Alice Mitchell Found Guilty of Murdering Her Lover Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A Memphis teenager murdered her female lover after a planned elopement failed. Newspapers, the courts, and public opinion were forced to grapple with and address female homosexuality, same-gender crimes of passion, and insanity.

Summary of Event

On January 25, 1892, at about 3:00 p.m., nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell cut the throat of her seventeen-year-old lover Freda Ward as Ward, her sister Jo, and their friend Christina Purnell were about to board a riverboat to return to their home in Golddust, Tennessee, after a month’s visit in Memphis. [kw]Alice Mitchell Found Guilty of Murdering Her Lover (Jan., 1892-July, 1892) [kw]Mitchell Found Guilty of Murdering Her Lover, Alice (Jan., 1892-July, 1892) [kw]Murdering Her Lover, Alice Mitchell Found Guilty of (Jan., 1892-July, 1892) Media;and lesbian murder trial[lesbian murder trial] Crimes of passion [c]Crime;Jan., 1892-July, 1892: Alice Mitchell Found Guilty of Murdering Her Lover[0090] [c]Publications;Jan., 1892-July, 1892: Alice Mitchell Found Guilty of Murdering Her Lover[0090] Mitchell, Alice Ward, Freda Ward, Jo Johnson, Lillie

Alice and Freda had been neighbors and high school classmates; after the Wards moved to Golddust, the two girls had become romantically involved. In February, 1891, they became “engaged” and began to plan an elopement to St. Louis, where Alice would assume the name Alvin G. Ward and the two would be married. Freda’s older sister, Ada Volkmar, with whom she lived, discovered the plan and insisted on the immediate termination of all contact between the girls. Freda returned to Memphis in January, 1892, for a visit with another family friend, Mrs. Kimbrough. Freda wrote to Alice on January 18, affirming her continued love and her sister’s insistence that the two never meet or speak again.

On the morning of the January 25, Alice picked up her closest friend, Lillie Johnson, and Lillie’s six-year-old nephew, to take them for a buggy drive. Lillie and Jo Ward had been close friends, but when Freda had been forbidden to see Alice again, her sister had also interdicted the friendship between Lillie and Jo, on the grounds that Lillie was “wild,” a flirt who sought the attention of young men, and one who had corresponded under a false name with a man she did not know. Lillie and Alice spent the morning looking for and then following the Ward party around Memphis. When they finally saw the young women walking to the steamboat, Lillie, Alice, and her nephew got out of the buggy and passed them on the sidewalk. Alice then left Lillie and the small boy to follow Freda down the boardwalk, where she committed the murder. She returned to the buggy, and a dazed Lillie drove Alice home, advising her to tell her mother what she had done.

Newspaper coverage of the crime and subsequent trial was extensive. Lillie’s hearing was held on February 23: She had been charged with murder, on the grounds that she had known Alice Mitchell’s intention to kill Freda Ward and failed to prevent the murder. On February 28, Lillie was released on bail, despite the judge’s determination that she was clearly guilty of aiding and abetting Alice in an “atrocious and malignant” crime.

On July 18, a so-called inquisition of lunacy was held—a court proceeding to determine Alice’s mental status. Her lawyers entered a plea of incompetence, owing to present insanity, arguing that her mental state after the murder made it impossible for her to stand trial. The defense marshaled five physicians to testify that Alice suffered from hereditary mental illness, erotomania, and paranoia, supporting that diagnosis with Alice’s own testimony that she loved Freda Ward, intended to marry her, and live with her as husband and wife. The medical professionals also emphasized that there was no sexual element to the girls’ relationship, focusing instead on what they saw as Alice’s delusional belief that she could have passed as a man. Popular media coverage was skeptical of this claim; coverage in the more sensational papers emphasized the sexual possibilities of the girls’ relationship.

On July 30, Alice was found to be “presently insane and dangerous,” and on August 1, she was committed to the Western Hospital for the Insane in Bolivar, Tennessee. She died there on March 31, 1898, apparently of tuberculosis.

Significance

Alice Mitchell’s criminal trial crystallizes a number of significant threads in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century discourses on homosexuality. Particular characteristics of the emergent discourse coming out of the trial was the use of medical and psychiatric specialists to diagnose Alice’s condition; emphases on gender confusion, sexuality, heredity, and criminality; and the role of the press in both creating and managing public discourse about the crime.

Alice was profiled as one of the case studies in Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion Sexual Inversion (Ellis) (1897), enshrining her as a “type” of inversion, a standard by which other cases might be examined. Sexologists, physicians, and psychiatrists studied Alice’s symptoms, the letters she and Freda exchanged, and expert commentaries to construct “diagnostic” criteria for understanding same-gender desire between women. Alice and Freda were simultaneously constructed as, and constructors of, the robust stereotypes of the pathologically jealous and violent butch (masculine) lesbian and her weak, easily manipulated, and only contingently lesbian femme (feminine) partner.

The relationship between Alice and Freda also was interpreted as a consequence of Alice’s hereditary mental illness: Her mother’s “puerperal insanity” (probably severe postpartum depression, and described as including hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions) was carefully documented as part of the court proceedings. Likewise, Alice was described as gender-variant, with friends and neighbors contributing memories of “inappropriate” friendships, choices of toys and games, and behavior. The case and its coverage offer particularly clear and accessible examples of the medical and psychological paradigms available to late nineteenth century professionals to describe and interpret same-gender desire. Media;and lesbian murder trial[lesbian murder trial] Crimes of passion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology, and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 18, no. 4 (Summer, 1993): 791-814. Reprinted in Sexual Borderlands: Constructing an American Sexual Past, edited by Kathleen Kennedy and Sharon Ulman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., a Documentary History. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindquist, Lisa J. “Image of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6, no. 1 (Winter, 1995): 30-61.

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion

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