Excerpt: The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West, by Carole Haber

haber_trials_PBOn November 3, 1870, on a San Francisco ferry, Laura Fair shot a bullet into the heart of her married lover, A. P. Crittenden. Throughout her two murder trials, Fair’s lawyers, supported by expert testimony from physicians, claimed that the shooting was the result of temporary insanity caused by a severely painful menstrual cycle. The first jury disregarded such testimony, choosing instead to focus on Fair’s disreputable character. In the second trial, however, an effective defense built on contemporary medical beliefs and gendered stereotypes led to a verdict that shocked Americans across the country. In this rousing history, Carole Haber probes changing ideas about morality and immorality, masculinity and femininity, love and marriage, health and disease, and mental illness to show that all these concepts were reinvented in the Victorian West.

In the following excerpt from The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West (pp. 79-84), Haber describes Laura Fair’s first trial where the defense focused primarily on her character, possible insanity, and the definition of victim. 


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 that Laura Fair bore little resemblance to the prosecution’s portrayal of the wanton woman who had boldly attacked all social conventions and maliciously took the life of her repentant lover. Were she truly the evil and manipulative woman described by the prosecution, the defense contended, her actions would have been far different. Rather than “shoot the man she loved, the man she adored above all other living beings,” her target would have been his wife, Clara, and her plan would have been conducted in a most secretive manner.[1] Instead, surrounded by witnesses, she had murdered “her idol—her very self, her own existence, all she lived for . . . her life centering in his being!”[2] This action left only one possible interpretation. Neither evil nor manipulating, Laura was simply a sick and helpless victim. Beset by dysmenorrhea and women’s “organic” difficulties, she had acted out of an irrational impulse. If there were a villain in this narrative, the defense contended, the fault lay entirely with Alexander Crittenden. Hardly the ideal husband and father portrayed by the prosecution, he was a selfish libertine who controlled Laura’s behavior. Over seven long years, his repeated lies and deception led to the destruction of her name and her standing in the community. Thus, much like male defendants who had been driven temporarily insane by their wives’ deception, she lost the ability to behave rationally. Shocked by the realization of his dishonesty and suffering from recurring hysteria, she unconsciously committed an insane act.

In creating this scenario, the defense rejected the prosecution’s assertion that a guilty finding and Laura’s subsequent execution were essential if the morality of the community were to be preserved. According to their narrative, Laura was a hapless and rather naive female who had been seduced by an older, powerful, and extremely immoral man. Like any frail woman, and much like the jurymen’s own wives, daughters, and sisters, she required not their condemnation but their sympathy and support. As in the case of Mary Harris, who had also suffered from menstrual insanity, Laura deserved not to die but to be protected by twelve understanding and chivalrous men.

In arguing that the jury had to find Laura “not guilty by reason of insanity,” Quint and Cook hoped to focus their attention around four central issues. At the heart of their case, they argued, was the notion that Laura was unconscious and irrational at the time of the murder. In contrast to the prosecution, which had relied on gossip and rumor to condemn Laura’s character, they would base their case on the latest scientific findings and medical expertise. By calling to the stand doctors with advanced knowledge and training, they would prove that Laura—much like Mary Harris before her—was a victim herself, captive to the effects of severe organic disease. Especially when her menstrual cycle approached, she experienced recurring bouts of hysterical mania that left her without control of her actions or awareness of events. Thus, no matter how heinous the act appeared, she was not responsible for its commission.

Second, although Laura shot the fatal bullet, Crittenden bore complete responsibility for his own death. Through his deception, he had purposefully and willfully destroyed Laura’s hopes for a respectable existence. Although his death was unfortunate, it was the direct outcome of his own selfish actions.

Third, if only briefly, the defense suggested that, much as Crittenden was accountable for the events of November 3, 1870, his failure to care for his own declining health, rather than the bullet, had actually led to his demise. In his letters to Laura, he repeatedly spoke of his numerous illnesses and his certainty that his death was imminent.

Finally, although the defense repeatedly objected to the prosecution’s attack on Laura’s “reputation for chastity” and hoped to make the medical evidence central to their case, they felt compelled to address the prosecution’s negative depiction of her character. In rebuttal, they argued that the gossip about the young widow and divorcée arose solely from her connection with the older and more powerful man. Apart from the affair, and without Crittenden’s despicable behavior, Laura would have undoubtedly remained a true and upstanding woman. As such, the jury had to consider her case within the dictates of the “unwritten law.” Similar to what Daniel McFarland, Daniel Sickles, George Cole, and especially Mary Harris had done, she fired the pistol at the man who had completely destroyed her good name and left her with little honor. Although in a state of temporary insanity, she knew that, as her first words after the shooting indicated, the libertine had brought her shamefully and irreparably to “ruin.”

Although as the trial progressed, Cook and Quint addressed each of these four issues, they hoped the jury would focus primarily on Laura’s unstable mental state and concur with their conclusion that Laura was a hysterical maniac—if only temporarily. The central issue in the case, Cook informed the twelve jurors, was “the real condition and state of mind of the defendant at the moment the fatal shot was fired.”[3] The evidence would leave little doubt that her behavior arose out of “partial intellectual insanity, and partial moral insanity.”[4] Her conduct was caused by the shock of Crittenden’s final deception upon a system already weakened by dysmenorrhea; she had fallen into an irrational state. Like Mary Harris before her, she was a fragile woman whose biological weaknesses had come to dictate her destiny.

To support their case, the defense relied first on witnesses who had known Laura both before and after the shooting. Their initial witness, Jane D. Morris, had been Laura’s nurse for much of her stay in prison. On the stand, Morris explained that she had previous experience with the insane; she had cared for both her afflicted husband and a woman patient for several years. As a result of her past practice, she immediately knew that Laura was a deeply troubled individual. Arriving two days after the murder, Morris testified, she found Laura “in a perfect state of unconsciousness.”[5] At times, Laura’s eyes rolled back in her head and her body was in a “perfect spasm.”[6] The only solution, both the nurse and doctor believed, was to administrate large quantities of drugs.

Yet in trying to force Laura to take sedatives, Morris would relate a much-publicized incident that, for some, would be proof of Laura’s mental instability, while for others, it proved that she was feigning insanity. According to Morris—and as reported in many newspapers—after attempting to force medication down Laura’s throat, she finally poured the sedative into a glass tumbler and offered it to Laura. Instead of drinking the liquid, Laura proceeded to take a large bite out of the glass. Horrified that Laura would then swallow the piece, the nurse tried to pry her mouth open; Laura’s jaws, however, remained unnaturally locked in place. Armed with a blanket and knife, Morris then struggled with Laura, all the while calling for the assistance. After fifteen minutes, a guard appeared, only to inform her that the doctor had left strict instructions that she had to stay with Laura; under no conditions was the jailer to release her from the cell.[7] Eventually the physician arrived, and he, along with the nurse and a guard, proceeded to sedate the prisoner. “We had to give her three different opiates,” Morris explained, “before they affected her at all—before we could quiet her.”[8] No sane person, she contended, would have acted in such a bizarre and self-destructive way.

Even with massive doses of drugs, however, Laura could hardly be considered rational. Throughout this entire period, Morris testified, Laura “was moaning continuously and sobbing.” Eventually able to speak, Laura began to communicate quietly with Dr. Benjamin Lyford, although her conversation made little sense. Repeatedly, she cried, “No, I know where I am. You are trying to make me out sick; and you are not going to keep me in here. I must see him; I must see him.”[9] In the first few days after the incident, she seemed neither to comprehend that she had shot Crittenden nor to understand that she would be held responsible for his death.[10]

Although Laura finally acknowledged Crittenden’s demise, she continued to act as if her own actions had little to do with the event. Learning that he died after a day of lingering on his deathbed, she made preparations to attend the funeral. Over and over, she demanded that the nurse and the guards allow her to “see him before he goes.” On Monday, the actual day of the interment, she pleaded to be released. “She said how cruel they were,” Morris explained, “. . . to cover him up in the ground without allowing her to see him.” By that evening, Laura had come to imagine that she had been to the funeral and, although denied entrance, had been able to converse with him nonetheless. The next day, her hallucinations seemed to grow even grander; Crittenden now appeared frequently in her cell. Speaking to the air, Laura declared, “You have forgiven me . . . I knew you would; you always loved me truthfully; I knew you would forgive me, and now all I wish is to die.”[11]

Two days later, Morris reported, Laura began to have moments of lucidity. Actually inquiring about the nurse’s family, she was particularly interested in how, as a widow, she was able to support her children without assistance from a man. Yet Laura’s awareness of the fact that a funeral had taken place or even that she had been responsible for ending Crittenden’s life seemed to have evaporated in a fog of chloral hydrate. “At intervals,” the nurse stated, “she would say it was the dinner hour, and he was waiting for her, and she did not want to keep him waiting, because he was always punctual.”[12] At other times, Laura exclaimed, “I must get dressed. I don’t want to disappoint him; he expects me, and I am not dressed at all; now give me my clothes.”[13] Such monologues were repeated for weeks after Crittenden’s death. Even after Laura was moved from the city prison to the county jail, she repeatedly said that Crittenden had visited her in her cell. Remaining with Laura, and unable to leave the cell during the night, Morris continued to monitor her patient and report her strange behavior. Although the nurse noted that, as the weeks passed, Laura had more periods of rational thought, she still exhibited severe depression and fearful hallucinations. To the great satisfaction of the defense, the nurse concluded that Laura was, without question, “an insane person at times.”[14]

Numerous other witnesses seemed to support this assertion. Calling several individuals who had seen Laura in her cell at the city prison immediately after the shooting, the defense led them to describe her violent and incoherent state. Lawrence Sellinger, a policeman at the prison, labeled her conduct “very bad; in fact, it took at one time myself and officer Jones; we had a great deal to do to hold her. . . . She raised up, trying to get out . . . and acted in a violent manner; appeared to me to be out of her head.”[15] Benjamin Naphtaly, a reporter at the time for the San Francisco Chronicle, agreed. Gaining access to Laura’s cell in order to interview her, he found her “raving in an incoherent manner, calling out various things, and apparently in convulsion, working and striving very hard to get her limbs free, which the doctor and the officer were holding down.”[16] Given her condition, neither he nor fellow reporter and witness Delos J. Howe was able to record her statements for the paper as they had planned, although they treated their readers to vivid descriptions of her incoherent state.[17]

In the eyes of the prosecution, however, such testimony did little to prove the defense’s assertion that Laura was insane at the time of the murder. The initial witnesses for the state had made clear that, having interacted with Laura immediately before the fatal event, they had seen no evidence of mental instability. As she conducted her business, bought the gun, and scheduled the cab to bring her to the ferry, she seemed completely rational. If she acted maniacally in the city prison, the prosecution suggested, her behavior could easily be explained as a natural response to her homicidal deed; it proved little about her mental state at the time of the murder. Alexander Campbell asked one of Laura’s medical experts, “Supposing that a woman had committed a horrible murder, for the consequence of which she was being held responsible, and that she was subject to confinement in a prison, would not that be calculated to affect the nervous system very seriously?” The witness replied, “Yes sir, I should think so.”[18]

To prove that her behavior was not simply a response to the crime, the defense tried to convince the jury that even before Laura had fired her pistol, she was extremely disturbed. She was certainly not the rational woman she had appeared to be to casual observers. These witnesses, they argued, could hardly appreciate the impact of her medical problems on her mental state. As a prisoner to her own biological cycle, she routinely, although often only temporarily, became both irrational and violent. This line of defense, Cook reminded the jury in his opening statement, was neither unprecedented nor limited to those whose reputation could be questioned. Recent events had occurred “right here in our midst—in our own city ladies of the highest respectability, perfectly sound and sane . . . have become maniacs for two, three, four hours, and after it was over they had no recollection of what had occurred.”[19] Moreover, the fact that Laura seemed sane as she sat in the courtroom or conducted her business on the street was hardly proof that she was not suffering from bouts of insanity. “Are you to say,” Cook asked the jury rhetorically, “that because to-day she is not insane; that because she is not a confirmed and total lunatic; that because she is not forever deprived of her reason; that because she is not a fit subject for a lunatic asylum; that because she is able to come to-day and detail the story of her wrongs—that that proves that her mind was conscious at the time she fired the fatal shot?”[20]

In order to demonstrate their contention that Laura’s mental state was impaired well before the fatal shooting, the defense then turned to Laura’s physicians. As medical experts who had treated her both before and after the murder, only they, her lawyers contended, could understand the true motivation behind the shooting. Relying on their expertise, the defense then hoped to convince the jury that Laura was beset by serious women’s problems. Her condition, they vehemently asserted, rather than a dubious character or loose reputation, led her to her shocking actions on November 3.


From The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West, by Carole Haber. Copyright © 2013 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Carole Haber is professor of history and dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University. Her book The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West is now available in paperback.

  1. [1]Official Report of the Trial, 49.
  2. [2]Ibid.
  3. [3]Ibid., 270.
  4. [4]Ibid., 49.
  5. [5]Ibid., 57.
  6. [6]Ibid.
  7. [7]Ibid.
  8. [8]Ibid., 58.
  9. [9]Ibid.
  10. [10]Ibid.
  11. [11]Ibid., 62.
  12. [12]Ibid., 59.
  13. [13]Ibid., 58.
  14. [14]Ibid., 61.
  15. [15]Ibid., 66.
  16. [16]Ibid., 71.
  17. [17]Ibid., 72.
  18. [18]Ibid., 159.
  19. [19]Ibid., 50.
  20. [20]Ibid., 277.