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“The day of our wedding was set, and then not all the powers in the world could have separated us. It was our intention to leave here and go to St. Louis, and I would have been Freda’s slave. I would have devoted my whole life to making her happy—But when Freda returned my engagement ring, it broke my heart. It was the most cruel thing I have ever suffered. I could not bear the idea of being separated from her, whom I loved more dearly than my life. I wrote to her and implored her to not to break off the engagement, but my letters availed nothing. I could not bear to think of her living in the company of others. Then, indeed, I resolved to kill Freda because I loved her so much that I wanted her to die loving me, and when she did die, I know she loved me better than any other human being on earth. I got my father’s razor and made up my mind to kill Freda, and now I know she is happy.” – Alice Mitchell
Alice Mitchell was born November 26, 1872, in Memphis, to George and Isabella Mitchell, a relatively well off family. “Uncle George”, as he was called, was a partner in the furniture business, Mitchell and Bryson. Her mother, Isabella, was a homemaker with a somewhat sordid past of her own. After her first child was born, Isabella was committed to the mental ward for melancholia. The doctor diagnosed her with puerperal insanity, a “derangement or unstable state brought about by childbirth”.
She stayed in the hospital for 2 months before “recovering”, only to find out that her child had died while she was away. While her mind became “unbalanced” again, she managed to pull herself out of it for fear that she would be committed again.
Isabella had 7 children, but only 4 survived until adulthood. Her mental instability, supposedly, worsened with each birth. Alice was the last of Isabella’s children.
As a child, Alice was not the typical girl of that time period. She did not enjoy needlepoint and sewing. Alice preferred swinging, climbing, marbles and tops, sports, and shooting rifles. She didn’t prefer the company of boys in the way most girls did. She was often rude to them, except for her brother with whom she spent time playing. She didn’t fare well in school, her teachers believed her to be “badly balanced” and she lacked the desire to read books or newspapers. Alice was “handsome” with hazel eyes and light brown hair, but she was never the fancy of the boys, they regarded her as mentally wrong.
Alice was sent to the Higbee School for Young Ladies, as were many girls of well to do families. This is where she met Freda Ward. Freda, the tall, slender, blond haired, blue eyed girl was opposite of Alice in many ways…passionate, enjoyed music, and studious.
Frederica “Freda” Ward was born March 5, 1874 to Thomas and Cornelia Ward. Thomas was a machinist at a fertilizer company. Besides Freda, the Ward’s had three other children. Unfortunately, Cornelia passed away in 1882. Thomas, Freda, and Jo stayed in Memphis for a while as Freda and Jo went to school, but some years later, they moved to Golddust, TN, about 80 miles north of Memphis, where the eldest married daughter, Ada, lived. Thomas became a merchant and planter, where he made a decidedly better living than in Memphis. His eldest daughter became like a mother to Freda.
So let’s go back a bit, before the Wards moved away…
Alice and Freda’s relationship began during their stay at Higbee’s. It was not uncommon, at that time, for young girls to act fondly towards each other. Kissing, hugging, and walking arm in arm was called “chumming” and was thought to be a girls training for their future relationships with their husbands. But Alice and Freda’s relationship was different. Alice felt a connection to Freda like she would a connection to a man. Freda appeared to have shared Alice’s affections, but somewhat less strongly. As it turns out, Alice fell in love with Freda, obsessively so, and they spent all their time at school together, as well as at home, eventually becoming lovers.
When Freda’s family moved to Golddust, Alice was openly distressed. The two corresponded via mail often, expressing their love for each other. In the summer, Alice was able to go to Golddust to visit for several weeks. During this time, they resumed their previous relationship. Freda’s older sister Ada thought nothing of their affections, she assumed it was just something unwed girls did, since at that time, there was not really a word for what she was seeing.
During the winter of 1890, Freda came to Memphis to visit and stay with Alice for several weeks. One night in particular, Freda decided to tell Alice about two men that were occupying her affections in Golddust.
Two gentlemen, Ashley Roselle and Harry Bilger, had begun to openly take interest in Freda.
This made Alice extremely upset. This is the first time we see Alice’s murderous tendencies. While in bed, Alice brandished a bottle of Laudanum, a mix of opium and alcohol which was used for pain relief. She was contemplating whether she would poison Freda with it. The concentrated dose could potentially kill Freda, or it could make her break out in an itchy rash, constrict her breathing, or have irritable bowels. But, Alice decided to not give it to Freda, holding on to the bottle.
The next day when Freda was to depart back to Golddust, Alice followed her on to the steamer and shut the door of the cabin behind her, screaming “marry whomever you want,” and she downed the bottle of Laudanum. Alice did not die though, but she apparently suffered from the aforementioned ailments.
As Alice was recovering at home, she continually wrote letters to Freda and they then resumed their regular correspondence. It was February of 1891 that Alice decided to make a move, and in a letter to Freda, she proposed marriage. Freda accepted. In fact, she accepted the proposal in three additional letters that Alice had sent her. In true Alice fashion, in her final proposal letter, she warned Freda that if she broke her promise of marriage, Alice would kill herself.
Freda continued to agree to the marriage, and with that, Alice collected the money that she saved and bought an engagement ring for Freda, it cost her $15
Alice gave Freda this ring on her visit to Golddust in June of 1891. Freda accepted it and wore it, as well as freely showed affection for Alice. Alice was oddly ashamed of their public displays of affection. While Freda’s sister, Ada, who at first did not think much of the girls affections for each other, began to think it was disgusting. She was pleased to see Alice returning to Memphis.
How were the girls going to manage getting married? Their plan was a complicated one. Alice would go to a barber and get her hair cut short like a man. She would buy mens clothes and start going by the name Alvin J. Ward. Freda would come down from Golddust and when she arrived, Alice would get a marriage license and they would either have a ceremony in Alice’s home church or before the Justice of the Peace, if her pastor did not agree to the wedding. Once they were married, Alice and Freda would go to St. Louis where Alice, aka Alvin, would continue the countenance of a man and get a job to provide for Freda.
Unfortunately, they faced some hiccups along the way.
The first was a suitor of Freda’s named Ashley Roselle, he was one of the men Freda had mentioned earlier. In July of 1891, he began to court Freda and she offered him her picture.
Alice found out about this and was overcome by jealousy. She demanded Freda stop encouraging him. Freda told Alice that she would be true to her forever.
The second problem they encountered was Freda’s sister, Ada. She found the letters Alice and Freda had been writing to each other. She found out their plan to marry each other and immediately forbade it. She told Freda that she would not be going to Memphis, but in an act of defiance, she went. Purely out of spite, her sister wrote letters to Alice and her mother to expose their secret.
“Ere now you must fully realize that your supposed well laid plans to take Fred away have now gone awry. You should have taken into consideration that Fred had a sister watching over her, who had good eyes and plenty of common sense, and was fully competent to take care of her sister. I return your “engagement ring” as you called it, and all else that I know of you having Fred, as you won’t marry her yet awhile. Don’t try in any way, shape, form or manner to have any intercourse with Fred again. I thought you were a lady. I have found out to the contrary.”
When Alice’s mother received the letter, she knew of Mrs. Volkmar’s (that’s Ada’s married name) frail health and believed it to all be a misunderstanding. The matter never resurfaced. Alice was quite distraught after they received the letter and the tokens of her affection back. She kept them locked in a box in the kitchen, returning often to look upon them.
As the fall began, Alice started losing weight, losing interest in all things, acting strangely to her family and acquaintances. For example: during the winter months, Alice had ordered coal for the house. She ordered it in the name of Fred Ward though. She claims she didn’t remember doing this but her mind must have been on Freda. Those that knew her began to think she was not in her right mind.
There were rumors of Freda’s return to Memphis in November, but they never came to fruition. In anticipation, Alice would carry around her father’s razor, already planning to do something despicable. When Freda didn’t come to Memphis, Alice took matters into her own hands, penning letters to Ashley Roselle, believing he was her rival and the reason Freda was not coming to Memphis.
Freda did eventually make it to Memphis, in January 1892. Instead of staying with Alice, she stayed in Mrs. Kimbro’s boarding house. In an effort to see her, Alice wrote letters to her. She sent two but only one was received by Freda. She wrote “returned” on it and sent it back to Alice.
Freda did eventually write back to Alice, but only after they two had passed each other on the street and there was no interaction between the two of them.
I love you now and always will, but I have been forbidden to speak to you and I have to obey. You say I am as much to blame as you are. If I have done you any harm or caused you any trouble, I humbly beg your forgiveness. Please don’t let anyone know I wrote this. No one knows about that last summer’s business except our family, that is unless you have told someone. We go back to Golddust this evening.
Alice knew there was no steamboat on the evening of January 18, so she waited for one she knew was coming. On January 25, 1892, the steamboat arrived. Alice had her horse and buggy set up for an evening ride. She invited her friend Lillie Johnson, who brought her 6 year old nephew, along for the ride. As they were riding past Mrs. Kimbro’s house, she saw Freda and her sister Jo, on the way to the boat. Alice followed them to the boat, leaving Lillie and her nephew in the buggy, and ran after Freda on the cobblestones. Alice grabbed Freda and brandishing the razor, cut her face. Jo intervened but ended up getting cut too. Freda began to run off, but Alice caught her and cut her neck from ear to ear. Laying on the ground, bleeding to death, Alice ran from Freda back to her buggy. As she jumped in, she grabbed the reins from a very shocked Lillie, and began to drive erratically back to her home. During the ride, Lillie bewildered, tried to clean the blood off her face and Alice told her to leave it because it was Freda’s blood. When she asked Alice what she had done, she simply answered, “cut Fred”.
When Alice got home, she told her mother what had happened and the police came. They waited for Alice’s father to arrive home before taking her to jail. She told the police that she cut Fred because she loved her and because she wouldn’t speak to her. At the time, it did not appear that she realized she had done anything wrong. She felt her best option was to marry Freda, but since she couldn’t, the next best thing was to kill her. It was her duty. She would be keeping her word to Fred.
Alice felt no remorse for what she had done, although she did cry for Freda…because of her love for her.
So now that we know how and why Freda was murdered, we can start the Trial portion of the story…
To start, Lillie Johnson was arrested, as an accessory, even though she was unaware of Alice’s intentions. Her trial started February 23, 1892. The judge, Julius DuBose, delayed the hearings until the courtroom could be expanded. There was so much press coverage of this event, he wanted to make sure there was room for everyone. Big name cities, such as San Francisco and New York were sending reporters. Men and even a large number of women came out to see the spectacle.
While Lillie’s lawyer’s insisted that she had no prior knowledge of what Alice had intended to do, Judge DuBose did not believe it. He said that “the proof is evident that the defendant aided and abetted in the commission of the crime, a crime, so atrocious and malignant ever perpetrated by a woman”. Lillie Johnson’s bail was set at $10,000 and she was released.
Eventually the charges against Lillie were dropped.
Alice Mitchell had some of the best lawyers money could buy…General Luke Wright and Colonel George Gantt. Gantt was considered one of the best litigators in Memphis. He knew the law and was unmatched in courtroom debate. Wright was the son of a TN supreme court justice and an attorney general in Shelby County.
The evening of the arrest, her lawyers interviewed Alice and decided, with the help of her father, on a plea of insanity. In order to proceed towards a trial, the court had to prove she was fit to stand trial, given the plea of insanity. Alice’s father testified to her genetic disposition to madness. As mentioned earlier, they used the “evidence” of her mother having suffered from puerperal insanity after the birth of her first child and having to be committed to an insane asylum for several months. She became more unstable after she was released from the asylum and learned of her child’s death. With each child’s birth, the puerperal insanity worsened. This ailment was seen as having been passed down to her youngest daughter.
The media, all over the nation, grasped on to this story and ran with it. They sensationalized everything, although some of the facts were correct, numerous were way off base. What they mainly focused on was the fact that Alice was not normal. Newspapers interviewed those that knew Alice personally. One of the things neighbors had to say was…
“I live next door to Mr. George Mitchell and have known Alice for nine years or more, and have never considered her strong mentally. Her manner has been always flighty and unsettled and her ways were different from that of most girls. She was of an impulsive disposition, and given to doing very much as the present mood inclined her, whether it was to snatch up a rifle and stand about her yard shooting sparrows or to ride a bareback horse at break-neck speed about the premises. I have never seen anything about her conduct that was at all immodest, nor was she the least bit fast as regards to men. On the contrary, she seemed to care nothing for them and rather preferred the society of her own sex. . . . From a long and close knowledge of Alice Mitchell her act was that of an insane woman.”
In addition to newspaper interviews, people in the community wrote to newspapers with outlandish stories of their own. One man said that three years prior to Freda’s murder, Alice would have been 16 at that time, she “made love like a man to his, now deceased, daughter”.
Given all the speculation of Alice’s unnatural personality, loving and wishing to marry a woman and supporting her was clearly a sign of lunacy, it’s not surprising that the public had turned against her and were convinced that she was indeed insane.
So, it would seem that the prosecution was in trouble. Their only true argument was that Alice was of sound mind and the defense was merely drumming up sympathy with sensational evidence. The prosecution was headed by Attorney General Peters and he stated that Alice was fast and jealous over a man, and while she was ill tempered and vindictive, she was not insane. Peters also challenged Alice’s moral character, reflecting negatively on the Mitchell’s well loved family. This rubbed the public the wrong way. The defense had won over the public.
Gantt and Wright also helped their defense by questioning prominent and influential physicians to support their claim of insanity. The first physician diagnosed Alice with erotomania, though inaccurately described, they defined it as “unnatural affection between two persons of the same sex”. Other physicians claimed that erotomania was a “malady of the mind” and could easily lead to murder.
The clincher of the defense’s claims was the fact that Alice’s testimony concluded by saying “and now I know she is happy”. How would any sane person be able to say someone who had been murdered is now happy?
Unfortunately for the prosecution, it was hard to convince the judge and jury that a woman would pose as a man and try to provide for her as a man would. And killing Freda because she couldn’t have her, and now no one else could either, was something society did not understand. It was beyond comprehension that a woman would want to be with someone with whom she couldn’t reproduce. The jury believed that Alice didn’t choose Freda as a rational act, it was because of her diseased mind, which was passed on to her from her mother in utero.
When all was said and done and the defense had rested, it took the jury 20 minutes to come back with a verdict of insanity. Alice was sent to the Western State Insane Asylum in Bolivar, TN.
Alice died March 31, 1898. It has been said that she died of consumption, something that was spreading through the asylum, but there has been high speculations that she committed suicide by jumping in the asylum’s water tank. She was 25.
Both Alice and Freda are buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
Coe, Alexis, and Sally Klann. Alice + Freda forever : a murder in Memphis. Minneapolis, MN: Zest Books, 2014. Print.
Illustrations by: Sally Klann http://sallyklann.com/
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