Alice + Freda For Now

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This much we know: Alice Mitchell and Frederica (“Freda”) Ward were more than intimate friends after they met at the Higbee School for Young Ladies in Memphis. The school’s official aim was “The Systematic Development of True Womanhood.” But by the time Alice was 19 and Freda was 17, they’d taken the acceptable practice of “chumming” (as such close friendships between young women were called) to unacceptable lengths: With Alice dressed as a man, they planned to get married in Memphis then move to St. Louis.

Ada — Freda’s eldest sister and surrogate mother — discovered the plan, as spelled out in letters between Alice and Freda, before the couple could elope. Then Freda, drawn by the attentions of two men, began to distance herself from Alice, who tried repeatedly and without success to earn back Freda’s affections. So, one winter day, Alice took action.

On the Memphis riverfront, near what was the downtown customs house, Alice approached Freda, who was returning home upriver to the town of Golddust, Tennessee. Looking as if to kiss Freda’s cheek, Alice pulled out her father’s razor and cut Freda’s face. Freda ran, but Alice caught up with her, and she sliced Freda’s throat. The date was February 25, 1892.

A woman marrying another woman? More than unnatural — as it was judged to be by the people of Memphis and by newspaper readers across the country — the marriage of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward was thought to be insane. Which is how the jury, after deliberating for 20 minutes, found Alice: guilty of murder and “presently insane.” She was moved to the West Tennessee Hospital for the Insane in Bolivar, Tennessee, where she lived for a few more years — official cause of death to this day unknown. Some at the time said consumption. Some thought suicide. Alice was 25.

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“Miss Alice Mitchell’s Lunacy, Counsel Have Confidence That Erotomania Can Be Established, The Perverted Affection of One Girl for Another”: That’s how a headline in the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche newspaper read during Alice Mitchell’s trial.

“… [T]he slave of a passion not normal and almost incomprehensible to well-balanced people”: That’s how the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche described Alice herself.

And here are some of the findings of a doctor, who observed Alice in the Memphis jail: “There is a lack of symmetry in the facial conformation … She is left-handed … At puberty she displayed symptoms of excitability … She always found boys more congenial as playmates than girls … She was the victim of an insane but an imperative delusion … She intended to commit suicide, but forgot … She is too dangerous to be turned loose on the community … She dominated the mind of Freda Ward.”

Alice Mitchell also dominated the mind of Sarah Bernhardt, who was performing in Memphis at the time of the trial. She asked to visit Alice in jail but never did. She thought of collaborating on an opera based on the story of Alice and Freda, but it was never realized.

Others observed the relationship between the two women in less artistic terms: Krafft-Ebing, the Austrian psychiatrist, in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886); Havelock Ellis, the English sexologist, in his notes on sexual inversion. But as recently as March 2014, Sonja Livingston, of the creative-writing program at the University of Memphis, wrote of Alice and Freda in “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred & Allie” in Southern Sin: True Stories of the Sultry South and Women Behaving Badly.

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According to Alexis Coe in the new book Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis (Zest Books), it was men behaving badly too. Coe — historian, former research curator in the exhibitions department at the New York Public Library, and contributor to The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Slate, SF Weekly, and The Awl and The Millions websites — doesn’t excuse Alice Mitchell’s crime. What she does do in Alice + Freda Forever is paint a picture of late-19th-century Memphis (and America in general) that is male-dominated, class-conscious, and racist to the extreme. Journalist Ida B. Wells certainly saw the city, the South, and the country in those terms. Wells was writing on race relations — and lynchings — in Memphis at the time of Freda’s murder. And rumored to be implicated in a particularly vicious case of white-on-black violence the year of Alice’s trial was Judge Julius DuBose, who presided at Alice’s court hearings.

• • •

Was the love between Alice and Freda “purely mental,” as Alice’s defense attorney maintained? But, more importantly, who was Alice Mitchell?

“Why did she kill Freda Ward? Was she a masculine murderess? A pervert? A fast and jealous young woman? Or was she insane, like her mother?”

That’s Alexis Coe doing the asking in Alice + Freda Forever, but those are the same questions that the public, the Associated Press, the New York World, and The San Francisco Chronicle were asking too. Coe answered some of those questions in a phone interview from her home in San Francisco.

“I’m often asked if Freda was a lesbian,” Coe said. “At the time of the murder, they didn’t have the words we use today. ‘Lesbian’ was still 40 years away, and without this knowledge or without saying that either Freda or Alice had a desire for another woman except for one another, I can’t actually say that either of them were lesbians. But I do think Alice loved Freda to an obsessive extent. And while I think she was a scorned lover, I also think she was an unstable person waiting for a trigger.

“Freda loved attention. At the time, Freda was also corresponding with — in her own word, ‘loving’ — a couple of other men. She even mentions that she’s in love with three people at once, but she loves Alice best.

“Alice clearly wanted the rights of a husband, but she never said she wanted to be a man. I think she wanted control over Freda, and Freda plays the Victorian woman well. I really do think Alice wanted to pass as a man. She wanted to have experiences outside the home. She wanted to work. And every time I reread the letters between them, I’d get excited about their plan to elope. But I’d also be very concerned about the curious choices they were making.

“They were going to adopt the Ward name, for example, which would have made them very easy to track down in St. Louis. And if they’d gotten to St. Louis, I’m not sure anything would change between them. I think they were going to be plagued by jealousy and infidelity. Ideally, in my mind, Alice would have gone on to enjoy her new life, passing as a man. Freda [who dreamed of working on the stage] maybe joins the theater and goes on tour.”

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This week, Alexis Coe is Memphis for interviews with local media and, on October 9th, for the official launch of Alice + Freda Forever at the Booksellers at Laurelwood. In her research for the book, Coe got to know the city well. Early on, Memphian Vincent Astor led her on a tour of Elmwood Cemetery and the city’s waterfront when Coe admits that she’d yet to get her bearings. But she got them soon enough thanks to the Memphians she met during her research:

“I have visited many archives, but the archivists and librarians in Memphis … all of them were welcoming. They sent me emails. They referred me to others. The people in Memphis were really supportive, really wonderful.”

But aside from the archivists and librarians, Coe found few in town who'd heard of this story. Truth be told, Coe wasn’t aware of it either until it came to her attention when she was still a graduate student. As she writes in her introduction to Alice + Freda Forever, she was riding a New York City subway when she first read of it — a story so gripping that Coe missed not one but three of her subway stops. She’s been engrossed in the story of Alice and Freda ever since, and as she said in our interview, her “obsession with this case informed my research. I had a time line. I knew what to read as false and what to read as true. But often what was false had a very intimate relationship with what was true.

“My greatest challenge was the lack of information after Alice went into the asylum in Bolivar. I never heard her ‘voice’ again. That’s haunted me. And exactly how Alice died is unknowable. I think she committed suicide. But I did have access to the letters of Alice and Freda as they were introduced at the time in newspaper reports and court documents.”

Readers of Alice + Freda Forever have access to some of those materials too in illustrated form. Thanks to the drawings by Sally Klann, readers have a better sense of who these individuals were, their appearance, and the times they lived in. The illustrations were part of Coe’s plan for the book from the beginning:

“After grad school, I started working at the New York Public Library. I saw how archival material really did engage visitors and how it could enhance a story. So I started to think in terms of an illustrated narrative history for my book. Back in 2011, I told my publisher that I’d like a hundred illustrations, and they were willing to adhere to my vision so readers could ‘interact’ with the story, see the love letters [rewritten for the book in long hand] and the ephemera from the lives of Alice and Freda. The actual letters between them have been lost to time or destroyed. But the last known letter — the one that Alice had on her when she attacked Freda, the letter that was bloodied during the attack — could not be located in the Shelby County Archives.”

And until recently, the grave of Frederica Ward in Memphis’ Elmwood Cemetery did not have anything marking it, not even a headstone. Coe said that a tree has been planted at the spot. Who planted it, she isn’t sure. One thing for sure: With Coe’s book, Elmwood should see more visitors asking about the location of Freda’s grave. When visitors find it, they won’t have far to look to find Alice Mitchell's as well, because she’s buried in Elmwood too. Alice and Freda forever indeed. •

Alexis Coe will be discussing and signing Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis at The Booksellers at Laurelwood on Thursday, October 9th, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

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