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 fi rst 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 his-tory department’s faculty and graduate students who, through the Dela-...
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, most of whom had just arrived in Oakland on the ...
1 The She-Devil Known as Mrs. Laura Fair
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Four months would elapse between the shooting of Alexander Crit-tenden 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. Even before Crittenden fi nally succumbed, after ...
2 The Case for the Prosecution
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After the jurors were fi nally seated and their discontent over Judge Dwi-nelle’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 Camp-bell needed to prove was that Laura Fair had, with clear malice, commit-...
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 diff erent vi-sion of the defendant. In questioning the witnesses, as well as in their initial remarks and summations, defense attorneys Elisha Cook and Le-ander Quint attempted to convince the jury that Laura Fair bore little ...
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 fi rst such hanging in California’s history. The court’s ruling, therefore, brought ...
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 fi fty-one, Curtis was a highly respected lawyer who had served one term in the state senate between 1861 and 1862. 1 Active in the ...
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 fi rst trial, newspapers across the country devoted great space to dissecting the verdict and its mean-ing for America. In contrast to the initial verdict, however, few agreed that the jury had acted wisely. Instead, outraged editors off ered various ...
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 re-lationship 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. In the second decade of the twentieth century, the ...
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Publication Year: 2013