- The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West by Carole Haber
On November 3, 1870, Laura Fair shot her paramour Alexander Parker Crittenden. In this ably told narrative, the reader learns that he was on the ferry from Oakland, California, with his wife, Clara, and three of their children, right after he met them on their return to the West Coast. Seeing the reunited family on the ferry, Fair knew instantly that Crittenden had lied to her when he promised to divorce his wife and marry her. The gunshot wounded Crittenden critically, and he died the next day. There were no facts to contend, for the shooting was in a public place and witnessed by onlookers. In the trials that followed, what came to be at issue was the state of Laura Fair’s mind. Was she guilty of murder in the first degree? Or was she innocent by reason of insanity?
The killing and the trials fed the sensational press in the months and years that followed and make good reading today. Fair had some supporters among women’s rights leaders, but she was largely condemned in print as a housewrecker, a free lover, and a strong-minded woman. The prosecution played on these negative images, making it difficult for the defense to get a fair trial. Her lawyers made an error in judgment in allowing her to speak in her own defense, and her [End Page 387] boldness seemed to confirm these stereotypes. She was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Her attorneys appealed, and she was granted a new trial on the grounds that the court should have ruled the prosecution’s discussion of her reputation inadmissible and the defense should have been given the final closing argument. In her second trial, her lawyers did not allow her to speak and portrayed her as weak and suffering from physical illness causing temporary insanity. The second jury judged her innocent.
The author emphasizes Laura Fair’s continual self-reinvention and the “many faces” put on her by later writers. Although this is of interest, this reader sees the primary contribution of the book to be its skillful presentation of her trials. As Haber makes clear, it was important in the courtroom that Laura Fair was a woman and that the insanity plea became the single issue of the second trial. In American courts, the McNaughtan standard, set in British courts in 1843, governed cases of this kind. It required that the grounds for an insanity defense be that the crime’s perpetrator was “laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind,” that he or she was kept from knowing the difference between right and wrong. This standard was applied in the previous decades, in three well-publicized cases in the 1850s and 1860s in which men killed other men. Here the plea of temporary insanity was buttressed by the “unwritten law” that a man was justified in killing an individual who had disturbed the sanctity of his home. The plea was trickier for a woman, but worked in 1865 after Mary Harris killed her older lover who had promised marriage and then abandoned her to a house of prostitution. Her defense was “paroxysmal insanity” caused by dysmenorrhea (excessive pain with menstruation). Harris’s case garnered sympathy because of her “virginal heart” violated by a licentious man. As the “other woman,” however, Laura Fair was different. How could the prejudices against her be overcome?
The defense tactic in the second trial centered around the recently established “New Hampshire doctrine,” accepted in that state’s courts, that put aside the inability to distinguish between right and wrong to focus solely on innocence based on the diseased mind of the accused, conveniently ignoring its critics and the reliance of most courts on McNaughtan. To this end Fair’s doctors now used her sex to her advantage, testifying that she suffered from a prolapsed womb and...