Alexander Crittenden and Laura Fair. (Courtesy photo)

Fury of a woman scorned

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Picture a boat approaching the Ferry Building on a warm night in November 1870. A well-dressed man is seated on the deck talking lovingly to his wife. All of a sudden, a beautiful woman, dressed in black and wearing a veil, approaches. The man stands up. The woman pulls out a gun and shoots him in the heart.

“I killed him,” she said. “He ruined my life and my daughter’s.”

The woman was Laura Fair. And if there was a theme to her life, it was bad taste in men.

Fair was first married in New Orleans at the age of 16. Her first husband drank himself to death; her second husband threatened to shoot her. Laura and her mother fled to San Francisco, where she met her third husband, an attorney. They had a baby girl together, but his law practice was not successful. Two years later, heavily in debt, he committed suicide.

Fair sold her husband’s law books and purchased a boarding house in Virginia City, Nev., a prosperous silver town. Her good looks and charm soon made her a celebrated hostess, and her place, the Comstock House, flourished. Everything was going well, and then she met Alexander Crittenden.

Crittenden was a successful attorney and politician who came to stay at Fair’s boarding house. Before long, they were lovers. Fair asked him to marry her, and Crittenden agreed, telling her that he was a widower. Then Fair learned he had lied and that his wife, Clara, and their children were coming to visit him.

Crittenden used his considerable rhetorical skills to assure Fair that he would soon get a divorce and marry her. He placed his family in a residence located close to Fair’s boarding house and shuttled between his mistress and his wife, deceiving them both. He told Fair that he would stay in a rooming house during his wife’s visit, and he told his wife that his room in the Comstock House was used only for business.

For the next five years he stalled and lied, creating imaginary barriers to divorce, so he could continue his passionate affair with Fair. He flaunted the affair, installing both Fair and his family in San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, telling his wife that Fair was just an old friend who he was helping out. Finally, Fair gave him an ultimatum: “Divorce your wife, or we are through.”

Crittenden promised to meet his wife, who was returning from a trip to the East Coast, at the ferry and tell her it was over. Fair bought a pistol and secretly followed him aboard. She realized he had lied to her once more — and that’s where our story began.

Crittenden’s funeral was majestic, and all federal, state and city courts were closed in his honor.

Fair’s trial was the most sensational San Francisco had ever seen. It was headline news, not only in San Francisco, but all over the country. It had everything: politics, murder, scandal, sex and feminism.

Suffragette leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended the trial and pointed out the double-standard that excused men but vilified women for sexual relations.

The most sensational pieces of evidence were the letters that Fair and Crittenden sent to one another. Crittenden’s letters were described by the San Francisco Chronicle as a “rich feast of gushing sentimentality.”

“My love for you has been and is the one passion of my life,” he wrote. “It is my whole life and will never cease but with death.”

Fair’s letters were more erotic. “You shall kiss me in every corner of the room, hold me in your arms in each chair, lie by me on the sofa, hang over me at the piano, and sleep with me in the bed.”

The prosecutor called her a “bold, bad, vicious, malignant passionate woman” who had seduced an otherwise honorable man.

There was no question that Fair had shot Crittenden. But would a jury of men convict her of first-degree murder?

The answer was yes.

After only 40 minutes of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict, and Fair was sentenced to death. Immediately, public opinion then changed from outrage to sympathy. First, her lawyers won a stay of execution and then a new trial. This time, the jury found the defendant not guilty, by reason of temporary insanity.

San Francisco newspapers called the verdict “an outrage on humanity.” The New York World opined, “How many men this wretched woman has beguiled into breaking their vows and wrecking their manhood with her gross seductions we cannot know.”

After the trial, Fair was shunned by polite society in San Francisco. She stayed in the news for a while, lecturing on the stage and having legal battles with her doctor, lawyer and mother. Soon she faded into the background, until another tragic death occurred.

Fair’s daughter, Lillian, grew up to be a gorgeous woman and was selected the “California Venus” in the state’s first beauty contest. Lillian Fair moved to New York to become an actress and died there of starvation in a tiny, furnished room in 1913. Upon hearing this news, her mother tried to commit suicide but failed.

Laura Fair ultimately died at the age of 82 in a small Market Street apartment in 1920.

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