Victorian Female Hysteria

The Sensational Murder Trial of Laura D. Fair

 

Laura D. Fair Courtesy of the University of Nevada

On November 3, 1870, Laura Fair fatally shot Alexander Crittenden, a San Francisco lawyer and her lover of seven years, on a ferry. Fair had been married three times when she met Crittenden. Her first husband died of old age, and she divorced her second, an alcoholic. After her third husband killed himself, she and her mother moved to Nevada. Fair opened a boarding house, where she met Crittenden in 1863. He courted her, representing himself as single. After Fair learned Crittenden was married, he continually promised to divorce his wife. That promise was never fulfilled. The day of the killing, he was meeting his family on the ferry. Fair followed him there, fired the fatal shot and fled to the boat’s saloon, where she confessed. Crittenden died a few days later.

The subsequent trial became a national sensation. It captured the fears of adulterous men everywhere, and drew the sympathy of women’s rights crusaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Fair’s first trial resulted in a conviction, overturned on a technicality; her second ended in acquittal. Upon her release, she promised to lecture on the topic of morality. Although an angry mob of men prevented her from speaking, she remained defiant to the end. Her advice to wronged women was simple: instead of waiting for men to do the right thing, take matters into your own hands. ”When an American woman in justice avenges her outraged name,” she wrote, “the act will strike a terror to the hearts of sensualists and libertines.”The court was packed for all 30 days of the highly anticipated and publicized trial. A group of suffragists attended the trial in support of Fair. They claimed that Fair was temporarily insane due to a female malady and argued that the concept of female hysteria was used to deny women their rights and keep them under the control of men. They helped frame the trial in gender terms. San Francisco’s newspapers, the Chronicle and the Examiner, also played the gender card, though they criticized Fair as a man-hungry murderess who had seduced an upright citizen and destroyed his family. The papers played to the Victorian notion that the passion of women was potentially dangerous and destructive.

The defense team used the notion of the female malady in their efforts to exonerate Fair. Their theory was that she suffered maniacal attacks due to delayed menstruation during the year before the killing and was unconscious at the time of the shooting. Her lawyers called three doctors and a nurse to testify that such female maladies were common and that Fair was afflicted with the problem. During the Victorian era mental illness in women was often linked to the menstrual cycle. The defense argued that if Fair intended to kill Crittenden, she would have done so in a more private setting. She would not have killed him had she been sane, they argued. She was simply following an irresistible impulse. This defense tied into Victorian notions about the public and private roles of women. By going into business, Fair took on a man’s role, resulting in menstrual irregularity and insanity. Fair also testified and claimed she had periodic blackouts. She did not remember much from the day of the shooting, other than hearing Mrs. Crittenden’s voice. The defense also played on the idea of women as victims, claiming Crittenden’s false promises drove Fair insane.

The prosecution relied on other assumptions about gender, picturing women as dangerous sexual creatures subject to control only by moral constraints. To the state, Fair was a seductress who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. In cross-examination, they destroyed one doctor’s credibility and made the other admit that Fair’s symptoms could be a result of sexual excess. One prosecutor, Alexander Campbell, tried to make Fair admit to a sexual relationship with Crittenden and portrayed her as a money-hungry adulteress. The victim’s wife described Fair as a calculating mistress and herself as a selfless mate. Several character witnesses portrayed Fair as loose.

The jury found Fair guilty of murder and sentenced her to death. The verdict produced mixed reactions: most were pleased, some did not wish to see her hang, and others felt she was innocent. Fair’s execution was precluded, however, by the state supreme court when it ordered a new trial because evidence was improperly admitted. Fair was acquitted at her second trial, but her reputation remained tarnished. Upon her release, she promised to lecture on the topic of morality. Although an angry mob of men prevented her from speaking, she remained defiant to the end. Her advice to wronged women was simple: instead of waiting for men to do the right thing, take matters into your own hands. ”When an American woman in justice avenges her outraged name,” she wrote, “the act will strike a terror to the hearts of sensualists and libertines.” In the end, the suffragists who criticized her trial were at least partly right: she was subjected to a system of justice made by and for men and was not tried by a jury of her peers.

 

Source: Georgetown University Law Center 2000

 

 

 

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Author: H. Sandra Chevalier-Batik

I started the Inconvenient Woman Blog in 2007, and am the product of a long line of inconvenient women. The matriarchal line is French-Canadian, Roman Catholic, with a very feisty Irish great-grandmother thrown in for sheer bloody mindedness. I am a research analyst and author who has made her living studying technical data, and developing articles, training materials, books and web content. Tracking through statistical data, and oblique cross-references to find the relevant connections that identifies a problem, or explains a path of action, is my passion. I love clearly delineating the magic questions of knowledge: Who, What, Why, When, Where and for How Much, Paid to Whom. My life lessons: listen carefully, question with boldness, and personally verify the answers. I look at America through the appreciative eyes of an immigrant, and an amateur historian; the popular and political culture is a ceaseless fascination. I have no impressive initials after my name. I’m merely an observer and a chronicler, an inconvenient woman who asks questions, and sometimes encourages others to look at things differently.