The Trials of Laura Fair
Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West
Publication Year: 2013
Published by: The University of North Carolina Press
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I first discovered Laura Fair through a seminar I taught at the University of Delaware on murder and madness in the nineteenth century. As such, I wish to thank all those students who brought enthusiasm and insight to the many trials that we deconstructed. I am also grateful to the UD history department’s faculty and graduate students ...
Introduction: Laura Fair and the Unwritten Law
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On November 3, 1870, four-time married, twice-divorced, twice-widowed, thirty-three-year-old Laura Fair of San Francisco lurked in the shadows on the San Francisco–Oakland ferry, the El Capitan. Dressed in a veil and dark cloak covering much of her body, she nervously examined the faces of the passengers, ...
1. The She-Devil Known as Mrs. Laura Fair
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Four months would elapse between the shooting of Alexander Crittenden on the El Capitan and the much-publicized trial that began on March 27, 1871. During this time, although Laura was quickly entombed in the city prison and later moved to the county jail, she was never really out of sight or mind. ...
2. The Case for the Prosecution
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After the jurors were finally seated and their discontent over Judge Dwinelle’s ruling on their sequestering subsided, Harry Byrne rose to speak for the prosecution. As the press crowded close to hear his opening, the case, he explained, would be straightforward. All he and Alexander Campbell needed to prove was that Laura Fair had, with clear malice, committed premeditated murder. ...
3. The Defense Responds
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While the prosecution had the privilege of both opening and closing the case, the defense struggled to leave the jury with a radically different vision of the defendant. In questioning the witnesses, as well as in their initial remarks and summations, defense attorneys Elisha Cook and Leander Quint attempted to convince the jury ...
4. The Appeal
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The news of Laura Fair’s guilty verdict spread rapidly across the nation. Although calls for her death had come from both the press and the public, many doubted that a jury would actually condemn a woman to death. As the newspapers continually informed the public, it would mark the first such hanging in California’s history. ...
5. The Second Trial
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In the fall of 1872, the press and public anxiously awaited the start of the second trial. Popular attention now turned to Laura Fair’s new counsel, N. Greene Curtis, who, to most it seemed, had foolishly agreed to defend his client. At age fifty-one, Curtis was a highly respected lawyer who had served one term in the state senate between 1861 and 1862. 1 ...
6. The Fair Lunatic
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With the prospect of freedom, Laura Fair once again became a subject of national interest. As had been true after the first trial, newspapers across the country devoted great space to dissecting the verdict and its meaning for America. In contrast to the initial verdict, however, few agreed that the jury had acted wisely. ...
Epilogue: The Many Faces of Laura Fair
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Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Laura Fair’s story continued to resonate with readers, although it bore increasingly little relationship to the events as they actually occurred. With the passing of the years, she became an easily recognized symbol, her name alone used to evoke moral certainties. ...
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Publication Year: 2013