A Same-Sex Murder Ballad

Alice & Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
By Alexis Coe. Illustrations by Sally Klann
San Francisco: Pulp, an imprint of Zest Books, 2014, 223 pp., $16.99, hardcover

Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis

Shortly after I started reading Alice & Freda Forever, the old murder ballad, “Banks of the Ohio,” surfaced in my mind. It hasn’t gone away. In the song, young Willie sings,

I asked my love to take a walk
To take a walk, just a little walk
Down beside where the waters flow
Down by the banks of the Ohio.

He proposes, his love declines; he stabs her to death, despite her entreaty, “Don’t you murder me / I’m not prepared for eternity.” Soon afterward he comes to his senses, crying, “Oh God, what have I done? / Killed the only woman I love / Because she would not be my bride.”

Like most old ballads, this one has multiple versions, including a unconvincing modern one in which a female narrator kills the man who won’t marry her.

On January 25, 1892, near the banks of the Mississippi in Memphis, Tennessee, nineteen- year-old Alice Mitchell murdered seventeen-year-old Freda Ward for a reason similar to Willie’s: Freda had broken off their engagement and thus put an end to their plans to elope to St. Louis and there set up housekeeping as man and wife. Mitchell did the deed in public, and in spectacularly bloody fashion: with her father’s razor, which she had been carrying around for some time waiting for the right moment. The eyewitnesses included Ward’s sister Jo, who tried to fend off Mitchell and was wounded herself.

Mitchell may have intended to kill herself as well, but it didn’t work out that way. She was arrested at her family’s home a few hours later. The trial that followed was a nationwide sensation, and it is the trial and the attendant publicity that Alexis Coe focuses on in her well- researched book about the case. Court documents, medical reports, and newspaper accounts furnish most of the primary source material, along with Mitchell and Ward’s love letters. These, not surprisingly, were a sensation in themselves. Two young women considered themselves engaged? They planned to run off together? Unheard of!

This is what drew Coe to the story. “While I offer historical context in the pages that follow,” she writes in the introduction,

this is very much about Alice and Freda’s short-lived romance. To tell that story—with so few primary sources, and even fewer trustworthy ones among them—I have strained to hear their voices in the archives, newspapers, medical journals, school catalogs, courtroom proceedings, and of course, their love letters.

Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward were close companions at the Higbee School for Young Ladies, a finishing school for the daughters of white, well-to-do Memphis. Here, as elsewhere, intense relationships between young women weren’t unusual. “Chumming” was the word Memphis used to describe such liaisons.

Both young women loved the theater, especially Ward, who wanted to go on the stage, though with little hope of ever getting there. They played with different names and different parts. Gradually a plot grew between them: they would marry and move to St. Louis, where Mitchell, dressed as a man, would support Ward, and Ward would be her wife. It’s not clear how serious Ward ever was about the plan, but Mitchell built her whole future around it. Then, Ward’s family found them out. Ward returned the engagement ring Mitchell had given her and, worst of all, apparently went on with her life as if the breakup was no big deal. Mitchell couldn’t do likewise.

After Alice Mitchell was arrested for murder, George Mitchell, her father, moved quickly. The Mitchells didn’t belong to the local aristocracy, but they were well-off and well- connected. He engaged two of Tennessee’s most eminent lawyers. Since there were several eyewitnesses to the crime, and Alice had confessed, the strategy was to plead “present insanity,” meaning in effect that Alice Mitchell was incompetent to stand trial. Formidable legal and medical forces were marshalled to make the case.

Among the factors supporting the plea was heredity: George Mitchell had institutionalized his wife, Isabella, several times for what was probably postpartum depression, and she was widely considered unstable. (In a too-literal reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Coe writes that “the story speaks . . . to Alice’s mother, Isabella.” But the story is not just about institutionalized women; it’s about the way in which all women are institutionalized: confined to one room and denied access to the rest of the house. The house can be taken as a literal place, but it’s also a metaphor for the wider world. Confinement can stunt one’s growth and even drive one crazy. A case might be made that this is what happened to Alice Mitchell. The story, coincidentally, was published in January 1892, the same month that Alice killed Freda.) The legal team prepared a capsule biography for Alice, emphasizing her disinterest in “those childish amusements and toys that girls are fond of,” her proficiency at activities considered better suited to boys, and—a sure sign of abnormality, if not outright lunacy—“she was sometimes rude, and always indifferent to young men.”

And of course there was the plan to elope with Ward, and the love letters that confirmed it.

The trial was delayed while the judge ordered his courtroom expanded to accommodate more spectators. Reporters flooded into Memphis and spent their time buttonholing any “local” who would talk to them. They got it wrong as often as they got it right, but whatever they got, the nation ate it up and demanded more.

Readers in 2015 are likely to want something a little different. Despite Coe’s best intentions, the voices of Mitchell and Ward are often drowned out by the period sources that were shocked and appalled by things that don’t shock and appall us. Coe seems to have been influenced by this as well. Standing against the flood of rhetoric condemning “same-sex love” as unnatural and even insane, she speaks in its defense, but in doing so she loses sight of two significant points: first, that in this case the “same sex” was female; and second, that a “love” that leads to the murder of the beloved might be something more, or less, than love.

The night of the murder, Mitchell’s lawyers interviewed her in her jail cell. According to an article published at the time in the Memphis Appeal Avalanche, she recounted how devastated she was when Ward broke off the engagement:

I could not bear to think of her living in the company of others. Then, indeed, I resolved to kill Freda because I loved her so much that I wanted her to die loving me, and when she did die I know she loved me better than any human being on earth. I got my father’s razor and made up my mind to kill Freda, and now I know she is happy.

Coe notes, of this passage:

Today’s readers are likely to interpret this confession as the unfortunate saga of a troubled, teenage romance turned deadly: Alice believed she had found her one true love, and that their commitment could withstand any challenge—or be immortalized by death. . . . If any part of her statement casts a doubt on Alice’s sanity, it is the conclusion, in which she claims to know Freda is happy to have been murdered.

“I resolved to kill Freda because I loved her so much that I wanted her to die loving me”? Perhaps my twenty-first-century sensibility is getting in the way here, but this doesn’t strike me as the resolve of a completely sane person. What kind of love justifies murder to keep the beloved from leaving? Why can’t I get “Banks of the Ohio” out of my mind?

Ann Jones wrote, in the introduction to the 2009 reprint of her landmark 1980 book, Women Who Kill:

The typical woman who kills a husband or boyfriend does so in self-defense, usually after repeated attacks of increasing violence, and without intending to cause death. But the typical man who kills a wife or girlfriend does so deliberately when he thinks he is losing control over her —when she asks for a divorce, hires a lawyer, goes home to her mother, or even when she merely gets a job or goes back to school.

Mitchell’s murder of Ward is closer to the scenario of the typical male murderer than that of the typical female. Does this suggest that Mitchell was a man, or mannish, or a man wannabe? Of course not. It suggests that a closer look at Mitchell’s situation is called for. In Coe’s eagerness to claim Mitchell as a pioneer of same-sex love, she tends to overlook the fact that Mitchell was also a young woman who had a compelling reason to resist the limited options available to her.

As Jones and others have pointed out, in the United States, the nineteenth century was a period of rigidly demarcated gender norms, especially for white women of Mitchell and Ward’s class. As the century went on, the norms came under increasing, and increasingly effective, attack. As a result, those whose worldview and privilege rested on those norms became more vociferous in their defense, and more intransigent. In Women Who Kill Jones explores in detail the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts—which also happened in 1892 but which, unlike the story of Alice and Freda, has lived on in cultural memory. She makes a persuasive case that Lizzie Borden was acquitted mainly because judge and jury couldn’t admit that a woman of Lizzie’s social station could possibly have done the deed.

Against this backdrop, imagine young Mitchell, much happier playing physical games and working around horses than sewing and cooking. Under the same roof lives her mother, institutionalized after almost every childbirth, fragile both physically and mentally, and clearly not happy living the life that is supposed to be the fulfillment of her nature. In a different city, 6 Mitchell might have glimpsed other possibilities, but in Memphis she probably saw only one way out: play the man’s part, marry her beloved Ward, and escape.

Did the plan have the slightest chance of succeeding? No, for a host of reasons, but Mitchell was wholly invested in it. It might have been the only livable future she could imagine. It’s not unlikely that Ward realized how impractical it was, and was more than a little relieved when she was forced to withdraw from the fantasy. But once she withdrew, the fantasy collapsed. Mitchell could no longer see any future for herself—or for Freda.

After the “present insanity” plea triumphed in court, Mitchell was institutionalized at the Western Hospital for the Insane in Bolivar, Tennessee. There she died less than six years later, on March 31, 1898, possibly of tuberculosis, possibly a suicide. The cause of death remains uncertain. She was 25 years old.

Coe has done us a service by bringing Alice and Freda’s story to the attention of modern readers and by documenting so thoroughly the reactions of the legal system, the medical authorities, and the popular press. What is missing here are the responses of those familiar with the ways in which law, medicine, and conventional wisdom restricted women’s options. In the early 1890s, many veteran women’s-rights pioneers were still active. Younger generations, represented by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, among others, were coming up behind them. Their writings might not have reached Mitchell’s world, but news of the case almost certainly reached them. What did they have to say about it? Whatever they did say may well be buried in letters, journals, and publications of limited circulation—dissertation topic, anyone?

The tragedy of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward might pique the interest of a novelist or playwright as well. Since reading Alice & Freda Forever, I’ve been hearing a subtext in “Banks of the Ohio” that I’d never considered before. If Willie killed his girlfriend, I assumed, it must have been because his ego couldn’t handle the rejection. But perhaps that wasn’t the whole story. Perhaps when she said no to his proposal, his whole future collapsed. By killing her, he effectively ended his own life—as Alice Mitchell did hers in January 1892.

Susanna J. Sturgis is a freelance editor and writer. Her first novel, The Mud of the Place, was published in 2008. She is currently working on her second. She blogs about writing and editing at Write Through It (http://writethroughitblog.com).

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