OCTOBER 13, 2014
WHEN SHE WAS 19, Alice Mitchell fell in love. She wanted to get married, but knew she would need a plan: first for securing her beloved with a proposal and engagement ring; then for working out the logistics of a middle-of-the-night elopement à la Jane Austen; then — and she wasn’t worried about this part — for passing as a man so that vows could be exchanged before the local minister; and then for finding a job that could pay a family-supporting wage. Finally together, she and her bride could set up a household like any other in upper-middle-class St. Louis, and life would be rich and good.
As it turned out, Alice couldn’t plan her way past the hurdles she faced: namely, her time and place (Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1890s) and the sex of her fiancée, Freda Ward. When Alice’s and Freda’s families discovered what was happening, they interfered. “Stay at home and attend to your own business, and Fred will do likewise,” Ada, Freda’s older sister (and guardian), wrote to Alice. “Hope you will live to see the day that you realize how very foolish such proceedings were.” Another challenge to Alice’s happiness was even more fundamental: her own personality. So jealous was she over Freda that even before the outside intervention she threatened suicide as well as a couple of murders.
When the families halted the elopement, they also decreed that Alice and Freda never speak to or see one another again. This order wasn’t just another hurdle: Freda actually complied — she kept her distance and broke Alice’s heart.
This couldn’t end well. On January 25, 1892, Alice killed Freda with a razor (her father’s, which she’d stolen a few months earlier and had been carrying around in her pocket, just in case) on the Memphis wharf, outside the customhouse, shouting “I don’t care if I’m hung!” With Freda dead, the secrecy of their affair, which Alice had seemed to value so highly, was over. Their intimacy and the crime, described as “unnatural,” became the object of public speculation.
Alexis Coe’s new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, reopens the speculation about the girls, their romance, and, of course, the murder. Coe takes an intimate view of Alice’s and Freda’s inner and outer lives, piecing them together from the evidence (just like the court case), in a chronology that supports her version of their history, arguing for the legitimacy of their love story in spite of the mores of the day. As Coe writes in her introduction, the records are slight: they include letters ranging from impassioned to silly, hysterical newspaper articles about the trial, and archived court proceedings. Also in the introduction, she talks about closing her eyes and trying “to hear [Alice’s and Freda’s] voices […] to visualize their story” through the often-muddy source material. In fact, starting with the book’s dedication — “For Alice Mitchell (1872–1898) and Freda Ward (1874–1892)” — her sympathies clearly lie with the girls: it’s as if she is creating a kind of third-person diary. A former research curator in the New York Public Library’s Exhibitions Department, Coe uses illustrations, maps, and sketches — all by artist Sally Klann — to lend the immediacy of a graphic novel and add an affecting layer to the story; to open the book is a bit like stepping into an exhibit. The graphics, along with Alice’s and Freda’s correspondence (represented as handwritten), enhance the reader’s sense of the girls’ fragility — their quirks, their youth, their inexperience, their dreams — juxtaposed against the realities of a dull and rigid world whose confines Coe also painstakingly recreates. But herein lies the problem with this particular narrative. Coe is as close to the girls as someone separated by more than a century can be, which gives the story its emotional punch, but her broader perspective of their circumstances is so shaped by her contemporary sensibility that she nearly explains away the cause of the crime: Alice, herself.
At first things between Alice and Freda were easy: they met at the Higbee School for Young Ladies, where they were chums. “Chumming,” which described especially intimate friendships between girls, was common back then. It allowed for hand-holding, kissing, and frequent embraces. Alice and Freda could be almost as demonstrative as they wanted in public without raising an eyebrow, although the concept of two women actually falling in love continued to be unspoken. It was easy for Alice and Freda to pass in the sea of Victorian schoolgirls. They didn’t face any trouble until Freda’s family moved her to another town. Even then, they were able to continue writing, visiting, and occasionally spending nights together, and with other girls, too. On May 12, 1891, Alice writes:
I started this last night, but will finish it now. I don’t think I will stay all night with you Friday. I suppose you know why. You were two weeks after me before, and it will be two weeks Friday since you stayed all night with me. As it is Joe’s time to stay with me, I don’t think I will get to sleep with you.
Sing, I have a rose for you; if it is not withered by the next time I see you, I will give it to you. I have been trying to get one for a long time. It beats all other roses. Goodbye.
More troublesome than their physical separation was that Alice was unable to control her jealousy, and was prone to threatening violence. One night when they were sharing a bed, she tried to poison Freda with laudanum by forcing the bottle into her mouth. Though Alice ultimately downed the bottle herself, she didn’t die. Nor did Freda call things off. Instead she accepted Alice’s proposal and Alice’s terms (Freda must be submissive and stay at home, like any other good wife) — agreed to everything that Alice wanted, only to become involved with a man named Ashley Roselle. It wasn’t the first time Freda had flirted with a member of the opposite sex: like many of the girls in Alice and Freda’s set, she paid attention to men; sent them letters and photographs. Even Alice did this (though, oddly, she always used Freda’s name when she did). But this time, at least to Alice, the dalliance seemed more serious. She learned about Ashley on one of her visits, and sized him up as a threat. Dearest Love, she wrote to Freda:
If you only knew it, you are getting me in trouble. I have stood it long enough. I am too jealous. I love you, Fred, and would kill Ashley before I would see him take you from me. You think I am only saying that for fun, but I really mean it. I know you love him, but if you would tell me the truth about it and wouldn’t be so mean I would not be so jealous.
She ended with I love you. I love you. And later resumed:
Please stop loving them before you marry me, love. Nothing could make me happier than to have you love no one but me. If you loved me one-third as much as I do you I would feel better. I am so j —, I will ask you once more, for my last time, to desert all for my sake: even Ashley and Henry, and be true to me fro this on forever. It is the last time I will ask it of you. If you love me you will do it. You can’t love all at once, and love them truly. You will have to give up some. Will you have me? I have always been your friend. I am not merely your friend, but your true lover […].
Freda called it off with Ashley and sent Alice a copy of the severance letter to prove it. But not before Alice considered buying a pistol. In fact, Alice kept a list titled “How To Kill” comprised of throat-cutting, poison, stabbing, shooting, hanging, smothering, and 10 grams of atrophia.
Coe portrays Alice and Freda as victims of 1890s Memphis. Not unlike the judge and jury who tried Alice in 1892, she gives the love affair precedence over the murder, but for different reasons; in her version of the story, society is on trial. But Alice was clearly unstable from the start. It’s her inclination to violence that drives this story, though that behavior is overlooked or excused — by her family, her friends, by Freda, by the court, and ultimately by the book. Desperate to save Alice from a lifetime in prison, her family pushed an insanity plea, offering all the evidence they could — hereditary, behavioral, and somatic. The court and the press, feeding prurient speculation to a hungry public, seized on the “strange” nature of Alice’s love and deemed it “erotomania,” as if homosexuality were as valid of evidence of her madness as the act of murder itself. National headlines included: “Love Runs Mad and Deadly, Unnatural Passion … Steeled the Arm of Alice Mitchell” (The San Francisco Examiner); “Miss Alice Mitchell’s Lunacy. Counsel Have Confidence That Erotomania Can Be Established. The Perverted Affection of One Girl for Another” (Memphis Appeal Avalanche); and “Begs To See Her Freda … Passionate Love Letters Such as a Man Might Write” (New York World).
Coe tells the story of the affair, of Alice as heartbroken, with compelling sympathy. As Alice said in her courtroom statement, “When Freda returned my engagement ring it broke my heart. It was the most cruel thing I have ever suffered.” Cruelty followed cruelty throughout the trial. But Alice’s actual pathology gets lost in this version of the story. “Then indeed,” Alice confessed,
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 other 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.
As things turned out, the insanity plea worked, and Alice was placed in a mental institution. The glimpses into her life there come only from outside reports of her activities, and are therefore murky. The glimpses into her death are murkier still. She was 25 when she died, and conclusions about how it happened conflict: it might have been consumption or it might have been suicide.
No doubt, then or now, that Alice Mitchell had a mad streak. However, the tension in Alice + Freda Forever comes from the abstraction of this illness as erotomania or something vaguer still — society’s interpretation and judgment of her love. Coe empathizes — you can read how deeply she’s lived the story — and hits the right beats. As a drama, this works: it’s almost pitch-perfect. You’ll be talking about Alice and Freda after reading this book. You’ll be thinking about them, too — their impassioned, bewildering, sometimes totally inane correspondence, and the way their romance turned from silly to tragic in an instant. But this is also where Coe’s account perhaps goes too far. Near the end she writes that: “like much of her life, the story of Alice’s death may have been the projection of people around her […] shaped by what they wanted to be true.” Coe wants to redeem Alice by recasting her as a casualty of her era: a teenager who dared to love another girl in Victorian-era Tennessee. She wants to beat back those who would condemn Alice and lock her up for loving. She wants to tell the story on Alice’s terms. But we have the evidence, the same evidence once weighed by the Memphis court — except, a century later, Alice has no excuse for stabbing the girl she loved: she may have managed to get away with murder once — but why let her do it again?