In Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe tells us that in 1892 the word “lesbian” wouldn’t cross the shores from Europe to America for another forty years. American society had about as much comfort with same-sex relations as it did with immigrants, ex-slaves, and women with authority. Coe turns her quirky and murky but ultimately revealing book into a direct assault on the patriarchal system of the Gilded Age.
This Love-Gone-Wrong story about two lesbians, one whose throat was cut, was so scandalous in the late 19th century that befuddled attorneys and newspapermen invented phrases like “erotomania” to describe the relationship between the teenaged girls, who were set to elope to St. Louis.
Some things haven’t changed, as Coe reminds us. Although thirty states allow or will soon allow same-sex marriage, Alice and Freda’s home state of Tennessee, so far, won’t be one of them. Several pundits and politicians (see the case of Texas) are still scrambling to explain LGBT+ attraction as a form of illness. Even if Tennessee becomes one of the several dominoes toppling in the wave of change, the idea of queer partners being just like other lovers—fraught with desperate anxieties, jealousies and betrayal—is something much of America still can’t quite wrap its head around. This makes Coe’s book important outside of its inherently fascinating history. Any student of sexuality, same-sex marriage, or human decency will be captivated by this story of fatal attraction.
To be sure, a reader has to get behind the premise: that we’re paying attention to one lover’s slashing of another because it tells us something about society in America in the late 19th century and something about us now. You could argue the book’s selling points are its gore and its fastidious examination of the jailing, trial and sentencing of a murderess, like an episode of Law and Order: Victorian Unit. But Coe wisely swivels her gaze, more often than not, toward the gazers, the men and mothers and lawyers and journalists who tried the case in court and in public. The book becomes more than a gruesome examination of a dead girlfriend. It’s an origin story about how America got so screwed up about sex. When one attorney suggested Alice Mitchell’s bloody deed in 1892 was merely a crime of passion, he was nearly laughed off the bar.
Coe wisely begins with the murder, on the waterfront of the Mississippi River, as Freda Ward is about to take a ferry, forever, from the life of Alice Mitchell. The two lovers have been sparely communicating since their elopement was foiled by Freda’s relatives. Freda doesn’t understand what’s happening, why her former confidant is leaning toward her face as if for a final kiss, until Alice retrieves her father’s shaving knife from her pocket.
Alice and Freda had an engagement ring and—for teenagers—a fairly sound plan. “A couple like Alice and Freda had no name for what they felt for each other, no adults to advise or serve as examples,” Coe writes. The farthest that gender boundaries ever got pushed was at the theatre, where women would play male roles. Outside of the theatre, Alice and Fred were on their own, with only their passions to guide them.
How could Alice and Freda get away with their affections? Openly physical relationships—including kissing—between young women before marriage were not unheard of in Victorian Memphis. The term for this same-sex flirtation was “chumming.” Longfellow called these romantic female friendships a “rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of woman’s life.”
Three times Alice had posted letters to Freda explaining that her desires went beyond chumming, to marriage. And three times Freda consented.
Both girls were subject to their place and time. Alice thought Freda would make a good housewife, and she planned to change her name to Alvin, grow a mustache, wear pants and perform the male duties in a city where nobody knew them.
Instead, Freda ended up like many extras in Deadwood, and Alice ended up in a courtroom, presided over by a misogynist judge, a former leader in the Ku-Klux-Klan. Barely a week into the trial, Judge Dubose expelled a woman who had showed up early for a seat in the audience, for looking “‘like a Mexican.’” When she protested, he threw her in jail.
Alice was variously diagnosed with “erotomania” and “vicarious Menstruation” to explain her sexual orientation. The defense’s physicians pointed out her left-handedness, her asymmetrical facial features, her tom-boyishness, and her unwillingness to dance with men as all signs of her insanity (a plea that would keep her from the gallows). But the most convincing evidence of her derangement? “Her insistence on loving and wishing to marry and support a woman were, in and of themselves, clear signs of lunacy.” The prosecution failed to find a single physician willing to testify otherwise.
Coe juxtaposes Alice’s transformative and inflammatory position with the work of Ida Wells, a black woman also living in Memphis in 1892. Wells wrote a series of damning editorials in a black newspaper decrying a spate of Tennessee lynchings and the mob violence that destroyed one of the only black-owned groceries in the South and killed many of its employees. (An eerie coincidence: While Alice stayed at the jail, a white mob came to haul away three black men who had defended the grocery.) Wells theorized that white men were using the “virtue” of their woman to promote violence; that more often than not, white women advanced on black men, since vice versa would be suicide. Later Wells would become a successful and well-remembered activist in New York.
There is a significant problem, though, with Coe’s conflation of an influential writer standing up to injustice and a teenage murderess acting on her feelings of betrayal. After all, Alice did not incite a white mob as Ida Wells did. In a way, because of her sensational deviance, Alice may have given patriarchal forces more fodder for their cause, more reason to shore up their defenses.
Coe quotes Foucault, who said that diagnosing someone as insane, ‘“became a convenient way to regulate people, even whole classes of people, whom society labeled defiant.”’ While Alice’s father was considered a tragic hero, Alice’s mother, Isabella, had to contend with the story of her own institutionalization being printed across the country. Everyone could become familiar with the history of her mental health as her husband talked about it freely, acquitting himself on the grounds that “the passions” were not in his sphere.
But to go against that much societal pressure, to crash through the walls of Memphis patriarchy, to not give a damn if she hanged for cutting her lover’s throat, for cutting Freda’s throat, Alice may have indeed been insane. Coe recounts a time Alice lay awake in bed next to Freda as she clutched a bottle of concentrated laudanum—famous as Victorian smack, toxic in large amounts. Knowing Freda was about to depart to be with her family, Alice thought to poison them both but was unsure about the dosage.
Maybe a woman had to be out of her mind to rage against the juggernaut of misogyny. To cut herself off from society and her family, to risk being institutionalized, to form a new identity like a double agent, Alice needed an imaginative schism between herself and the consequences. Maybe the lesson here is that the reason change is so slow is because it takes a crazy person to blaze through our societal mores.