On January 25th, 1892, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell brutally slashed 17-year-old Frederica “Freda” Ward’s throat on a crowded Memphis boardwalk. She apparently intended to kill herself afterward, but surging crowds prevented her suicide; after a brief delay, police arrested Alice, who never walked free again. Though gruesome, Mitchell’s actions probably wouldn’t have mattered beyond Memphis itself, until her motivations became clear. Mitchell and Ward were in love, but conservative families thwarted their plans to get married.
Mitchell’s spectacular actions, and the media pageant following, gripped national, even international, attention throughout 1892. However, these events are now mostly known only among historians and gender scholars. San Francisco-based author Alexis Coe has written on gender issues for multiple high-gloss magazines; in her first book, she purposes to return Alice and Freda to popular awareness. If telling their story raises awareness about America’s deep-rooted sexual framework, both then and now, so much the better.
Alice Mitchell’s influential, well-heeled father, a fixture in the Memphis economy, preemptively declared Alice clearly insane. Why else, he reasoned, would a well-bred white girl think she could disguise herself in men’s clothing, marry another girl, and get (gasp!) a job to support them? Alice’s defiance of Victorian gender standards quickly became a two-pronged fork, supporting her insanity defense while titillating newspaper readers nationwide. In Coe’s telling, nationwide journalism quickly descended to slut-shaming and voyeurism.
Alice and Freda made elaborate plans. Alice intended, adopting the male identity of “Alvin J. Ward,” to elope with Freda, marry in church, and set up housekeeping in St. Louis. Freda helped Alice device subterfuges worthy of Hollywood Gothic, and their letters, which remarkably survive, reveal mutual affection worthy of celebration. But when their families discovered their romance, fraught with complications that seem tragicomic after what followed, they were ordered to stop. Alice couldn’t obey.
This story unfolds with alternating tones, careful historical research intercutting with gripping narrative. Coe’s story starts with Freda’s murder, then unfolding both ways, revealing the girls’ “unnatural” romance while the sensationalized trial transforms backwater Memphis into a global hotspot. Judge Julius Dubose, a consummate showman and benchmark of spotty ethics, contrasts splendidly with ambiguous Alice, systemically silenced by the men around her, still an enigma a century after her spectacular trial and subsequent mysterious death.
Coe promises, in her introduction, to eschew complex gender politics and sexual identity ideology which colors most modern writing about this case. She’s more successful at some times than others. Gender issues dominate this story: the white men steering Alice Mitchell’s story, including her father, her attorneys, and the judge, keep bringing gender back into the proceedings. The antiquated gender standards applied to Alice’s evaluation will surely strike modern readers as pseudo-scientific, dictatorial, and bizarre.
White girls’ upbringing in 19th Century Memphis seems remarkable to modern viewers. (I say “white girls” deliberately; Alice’s lopsided relationship with an African American kitchen servant looms large in her narrative.) Segregated education cultured domesticity, submission, and servility. Strangely, though Victorians couldn’t imagine same-sex love, girls openly practiced “chumming,” a practice of affection and play courtship among schoolmates which, parents imagined, prepared girls for mature relationships with men. That’s how Alice and Freda’s romance began.
Alice must’ve been deranged, eminent physicians argued, because she suffered adolescent nosebleeds—”vicarious menstruation,” they called it. Her asymmetrical face proved homicidal capacity. Seriously, doctors, white males all, made these diagnoses. Alice’s fondness for baseball, and disinterest in dolls, ostensibly proved her lunacy. And what well-bred merchant’s daughter could possibly live satisfied in a marriage that couldn’t ever produce children? Alice and Freda’s shared acceptance of child-free marriage basically secured Alice’s ultimate “present insanity” finding.
Coe’s narrative benefits from Sally Klann’s copious illustrations. Klann recreates the visual texture of fin-de-siècle Memphis, a world removed from today’s standards. Beyond its horse-drawn simplicity, Memphis’ deeply hierarchical society divided populations by gender, race, wealth, and family prestige. (Alice’s trial coincided with the People’s Grocery Company lynching that galvanized Ida B. Wells.) Klann’s illustrations also help expand Coe’s text, which is remarkably brief: too long for a magazine article, but barely standard book length.
Reading Coe’s narrative, I received two impressions. First, alienation: the shoddy science, cash-and-carry justice, and haughty moralism make Memphis a foreign landscape. Second, recognition: these characters have their blinders, but who doesn’t? Will my grandchildren feel about our era as we feel about Victorian Memphis? We cannot know what implications we miss because we don’t know where to look. Coe’s story, like all true classics, old and new, succeeds because ultimately, it’s all about us.