The Laura D. Fair Case

I find it amusing at times to read old newspaper articles, especially when they deal with celebrity or crime.  I had grown up with the belief initially that the media was to a trusted outlet, and that it's only been over recent years that their "attention to detail" has lacked.  There has always been so much talk about the "checkout magazines" such as The National Enquirer and their tendency to skim the details and stretch the truth.  However, while I do agree that many media outlets do not follow the facts as they truly were, compared to the late 1800's and early 1900's it often seems like even The National Enquirer writes the gospel truth.  While many often give celebrities a hard time for suing the media for defamation, in my opinion it was much worse before that trend started.  Such was the case of Laura D. Fair.

Laura D. Fair was a widow who was first convicted in 1871 for the murder of Judge Alexander P. Crittenden, her lover of 7 years.  On November 3, 1870 Fair boarded a ferry in San Francisco, California in which Crittenden, his wife and children were also aboard and shot him in front of his family.  Fair was sentenced to death, a first for a woman in California.  There was a second trial in 1872 in which she was acquitted based on "female issues."  I also find this finding to be funny.  Basically a woman could be acquitted if her menstrual period was late, or abnormal or she was going through menopause.  So in essence PMS was blamed for her shooting Crittenden and that was a legal defense because it was thought there was nothing she could have done to prevent it. During this time period, if Fair would have been a woman who had never married or had sexual relations with a man before she could have also likely been acquitted if the defense would have said Crittenden took her virginity under false pretenses. It may have also worked even though she was a widow, but I have found no record that this was argued at all.

This was a huge case in the late 1870's in California, most likely due a lot to the prominence of the victim.  Here is what one newspaper at the time had to say about Crittenden...

The facts are that Mr. Crittenden was a gentleman, high-toned, honorable and noble; wise in the great affairs of life; foolish as a child in all that concerned a woman. The world has many such men, who are among its greatest and best. They live, die, and are followed to the grave by weeping multitudes, because Providence preserves them from the wiles of wicked and fascinating women. That Mr. Crittenden was such a man, his long life of honorable usefulness, his many years of faithful fidelity to the love of his youth, abundantly proves. That Mrs. Fair was and is an incarnate fiend, all-powerful for evil, and constantly accomplishing it, her life of untiring mischief plainly demonstrates. She ruined Mr. Crittenden just as she would have ruined the judge and the jury that tried and convicted her, and just as she will probably ruin the counsel that defended her should she escape the gallows she so richly deserves. In the hands of a beautiful and wicked woman, men are children, and foolish in proportion as they are noble and generous.
Had Mr. Crittenden been a stolid, money loving, unintellectual, gross debauchee he would have laughed at her charms and thrown off her fascinations with the wine that he quaffed. The white wings of a dove are easily soiled, while smut does no harm on the black plumes of a foul raven.
Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas) Apr 30, 1871(

I find this particular assessment laughable at best.  I am not one to generally condone murder in any way but the fact is that Crittenden could hardly be as wonderful as he was described here.  

Laura D. Fair had been married to Colonel William D. Fair who had died about 1862.  They had a daughter together, Lillian (more on her later) in 1860.  After his death Laura was now a single mother trying to survive.  She bought a boarding house in which Crittenden became a guest and their affair started.  Laura always maintained that in the beginning of the relationship Crittenden told her he was a widower but had to later admit that he had a wife and children when they were coming to live near him. It has been said that he lived in a home near the boarding house and that for the next several years he would give his wife, who was blindly devoted to him, a sleeping medication and would sneak out to spend the night with Fair, who obviously at this time knew of his marriage.

At some point later Fair apparently had enough.  Like many married lovers, Crittenden kept telling her he would leave his wife for her but would then fail to do so.  Fair ended up getting married.  She was later divorced.  Modern media reports that she was coerced to do so by Crittenden who still proclaimed that he would divorce his own wife.  Fair made a media statement in 1913 in which her account was that Crittenden, who was still coming around after her marriage, had told her he suspected her husband was unfaithful and offered to pay for a private detective to which she did not discourage.  The detective showed her proof of her husband's affair and she promptly sued for divorce.  She stated in 1913 that her husband later admitted that Crittenden had paid him to fake an affair so that she would divorce him.  By all accounts however the affair began again, with Crittenden still making promises.

After Fair shot Crittenden she left the scene and immediately confessed to the crime in which she was arrested.  After her second trial and acquittal in 1872 the following was printed about her....

Laura Fair, just acquitted of the murder of Colonel Crittenden in California is called the “pretty bully in bombazine” by a Western paper. The “pretty bullet” would come nearer the mark.
Bangor Daily Whig and Courier (Bangor, Maine) Oct 9, 1872 (
The St. Louis Democrat says that Laura D. Fair, who shot Mr. Crittenden, has made “a quarter of a million in Yellow Jacket,” and thinks that now “she had better kill somebody else — say a brutal witness who inhumanly witnessed the shooting.”
Titusville Morning Herald (Titusville, Pennsylvania) Oct 18, 1872 (
Mrs. Fair goes unhung for her crime, but she will not go unpunished. In all civilized society where she may appear hereafter, she will be avoided as one whose hand is stained with the same stain which reddened the hand of Lady Macbeth. If the legal penalty of her crime is not exacted, the moral law will be avenged upon her in such a way that she will be likely to regret her release from the walls of a friendly prison, and wish for death as a release from the scorn and contempt of mankind. — Cincinnati COMMERCIAL.
The Coshocton Democrat (Coshocton, Ohio) Oct 8, 1872 (

I personally do not believe a lot of these comments would be allowed, at least not withstanding editorial comments, from the media in our modern day.  These comments were supposedly made by what would or should have been considered respectable journalists.  Maybe I should clarify a bit.  It is not as if some of the same comments are not made today by journalists but I think they are more careful to ensure that when they are said that is solely the opinion of the journalist and not the network or newspaper they work for.  Words like "I believe" go a long way these days, and maybe that is not a bad thing. 

I found the following particularly amusing...

The shot with which Laura Fair killed Crittenden almost as suddenly turned white the hair of a daughter of the deceased, it is said. The young lady, who is but twenty years old is described as beautiful and intelligent, but overcast with a cloud of melancholy that will embitter her future life. Being asked recently by an intrepid interviewer how came her hair so white and she so young, she answered “sorrow,” and immediately left the room.
Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas) Apr 2, 1873 (

AN exchange says that Laura Fair is said to make a model housekeeper, and her husband is one of the happiest men in California. This is the best argument we have yet seen against hanging. A reprieved murderess and so on makes the best wife. Still, it looks as though Laura’s fortieth husband may be a man not hard to please.
Galveston Daily News (Galveston, Texas) Apr 9, 1874 (

As far as the first one, it is highly unlikely that the 20 year old daughter of Crittenden suddenly turned white headed overnight or that it could be attributed to her father's death and I find it absurd.  As far as the second article, the fact that they demeaned Fair's current husband as well as called him her "fortieth" is completely degrading and uncalled for.  Again, I am not saying these things were not necessarily warranted and people did not feel that way, I just think as far as journalism goes it was unprofessional.  But then again, this is how things were at the time, the media reported what they wanted about who they wanted, to get the story and sell the paper.  

In 1913, Fair's daughter, Lillian passed away.  She had become a fairly well known actress named Lillian Lorraine Hollis.  A newspaper article of her death brought up the fact of her mother and the infamous crime, and once again, was light on the facts, and heavy on untruths....

Laura Fair, famed for her beauty, had left a baby in her rooms, and just as Judge Crittenden was stepping from the boat to meet his wife she demanded that he abandon his wife and live with her and acknowledge the parentage of the girl who died alone in privation here a few days ago. He spurned her, and, in proof that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” she killed him.

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) Feb 7, 1913 (

Upon her daughters death Laura D. Fair Snyder was at first in extreme mourning and then apparently furious.  Very soon after she made her statement to the media to "clear things" up, not only about the affair with Crittenden but also many other things including her daughter.  She was angered that the newspaper had reported she died in poverty and alone, to which Fair highly disputed.  She was also quick to point out that her daughter was born in August of 1860, a full ten years prior to the murder, and 6-7 years before she met Crittenden so accounts that she was an infant or even the child of Crittenden were not true.

Laura D. Fair Snyder died October of 1919.

Today it is unlikely that Fair would be acquitted for murder, but it also just as unlikely that she would have been sentenced to death for the crime, as she was in her first trial. Unlike the 1870's women are found guilty, and put to death today, but considering the circumstances it would still be unlikely that it would have been a death penalty case, at least in my opinion.  



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