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It’s a story as old as Tennessee’s Chickasaw Bluffs: two young lovers who plan to elope are torn apart by their disapproving families, and bloodshed ensues. What makes the title pair of Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever worth writing about is the confluence of their era and their sex. In 1892, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell slashed the throat of 17-year-old Freda Ward, whom she had planned to marry and support by posing as a man before Ward’s sister intercepted their plans and forced her to cut off contact. The murder trial drew swarms of national reporters to Memphis, where Mitchell’s lawyers built a successful insanity defense on the premise that her belief that two women could live together as spouses was itself delusional.
It should be admitted that, as attempted by these two particular women, it probably was. They chose tissue-thin pseudonyms and planned to be married by Ward’s family reverend. Ward encouraged the attentions of a male suitor throughout their engagement, while Mitchell periodically threatened violence against herself, her girlfriend, and the would-be beau. Pare away the context and you have the story of a teenage girl being stalked and murdered by her jealous ex—hardly the stuff of the romantic formula on the cover.
But for Coe, the context is where much of the action is. She closely follows Lisa Duggan’s expansive 2000 treatment of the case, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity, in framing Mitchell and Ward’s story against concurrent developments in journalism, medicine, racial justice, and the whole of American progress.
Whereas Duggan took an explicitly academic tack, Coe’s book is published by an imprint specializing in “juicy nonfiction” for the 16+ market. In this format—complete with Sally Klann’s notebook-doodle-style illustrations and cursive reproductions of archival letters—the doses of academese she retains are sometimes jarring. Chapters tend to run aground on blandly unexceptionable statements such as “Mass media played an influential role in regulating the boundaries of American modernity,” which read as if written to satisfy a term-paper requirement. Other arguments feel overblown, as when Coe posits Mitchell as “a gendered threat to white men’s authority” that “served as a dire call to claim what belonged to them.” However true this may be in the abstract, there is little hint in the discourse of the day that Mitchell was seen as anything other than a deranged oddity on her way to safe confinement, and Mitchell herself was so obsessively focused on her single love as to void all questions of political identity.
There was, however, a lot going on in Memphis in 1892, to the extent that one hopes the inevitable next rendition of this tale will come in the form of historical fiction. For instance, Mitchell’s stay in jail overlapped with the confinement and lynching of three African-American grocers arrested for defending themselves when a mob led by a white competitor broke into their store. The case spurred then-local journalist and activist Ida B. Wells to access greater depths of outrage in her writing, which in turn incensed the white reading public enough to burn down the offices of her newspaper. Meanwhile, the judge who heard Mitchell’s case was pulling double duty as head of the local Klu Klux Klan. Clearly, Southern white men of the time did perceive themselves to be under attack—but not, primarily, from murderous lesbians. Instead, their benevolent sexism towards white women made the gentlemen of the jury easily susceptible to the argument that Mitchell was a victim of insanity, passed down, the defense’s medical experts theorized, from a mother who suffered what doctors today would call post-partum depression.
It’s unclear how much attention Ward, Mitchell, and their friends would have paid to this racial violence. Their correspondence, liberally quoted in Alice + Freda Forever, betrays little knowledge of the world at large. What it does reveal—through Coe’s sympathetic curation and commentary—is just how stifling late adolescence was for these women, caught in limbo between the leniency of childhood and the looming obligations of marriage and motherhood.
To occupy their days, they drifted into realms of playful fantasy: tracking the great actresses who stopped through town, penning unserious letters to men who placed newspaper personal ads, and striking up platonic same-sex courtships so common that there was a term for them—”chumming,” used to describe a demonstrative but unthreatening affection between girls. Given these pastimes, it’s not so hard to imagine how the romantic scenario Alice Mitchell dreamt up for herself could have come to seem real. Her society paid little enough attention to the mental and emotional lives of its young women. Coe affectingly conveys the tragedy that this neglect never quite amounted to the freedom to slip away.
Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
By Alexis Coe
Hardcover, 9781936976607, 224 pp.