In 1892, the entire country was captivated by the trial of Alice Mitchell, a 19-year-old from a respected Memphis family who’d gone and murdered her ex-fiancee Freda Ward after Ward reneged on their plan to get married and be together forever. The story of Alice and Freda is told by writer, historian and researcher Alexis Coe in the book Alice and Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis. Coe meticulously researched the girls’ romance, the case against Alice and her trial, revealing the particular social norms and cultural shifts happening at the time w/r/t popular conception of gender roles, class and race that made the case such a sensation.
Nobody doubted that Alice had killed Freda — the murder had occurred in broad daylight in public — but her lawyers needed to prove that she was insane in order to get her committed to an asylum rather than sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Their primary argument: any woman who could be in love with another woman was obviously insane for that reason alone. “Therein lay the brilliance of the present insanity plea,” writes Coe. “It explained what appeared to be inexplicable, and recast a murderess as the sympathetic victim of her own illness.” Nobody used the word “gay” back then, of course, the popular term was “invert” (as you may recall from The Well of Loneliness) and was used to describe humans we’d now categorize as transgender and/or gay.
Unfortunately, my dear queer friends, I worry that many of you are at risk as I suspect you also possess many of these qualities. I fear for the health of your soul!
21 Qualities of Alice Mitchell Presented By The Defense As Part Of Their Case To Prove Her Insanity (And By “Insanity” I Mean “Homosexuality”)
1. “[Her mother] undertook to teach her crocheting, but could not.”
2. She “delighted in marbles and tops.”
3. Her best friend’s older brother asked her to dance this one time and she said no, she’d rather lie in a hammock with her best friend
4. Her face was asymmetrical
5. “She often rode [her horse] bareback.”
6. Her mother suffered “puerperal insanity” following the births of her children and because Alice was her final and most difficult pregnancy, it was therefore obvious that her mother had easily “passed her insanity” onto her daughter, making Alice “someone capable of perverse, unnatural love.”
7. “She was regarded as mentally wrong by young men.”
8. She believed she could marry a woman and that they could have a family together without having children. (“A childless home, to [the doctor’s] mind, served no purpose, and could only be understood as another sign of unreason.”1)
9. She was left-handed
10. She could “pump a [baseball] swing” better than her brother
11. She suffered from nosebleeds during her period, labeled as “vicarious menstruation.”
12. She planned on passing as a man and supporting Freda financially
13. She kept marbles and baseballs in her bedroom
14. She thought she was in love with a woman
15. She failed to “balk” when the butcher called her a tomboy
16. She enjoyed target shooting with a small rifle
17. She disliked sewing and needlework
18. She suffered from extreme nervous excitement and headaches
19. She was on a baseball team
20. She was a very good climber.
21. “When only four or five years old, she spent much time at a swing in the yard of the family performing such feats upon it as skinning the cat, and hanging by an arm or a leg.”
1. Dr. John Hill Callander testified that “The frankness and sincerity of her manner on this topic was evidence either of a gross delusion or the conception of a person imbecile, or of a child without knowledge of the usual results of matrimony or the connubial state, or of the purpose of the organs of generation in the sexes.”
Check out Alice and Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis for yourself and learn the whole sordid story. I liked it a lot!
Would you look at that, I’m vicariously menstruating as I’m writing this. Guess you’ve caught me.
i think it’s a thing
I am halfway through this book and everything about this whole story is BONKERS, everyone is BONKERS for various reasons, it’s so delicious.
also re #8: would it….would it have been better if she wanted to adopt? would it have been better if she’d thought they COULD have children? I have questions for this doctor.
I love it so much because I love reading historical versions of things that still happen today. Like “stalking your ex on instagram to see if she’s really staying in tonight” becomes “taking a buggie to the docks to check if she really could’ve left town on a boat tonight”
‘did not balk at being called a tomboy’ suddenly the 1890s are so relatable.
Oh man, I wonder when I’m going to murder. :(
So, even back then playing/liking baseball was a sign of being a queer lady?
The prosecution actually took a huge issue with the inclusion of her baseball-playing as evidence, moreso than other ideas presented in the trial. From the book:
“By the time Lillie confirmed that Alice had been on the baseball team at Miss Higbee’s, as if it were a revelatory admission, Attorney General Peters had heard enough. He took issue with the defense’s emphasis on sports, asserting that it had nothing to do with insanity, nor was it even rare. After all Alice had not started the baseball team at Miss Higbee’s. It existed before she enrolled, and when she joined, her name was added to a roster of other young women who enjoyed sports, but still acted in an otherwise non-homicidal manner.”
The phrase “otherwise non-homicidal manner” is one of my new favorite things.
“She was regarded as mentally wrong by young men.”
If this is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.
I sincerely hope I’m not the only one who had to google “skinning the cat”
i did not but thanks to you i did and now i feel a whole lot better about the whole thing
Do not recommend if you have ‘safe search’ turned off.
I did not, but I am now going to be questioning all the apparently ‘straight’ and allegedly ‘not insane’ circus people I train with…
I had to look it up, too. Phew!
this is so good!
Sounds interesting. I wonder if this inspired the trope of the scary obsessive lesbian who turns violent when her lover reforms to a good straight girl. It’s an a lot of the exploitation pulp fiction
I had a similar thought.
Judging from this passage in Lillian Feldman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers; it very well might have. http://books.google.com/books?id=44i96GWYxSQC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=Alice%20Mitchell%20&f=false
Three works of fiction come out in 1895 linking lesbian relationship to murder. Two of which were written by women: a short story called “The Long Arm” and a novel called “The Strange Disappearance of Eugene Comstock” The one that closest resembles the Alice Mitchell case (according to Feldman) was written by a Dr. John Carhart “Norma Trist” which claimed one of the causes for the title protagonists “inversion” to be a father wanting her a “good education”!
loving #4. Lezzers: rousing suspicion through asymmetrical practices circa 1892
I want to turn this into a musical SO badly. This is singing to me.
Apparently Sarah Bernhardt wanted to turn the story into an opera but never did, and there was a play called “Alice and Fred” that ran at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1988.
This excites me even more. Thank you for the info, Riese!
Wait am I missing something? Was same-sex marriage legal in 1892? Was Tenessee the first state to allow this? Were they openly engaged? SO MANY QUESTIONS!
no, it wasn’t legal! but it also was not entertained or discussed in any way, you know? so even though she’d never heard of a woman marrying another woman, she also didn’t know of any woman being told she couldn’t marry another woman. alice just had it in her head that she could dress up like a man and marry her girlfriend if she wanted to. the fact that she thought this could actually happen is part of what enabled them to convince people that she was insane.
Hmm. Makes sense. Thanks!
oh man, i can’t wait to read this book!
Okay, but you say she was nineteen twice in the same sentence. Let’s step up the writing quality just a touch.
Let’s turn down the rude just a touch.
I can’t even imagine the poor quality of writing I would be producing if I was putting in the insanely massive amount of hours Riese dedicates to this community every week.
that said, I think you are doing a great job Riese!
This was very entertaining to read!
I also want to see this as a musical or play.
She was into “tops”?
Remarkable that history preserved that detail. Tells us something about Freda, too.
Also, I Googled “lesbian barebacking,” to see if there actually was an equivalent meaning for that. Or because I’m a creepy weirdo with a search history that deserves a warrant. Whatever. At any rate, this is what I found:
“More unfamiliar, to almost any reader, will be the train of thought that Stockton pursues here: The suggestion that readers, by virtue of reading, are “lesbian” barebackers.”
So, any of you who are reading (ahem, if you’re on this website, for starters), are also in trouble. This, according to the lecture “Reading as Kissing, Sex with Ideas: ‘Lesbian’ Barebacking?” by Prof. Kathryn Bond Stockton, 2015.
Brief description here: http://www.haverford.edu/calendar/details/263252
I just keep re-reading this list. This explains so many things…
“Her best friend’s older brother asked her to dance this one time and she said no, she’d rather lie in a hammock with her best friend”
This “sewing as defense against lesbianism” is definitely a thing. In the Old Idaho State Penitentiary there is an excellent parole application letter from a teenage girl who, despite being convicted of bigamy for marrying three men, was accused of being a lesbian.
Here is her proof she has reformed:
Turns out the old pray-away-the-gay adage is a fallacy. You need to sew away the gay.
This is fantastic. (I have always loathed all sewing.)
So this is why I failed sewing class!
My many blue ribbons in sewing from the county fair prove that just as you cannot pray the gay away, neither can you sew it away.
I think some of the best articles on this site are Riese’s herstory series.
Well I can’t be insane, I’m scared of horses and wouldn’t even ride with nine saddles so that’s it, better hand in my rainbows.
I think I also fail to “balk” when people call me a tomboy or similar. I should probably work on my balking skills, but I’m not altogether sure how to adequately balk at insinuations. Is there a YouTube tutorial for that?
This is like a list of things I look for in a girl.
shit all those best friend hammock naps…i knew it
This article reeks of ableism. Plz no.
Seeing how I could be this woman (minus the killing), gay is the constant in this universe.
I read this article yesterday and then dreamt about it last night:
I was Alice Mitchell and had murdered my beloved. Riese and Laneia were my lawyers, trying to prove I was insane.
There was a weird repeating cycle where I would be all femme-d up; Laneia would yank off my jewelry, smudge off my makeup, and thrust some baseball item (bat, ball, glove) into my grasp; and then a few minutes later the item would be gone, I’d be all dolled up again, and Laneia would do it all over again while simultaneously complimenting and berating my outfit.
Riese was interviewing a series of boys: boys I wouldn’t dance with, boys I’d bought marbles from, boys I’d kicked out of trees.
And all of this was going on while we swung from vines.
That was a rather detailed dream. I think it would make some interesting fan-fiction. :)
TANGO THIS IS NEXT-LEVEL
3D rendering examples the creation of an idea requested by a client it may be a real-world object or an imaginary that is represented in a sketch say, architectural, interior design or products.