterize the defendant and victim at a murder trial. Haber’s organization of the narrative is excellent. Where a less gifted historian might have tediously narrated every step of each trial as it occurred, Haber organizes her chronicle around distinct components of the arguments of the prosecution and defense – a strategy which both engages the reader and effectively communicates Haber’s arguments.

The twists and turns of The Trials of Laura Fair will prove engaging to a general audience as well as to historians of criminal justice, medicine, mental illness, women, sexuality, and the West. In addition to developing an argument of historical significance, Haber has also crafted a history that compels the reader to anticipate the denouement as eagerly as if reading a gripping fictional courtroom drama. Was Laura Fair hanged for her crime? I leave that to the reader to discover.