Alice + Freda Forever

By  |  December 2, 2014
An interior page from Alice + Freda Forever. Illustrated by Sally Klann An interior page from Alice + Freda Forever. Illustrated by Sally Klann

In her first book, Alexis Coe ventured into a city of monumental history and unearthed a long forgotten tale. Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis,which came out in October, is the vital combination of a sensational story and a remarkable treasure of historical research featuring lesbian lust, laudanum, and laceration.

Alice + Freda Forever accomplishes several feats, any one of which can lead to a successful, worthwhile, and enduring work.

First is its central action. I sometimes think that my seven-year-old daughter knows more about books than I do; I certainly felt that way when she told me, “Daddy, the best books are about a single quest.” In Alice + Freda, the single quest is Alice Mitchell’s yearning to live in matrimony with her love, Freda Ward, in the late 1800s. The resulting excitement, anticipation, heartbreak, violent climax, and painful resolution imbue the story with visceral sympathy. And that story is not told for mere titillation. The action speaks to larger truths about the times that might otherwise elude our understanding, giving us an adroit depiction of the weird ways we were.

Though very much grounded in its own historic moment, the book has a timeliness, perhaps even a timelessness, as it shows just how far Americans’ comprehension and acceptance of same-sex love has evolved since the cold January afternoon in 1892 when Alice chased down Freda on the cobblestone river-landing in downtown Memphis and cut her throat. That day, two lives fell through the bizarre, often paradoxical, complex of gender norms and the quackery that passed for mental health science. 

“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,” Coe explains. Alice and Freda gallivanted down the halls of the Higbee School for Young Ladies, kissing, hugging, and holding hands, during a time when, Coe reminds us, “the word lesbian would not be in circulation for another forty years.” And so, while the Higbee School prepared young ladies for a life of domesticity, it also unknowingly nurtured same-sex romance. Though social practice seemed to encourage young girls’ mutual affection, such childish things were supposed to end at adulthood. But not every young lady made the turn.

During their relationship, Freda moved across the Mississippi River to Arkansas, and while Alice remained devoted to her, Freda began to date men. Alice couldn’t live with this. Coe reports that she took an overdose of laudanum, but survived. A realization struck her. “The kind of power Alice craved,” Coe writes, “could only be wielded by a man. And so Alice would have to figure out a way to become one.”

The couple’s plans to elope (and the plan’s undoing) unfold throughout Alice and Freda’s correspondence. The design of Alice + Freda Forever is noteworthy, as many crucial documents—illustrated portraits of the couple, government records, and their letters to each other—have been attractively reproduced in its pages, a fresh and effective tactic to transmit the thrill of research and the feel of old materials to readers.

In the summer of 1891, the couple’s plans were foiled, and they were ordered to never see or write to one another again. Freda continued to allow men to pursue her (and entertained one serious marriage proposal). Alice grieved and plotted until the fateful day in January 1892, a scene best left to Coe’s vivid dramatization.

The afterlife of this sensational murder took on major significance. National news media flocked to Memphis, and the city’s numerous dailies covered the case with relish. “There was no denying that she had killed Freda,” Coe writes, “but in 1892 her motive was utterly inconceivable. . . . Alice’s insistence that she killed Freda because she loved her and could not stand the idea of anyone else having her . . . seemed nothing short of insane.”

One factual quibble: Coe states that in 1892 a dozen newspapers were published in Memphis, “all of which were owned by local white men who wielded power in various realms.”  But two African-American-owned newspapers, Living Way and Memphis Free Speech, were published from Beale Street in early 1892. The latter had a female part-owner, the redoubtable Ida B. Wells. Empowered Negroes make Memphis a place of real paradox in light of what we’re taught about the South after Reconstruction.

It was not so, however, for lesbians.

“Same-sex love,” Coe writes, “challenged everything Americans understood, and were desperately holding onto, in the late nineteenth century.”

In her trial Alice had but one legal recourse: the insanity plea. The courtroom and trial, in Coe’s telling, became microcosmic of the larger gender issues rippling through the crime and its punishment. The drama’s play-out is well worth the price of admission. With Alice + Freda Forever, Coe has given us a bloody, interesting chapter in America’s hidden history of “pathological love."

Preston Lauterbach is the author of The Chitlin' Circuit and Beale Streat Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, to be published by W.W. Norton in April 2015.

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