Freda adjusted to this fate with an ease that stunned a heartbroken Alice. Her desperation grew with each unanswered letter—and her father’s razor soon went missing. On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Her same-sex love was deemed insane by her father that very night, and medical experts agreed: This was a dangerous and incurable perversion. As the courtroom was expanded to accommodate national interest, Alice spent months in jail—including the night that three of her fellow prisoners were lynched (an event which captured the attention of journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells). After a jury of "the finest men in Memphis" declared Alice insane, she was remanded to an asylum, where she died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later.
Alice + Freda Forever recounts this tragic, real-life love story with over 100 illustrated love letters, maps, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper articles, courtroom proceedings, and intimate, domestic scenes—painting a vivid picture of a sadly familiar world.
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Q&A with Alexis Coe
Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis
When I first learned about the 1892 murder of seventeen-‐‐year-‐‐old Freda Ward by her ex-‐‐fiancé, nineteen-‐‐year-‐‐old Alice Mitchell, I was riding a New York City subway on my long commute home from graduate school. I remember it well because I was so engrossed in the act of imagining their lives; I missed my stop—and then three more. I’d been reading a scholarly article about the case, but I kept losing Alice and Freda in the academic talk. And so I closed my eyes and tried to hear their voices through the dense text, to visualize their story.
What kept you interested in their story?
The case is heartbreaking—and I’m not necessarily talking about a murder, though obviously that was an unconscionable act. It seemed to me that Alice had been treated rather cruelly by those around her; this began in her family home, and her reality never changed. Her ultimate demise was certainly unfortunate. Of course, Freda was the victim, but there were grave injustices dealt to both these relatively powerless young women.
Why were you, as a writer of narrative history, so passionate about including more than 100 illustrations?
I was intrigued by the physical evidence that the articles I read mentioned: love letters, a bottle of poison, a father’s razor. I began to think about them in terms of public engagement. When I started I was working as a research curator in the exhibitions department of the New York Public Library, where I was tasked with mining special collections for items to put on exhibition. I began to picture different ways of sharing their story. I longed to tell it on the page accompanied by the kind of stirring visuals an exhibition case offered. I imagined a book that was both written and curated. Artist Sally Klann illustrated many of the documents and artifacts I found in the archives in Memphis, and also outside of it; the design motif in the chapter headings was inspired by the gates seen throughout Memphis, and in particular, the entrance to Elmwood Cemetery, where Alice, Freda, and many other people who appear in this book are buried. Sally artistically interpreted the domestic scenes and courtroom proceedings I describe in the text, illuminating intimate moments, and in darkly funny turns, imagining how the faulty reasoning of some of our historical actors leads to absurd conclusions.
Alice writes about wanting to marry Freda, and describes a life for them both in which she was going to transform herself into "Alvin J. Ward" to be her husband. Can you give us some context for this?
In 1892, Alice couldn’t marry Freda in Tennessee, or any other state. And if Alice and Freda were alive today, their desire to marry and share a life together would still be thwarted by the state. In 2014, same-‐‐sex marriage is still illegal in Tennessee. Same-‐‐sex love was virtually unknown, and the word lesbian wouldn’t really be known for another forty years. In order to marry and support Freda, Alice would have to pass as a man. She may have been inspired by examples from history. Joan of Arc kept her hair short and wore military attire while fighting the English during the Hundred Years’ War, and in America, hundreds of women passed as soldiers in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Freda, who longed to be on the stage, was delighted that their plan now contained wardrobe considerations. She played an active role in shaping Alice’s character, mixing elements from their old life with that of their new one, as husband and wife. Freda loved calling Alice by her pet name, Allie, and thought “Alvin J. Ward” to be a similar, agreeable name. Ward was Freda’s last name, an obvious clue for whomever the family would inevitably send after them, but it was just one of several curious choices the couple made.
Did Alice want to be a man?
There’s nothing to suggest that Alice saw impersonation as anything other than a means to that end. Alice seemed to want out of the Mitchell home and into her own, but it wasn’t as if she could just go out and get an apartment, or the job she would need to pay for it. Occupations for women were extremely limited in the 1890s, especially for her class. One way or another, a man would be the head of Alice’s home, and she would live the kind of life he saw fit.
What was a "Victorian friendship" or "chumming" between women?
During the Victorian era, proper American women were not to speak of their desire for men, let alone show it, but demonstrative relationships with other women were considered unremarkable. In Memphis, “chumming” was the regional term for intimate female friendships, but it was by no means particular to Eastern Tennessee. These romantic friendships fulfilled emotional needs, but also served as a kind of training ground for the main event, the courtship by a young woman’s future husband.
How was Alice and Freda's relationship different?
Alice and Freda met at the Higbee School for Young Ladies, where well-‐‐to-‐‐do white Memphians sent their daughters. Alice and Freda had made no attempt to hide their relationship: their kissing and hugging and hand-‐‐holding was certainly noted by those around them. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called these romantic friendships a “rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of woman’s life,” but Alice and Freda’s relationship went beyond a rehearsal. We don’t know exactly when, but very early on, Alice and Freda stopped acting, and fell in love. Their letters were frequent and intimate, and they spoke and behaved as a young couple in love, eager to spend time alone—particularly during overnight visits.
Of large concern in the ensuing murder trial was Alice's sanity or insanity. Did same-‐‐ sex love automatically equal insanity at the Victorian era?
This is an interesting point—Alice wasn’t tried for murder. She was instead subject to an “inquisition of lunacy,” which looked an awful lot like a trial, with a judge (one of the founders of the Tennessee KKK) and a jury made up of “the finest men in Memphis,” meaning they were all male, all white and, and of varying privilege. On the very night Alice had slashed a seventeen-‐‐year-‐‐old woman’s throat, her own father convinced two formidable lawyers that his daughter could not be tried for murder. There was no denying that she had killed Freda—Alice had already confessed, and there were plenty of witnesses—but in 1892, her motive was utterly inconceivable to them. Alice’s insistence that she killed Freda because she loved her and could not stand the idea of anyone else having her, and that the young women had planned to marry, seemed nothing short of insane. And they could call upon ample witnesses to support this claim. And therein lay the brilliance of the present insanity plea: It explained what appeared to be inexplicable, and recast a murderess as the sympathetic victim of her own illness.
Is there a long-‐‐lasting legacy to this murder in Memphis?
Memphis has a rich history, and much of it is quite dark. Slavery. Yellow Fever. The assassination of Martin Luther King. Alice and Freda are not a prominent part of the city’s history. Many people I met, even those working in libraries and schools, had not heard of them, which does suggest that the majority of Memphians are unlikely to have heard of them.There are local efforts to change that, and I hope that Alice + Freda Forever will further that cause. Both young women are buried at Elmwood Cemetery, and locals and tourists alike stop at their grave and plot, respectively, on well-‐‐attended tours. Alice and Freda’s names—once well known across America—are now recognized by only a small group of people, and yet, their tragic story will feel familiar.
I love history, and I love murders, scandals, and anything that has to do with the psyche of a person. This book was really thrilling how the Author/Historian played it out for you. Not only do you get the facts about the murder, but you see some intel inside the minds of all that were involved. Granted this was a short and sweet murder that was pretty straight forward; I still enjoyed it immensely.
Alexis Coe went through great details and did some phenomenal research to find more information about the society at the time, especially in the LGBT… with the lack there of one really. I mean I was truly fascinated by the story of these two lovers. I absolutely love the “handwritten” letters and the photos in the mix within the story. The mix of the two definitely gave more depth and insight to the way you’re reading the novel.
I really liked this, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to read it. Even though this is probably one of those books that I would look at, at the store; pick it up, and then read through it a few times before putting it back down. While this is one of those books that I would probably be iffy about actually buying… I definitely recommend it. Now that I HAVE read this novel, it’s most definitely a book that I would buy instead of just looking at it. The flashy cover draws you in, but the story itself… is absolutely fantastic.
Alexis Coe is a columnist at The Awl and The Toast. She has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, The Millions, The Hairpin, LA Weekly, The Bay Citizen, Mission at Tenth, The Paris Review Daily, Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications. Before moving to San Francisco, she was a research curator at the New York Public Library, where she co-curated the most popular exhibition in the library's 101 years, and a project-based oral historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
ADVANCE CRITICAL PRAISE FOR ALICE + FREDA FOREVER
“This is a captivating account, and readers will quickly become absorbed in the suspense surrounding Freda’s murder. Additionally, the book provides a foundation for discussion of sociocultural themes, such as how LGBT relationships have historically been viewed by society, gender and femininity, and even journalism.” –★ School Library Journal [Starred Review]
"The murder was a national sensation at the time, but is little known today. Alexis Coe....retells it here with the color and liveliness of a novel." - The New Yorker