When Laura Fair went on trial in 1871for murdering her double-crossing married lover, a morality play was acted out in a San Francisco courtroom that made headlines across the United States and became a national obsession.
by Chuck Lyons
Laurel Fair was born Laura Hall in Holly Spring, Mississippi on June 22, 1837. She was married for the first time when she was 16, and by 1863 had been married three times, widowed twice, and was supporting a young daughter. By then, she owned and was operating a hotel in Virginia City, Nevada, just as the Comstock Lode was making some people very rich.
That’s when Alexander Crittenden entered her life.
A West Point graduate, a 47-year-old San Francisco lawyer, and a former California state legislator, Crittenden went to Virginia City to establish a law practice there and—he hoped—get in on the prosperity silver was bringing to the area. When he arrived he settled into the Tahoe House, Fair’s hotel, and by the end of 1863 the prosperous lawyer and the successful hotel owner were “involved,” were swearing undying love for each other, and were talking of marriage. .
Unfortunately, and probably without Fair knowing it, Crittenden was already married, a fact he had apparently forgotten to mention.
Even more unfortunate for Crittenden, in early 1864 his oldest son, a married (and pregnant) daughter, and his legally-wed wife showed up in Virginia City to take up residence with him. The cat, so to speak, was out of the bag. The lawyer was able to weather the storm, however, by promising he would divorce his wife and marry Fair. It would just take time, he said. Five years later, Crittenden was back in San Francisco living with his wife and family and continuing to “visit” Fair who had followed him to the Bay area.
Along the way, Crittenden had also sent Fair briefly to Indiana where, he said, divorce laws were more lenient.
He would meet her there, he said, but never showed up.
By 1870, Fair had had enough and was said to have even fired a shot at Crittenden one night during an argument. She then took refuge where she had found it before—she got married to a man named Jesse Snyder, an act that upset Crittenden greatly. “I am wretched,” he wrote to Fair about her marriage, “insufferably, infinitely wretched. I have no heart or mind for anything—can think of nothing but you.”
The two reconciled and both promised to divorce their current spouse.
Fair did; Crittenden didn’t.
About this time, something gave way in Laura. She traded in the Colt revolver with which she taken the pot shot at Crittenden for a four-barrel Sharps derringer, dressed herself all in black—including a black veil, and followed Crittenden to the railroad station in Oakland. There she witnessed Clara’s return from the East and what appeared to her to be a loving reunion with her husband.
Fair followed the couple and three of their seven children who had also come along to welcome their mother home as they boarded the El Capitan, a side-wheel steamer, for the trip back to San Francisco. Obscured behind her veil, she took a seat where she could watch them. Finally, as the ferry was just heading out, she got up and walked over to Crittenden, who stood up as he approached. She shot him once in the chest, dropped the derringer, and walked away.
Crittenden’s son, 14-year-old Parker, and a policeman who happened to be aboard the ferry pursued Fair and confronted her in the ferry’s wheelhouse.
“I did it,” she was reported to have said. “I don’t deny it. He has ruined me and my child, and I meant to kill him.”
In that at least she had succeeded.
Crittenden was taken to his San Francisco home where he lived for another 48 hours before dying.
The days of the “lawless frontier,” which was never completely lawless anyway, were coming to an end. By 1870 the West was changing, something Laura Fair was to learn the hard way.
She was used to being a woman in the male-dominated West and to getting her own way because of it. But Laura was in for a surprise. The West was changing, and she was charged with murder.
Delaying any action in Laura’s case was a question of jurisdiction. El Capitan was traveling between Alameda County and San Francisco County when the shooting took place and it was not immediately clear in which county the shooting had taken place. It took a survey of the harbor to determine that Crittenden had met his fate San Francisco County.
So it was five months before Fair went on trial in the San Francisco County Courthouse, a trial, one historian wrote, that “became a national sensation. It captured the fears of adulterous men everywhere, and drew the sympathy of women’s rights crusaders.” It was also, as a contemporary historian has put it, “a ritualized dramatic playing out of the moral values of the community.”
But what were those moral values?
For the suffragettes and early feminists who crowed the courtroom the trial was about the double standard that, they said, ruled Victorian morality, a standard that winked at men having affairs but considered adulterous women as house-wrecking harpies. For the good citizens of San Francisco it was about the “evil siren” who broke up a good family. One newspaper called her "a saucy wench."And for the West as a whole it was about the coming of order and law to the area.
The trial that followed became a national obsession. It questioned women’s rights in 19th century American society and Victorian morality as it affected society in general and the West in particular. Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony noted that “female hysteria,” a part of Fair’s defense, had long been used to subjugate women to men, and prosecutors claimed Fair’s action were the result of “sexual excesses.”
She knew about excesses.
The defense readily admitted that Fair had shot Crittenden but credited her actions to “partial intellectual insanity and partial moral insanity” due to the years of deceit—some called it abuse—she had suffered at the hands of Crittenden. She also suffered, the defense said, from “retarded menstruation,” a condition that caused her to be “out of her mind” for several days each month.
The defense argued further that Fair would not have killed Crittenden—and certainly not in such a public place—had she been sane. She had been overwhelmed by an irresistible impulse, it claimed, a theory that agreed more or less with the general Victorian concept of how women thought and acted.
The prosecution on the other hand pictured Fair as a seductress who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted and as a money-hungry adulteress. Several character witnesses portrayed Fair as a “loose woman,” and one of the prosecuting attorneys accused her of having the power of a “female Hercules transcending the power of all the men of the world."
After deliberating for something like 40 minutes, the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder.
Fair was sentenced to be hanged.
As one area newspaper put it commenting on the verdict, “The chastity of California womanhood, the sanctity of the home, and the Christian religion itself (have) been saved from the assaults of the ungodly.” The New York Times, taking a broader view, opined that “the very principles on which society and order are established seem to have crumbled away,” and the New York World wrote, ”It is in behalf of women like Mrs. Crittenden, and in despite of women like Mrs. Fair, that the divorce laws are kept stringent.” On the other hand Emily Pitts Stevens, founder of the California Woman Suffrage Association wrote that if Fair were hanged “the very name of San Francisco will be odious for ages to come!"
But Fair was not hanged.
Her conviction was overturned on appeal for several more or less technical reasons including the admission of testimony about her “loose ways,” and she was granted a retrial. That trial found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.
Laura Fair continued to reside in the Bay Area and died quietly there in 1919 at age 82. She had been a subject of local gossip until something else came along to replace her in the public consciousness, had tried the lecture circuit to explain her side of things with limited success, and had appeared in 1873—under a different name—in the satirical novel The Gilded Age by the young Mark Twain.
She left behind her what is probably her last word on the subject: “When an American woman in justice avenges her outraged name, the act will strike a terror to the hearts of sensualists and libertines.”
Those who lived anyway.