A Very Unnatural Crime -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

Alexis Coe’s past essays on women’s history for The Toast can be found here. Most recently: The Rise and Fall of Vivian Davis.

At first, the intimacy between Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward seemed unremarkable. The well-to do young ladies met at the Higbee School for Girls in Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when romantic friendship was well-known and accepted. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called the non-sexual relationships “a rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of women’s life.”

But this was no rehearsal. In February of 1891, Alice proposed marriage in a letter, and two more to follow. Freda had moved down the Mississippi River to Golddust, Tennessee, where her elder sisters began to notice the frequency of missives sent and received. They had no idea their younger sister had accepted Alice’s proposal, or that her simple ring symbolized a lifelong commitment.

They planned to elope in St. Louis, Missouri. Alice would assume the identity of Alvin J. Ward, so that Freda, whom she called Fred, might continue to call her Allie. Alvin would maintain the dress and countenance of a man, so that she may provide for the future Mrs. A. J. Ward.

Much to Alice’s displeasure, a young man named Ashley Roselle began openly courting Freda by summertime. Overcome by jealousy, Alice ordered her, in no uncertain terms, to stop encouraging him. On July 11, Freda promised she would, writing, “Alvin, please be perfectly happy when you marry me, for I am true to you, and always will be forever.”

They were to meet later that summer in Memphis, and travel to St. Louis together. Freda was packing her valise when she was caught in the act by her sister, Mrs. W.H. Volkmar. Freda crumbled under pressure, quickly divulging the details of their affair. Volkmar promptly wrote a letter to Alice – and her mother – ending the engagement on Freda’s behalf:

Ere now you must fully realized that your supposed well laid plans to take Fred away have now all 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.

At first, Alice seemed somewhat sympathetic to Freda’s plight. Her mother blamed Volkmar’s ill health for misunderstanding the nature of the young women’s relationship, a conclusion Alice neither confirmed nor refuted. The truth, however, was easily found in Alice’s loss of appetite, constant weeping, and sleepless nights. Still, she continued to write to Freda, becoming increasingly disillusioned with her ex-fiancée’s capricious affections, an obvious ploy “to save your own life.” At least, that’s what Alice’s copies of the letters read; Volkmar destroyed most of the originals upon arrival.

Summer turned into fall, and Alice remained fixated on Freda. Her once plump face became noticeably sunken, and her interactions with acquaintances increasingly described as “strange.” She even signed for the Mitchell family’s winter coal delivery as Freda Ward, but claimed no memory of doing so.

Rumor had it that Freda was expected to visit Memphis in November, but when the month finally arrived, she was nowhere to be seen. Alice was increasingly erratic. She stole her father’s razor blade and roamed the streets in search of Freda, who had severed contact. Alice enlisted friends to correspond with Ashley Roselle, whom she believed to be her romantic rival, but became frustrated with their attempts. Soon she was writing to him directly, and even went to see him in December of that year.

By the time Freda materialized in Memphis, it was January of 1892, and Alice was desperate to see her. She immediately sent letters to the house where Freda was staying, only to have one sent back, marked “returned” in her ex-fiancée’s own hand. They had just one run-in on the street; Freda casually walked by, as if nothing had ever passed between them. Alice fingered the razor in her pocket, but was too overwhelmed by the interaction to make a move.

Finally, Freda penned a devastating letter that would later be found on Alice, soaked in the writer’s own blood.


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 any one know I wrote this. No one knows about that last summer’s business except our family, that is unless you have told some one. We go back to Golddust this evening.


But Alice knew there was no steamboat destined for Golddust that night. She watched and waited for three days, until the ship’s actual departure was imminent. Pulling the buggy around, she invited their acquaintance, Miss Lillian Johnson, to join her for a ride. Lillie brought along her 6-year-old nephew, and soon found herself a passenger slowly trailing Freda and one of her sisters, Josie Ward, as they walked towards the dock.

miss jo ward wound on neckAlice suddenly jerked the reins back, exclaiming she had to say goodbye one last time. With her father’s razor in hand, Alice cut Freda’s face. Jo tried to intervene, but was scared off after receiving her own gash. This time, 19-year-old Alice ran the blade along 17-year-old Freda’s neck, from ear to ear, mortally wounding her.

Back in the buggy, Alice ignored Lillie’s cries. She demanded her passenger wipe the blood off her face, only to protest when a handkerchief appeared, exclaiming, “No, let it remain; it is Fred’s blood, and I love her so.”

The media frenzy surrounding the murder was immediate and dramatic. At first, it appeared as if the girls had simply dreamt up an ill-advised, alternate domesticity that proved fatal. It quickly moved from local to national news, with big city dailies, including the San Francisco Examiner and the New York World, coming to Memphis. In lieu of facts, reporters delivered enough fiction to fuel a soap opera.

San Francisco Call, Volume 71, Number 57, 26 January 1892Alice’s father would ultimately set the narrative. After all, George Mitchell, a retired senior partner of the furniture merchants Mitchell & Bryson, had long assessed and dealt with the women in his family. Shortly after Alice’s birth, he had his own wife committed for “dementia.” The prominent businessman affectionately known in Memphis as “Uncle George” handed over his daughter to a sympathetic jailer, with two prominent attorneys in tow. By 8:00 p.m. on the very same day of the murder, General Luke Wright and Colonel George Gantt had interviewed their client, and released parts of her statement in the days that followed.

Run as first person narrative, Alice simply recounted their plan to wed, and how their engagement dissolved. She and Freda were in love, they recounted, offering the statement as evidence to support a plea of present insanity, which required the court to determine her mental state at the time the crime was committed.

Erotomania, which was actually defined in D. Hack Tuke’s 1892 Dictionary of Psychological Medicine as “insanity where there is an intensely morbid desire towards a person of the opposite sex,” was erroneously recast by questionable experts quoted in articles as “an unnatural affection between two persons of the same sex.” By the time the case went to trial in on July 18, 1892, erotomania’s new definition had been established.

Inside the packed courthouse, men dominated. Judge Julius DuBose oversaw a jury of twelve southern white men. The media presented the fathers of the victim, murderer, and alleged buggy accomplice, as “the three sorrowing fathers,” guilty of nothing more than being devoted to their daughters.

San Francisco Call, Volume 72, Number 49, 19 July 1892Women were described as helpless or unbalanced. Alice’s mother, declared the progenitor of mental instability in the Mitchell family, was seldom seen in public, and Freda’s eldest sister, Mrs. Volkmar, was already known as “unwell.”

Worst of all, of course, was Alice’s proclivity towards “masculine behavior.” The murder itself, perpetrated with a man’s razor in a blatant act of aggression, was wholly uncharacteristic of Victorian norms. Neighbors agreed, Alice had always been “different than most girls.” Her refusal to ride side saddle on a horse was cited as proof of her most nascent, deviant behavior.

A medical expert reviewed the love letters and quickly declared Alice to be a sexual pervert, not to be confused with a sexually depraved person, as there was no definitive evidence proving that sexual activity took place.

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 83, Number 134, 26 July 1892For their part, the prosecution did nothing to discount these contentions. Instead, they presented a rambling case, one that appealed far less to the press. Reporters were uninterested in Mr. Volkmar’s assertion that “She was no more crazy than I am,” preferring to describe Alice’s reactions to descriptions of her amorous relationship. The idea that she believed she could support Freda by working as a man, and the suggestion that women were “passing” amongst them, was nothing short of a revelation. Her acknowledgement, rather than protest or outward signs of disgust, were taken as yet another indication of her insanity.

According to the Memphis Commercial:

Had she slain a man who had deceived or betrayed her, the idea of insanity might never have been presented, but she slew a girl from whom she entertained a passion such as exists ordinarily between members of the opposite sexes, and the peculiarity of the case at once gave color to a suspicion of insanity.

In the 1890s, European sexologists were only beginning to define the category of lesbianism, and a public understanding of homosexuality was still years away. The church provided the most information, focusing on what was forbidden, but this behavior was often described as a series of acts, not a kind of consistent identity. On the stand, Mitchell said, “I wanted to cut her because I knew I could not have her, and I didn’t want anyone else to have her,” a notion far outside the realm of public comprehension. Alice could not reproduce with Freda; the idea that a woman’s pleasure could exist outside of procreation was inconsistent with society’s understanding of sexuality. To their mind, Alice had not chosen Freda as a rational act, but was rather the victim of her own diseased mind, which was infected by her mother in utero.

It took the jury just twenty minutes to declare Alice insane. We know little about her time at the Western State Insane Asylum, and the patient file does not list her cause of death on March 31, 1898. The press adopted a vague diagnosis of consumption, which is consistent with the asylum’s high rate of tuberculosis during that time. There were later reports, however, that she starved herself, and may have committed suicide.

Works Consulted:

Duggan, Elizabeth. The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology and Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-century America
Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity (Indiebound | Amazon)
Lindquist, Lisa J. “Images of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis.” Journal of History of Sexuality, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 30-61.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Kavanagh (Amazon)
Sim, F.L. “Forensic Psychiatry: Alice Mitchell Adjudged Insane,” Memphis Medical Monthly, Aug., 1892, 379-90.

Alexis Coe is The Toast's history correspondent. She holds a master's degree in American women's political history, and was a research curator at the New York Public Library. Alexis is also a columnist at The Awl, and has contributed to The Atlantic, Slate, the Paris Review Daily, and many others. Her first book, Alice+Freda Forever, will be published on October 7th. Follow her @alexis_coe.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again