The Trials Of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, And Insanity In The Victorian West, by Carole Haber, read by Pam Ward
This book greatly irritated me, and a large part of this book’s problems is the fact that the author simultaneously wants to present herself as writing in defense of historical truth even as she writes in favor of tired and fallacious arguments of imaginary male privilege that are repeated over and over and over again. I would have appreciated this book a lot more than I did had the author managed to thread a very difficult needle. Unfortunately, the author’s gender politics completely knee-capped her ability to actually provide the sort of moral insight that the case and the trials of Laura Fair would need in order to be properly understood in their context. The author seems rather upset that the popular mood and the mood of the press was so hostile to Laura Fair, given that the author sees no reason why one should distinguish between men who profited from an “unwritten law” that allowed them to kill adulterers with impunity but did not allow a woman who was herself in an adulterous relationship to kill her paramour when he refused to leave his longsuffering wife for her.
This audiobook is nine cds long. The book begins with a discussion of the life of Laura Fair, with a great deal of shady marriages and divorces or threats of divorces, and a desire on the part of Laura to redefine her story and find success and prosperity for herself. A substantial part of the story discusses the subject’s tangled relationships with various pro-Southern figures and her attempts to run a boarding house and to invest her money with an eye towards profit, as she had a relationship with one A.P. Crittenden, who had apparently pretended to be a widower and proved to be a demanding if improper suitor. After this comes a discussion of the murder that Laura committed and her experiences with legal trials, which included a first trial that ended in a conviction on the grounds that she was able to distinguish between right and wrong, a successful appeal to the California Supreme Court on narrow technical grounds, and a not guilty by virtue of temporary insanity verdict in a second trial that was bungled by the prosecution and its inexpert witnesses. After that the author discusses Laura’s attempts to reframe her story that were frustrated by her notorious reputation and the fact that her name had become a byward for a wayward and overly aggressive woman, something that irritates the author but makes complete sense to me.
In my view, Laura Fair deserved death for three capital offenses that the book talks about. One of them is her murder of A.P. Crittenden, one of them is for her adulterous relationship with him in the first place, and the third one is her murder by abortion of her unborn child with Crittenden, a matter which was hushed up in court in order to protect her and her doctor. The author, though, believes that Laura deserved to be set free because of temporary insanity because of her defense of her reputation, similar to men who killed adulterers and seducers with impunity, and because of her addiction to chloryl sulfate, a frequently prescribed aid to sleep and anxiety. This gulf of sympathies and positions means that the author’s attempts to praise suffragettes and corrupt doctors for seeking to get her off and her ambivalent attitude towards the strategy of Fair’s legal counsel in her second trial means that this book is one that will reveal a great deal of what the reader things about matters of law and gender, and reveals that the appeals to science and progress have long been morally and legally problematic, and not only in our present evil age. That the subject of this book lived a long life after her trials unable to prosper and define her own story is meant by the author to be a subject of sadness, but is something that strikes me as being entirely just, even if justice would have required her to be dangling at the end of a noose.