Karen Abbott, the author of the new Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, and Alexis Coe, the author of Alice + Freda Forever, feel like historian soulmates: both women have done wonderful jobs in their respective books, two of fall’s best, reviving hidden stories of groundbreaking women from the 1800s (even if there’s a 30-year difference). Both books are immaculately researched and enticingly written, the sort that you’ll stay up all night reading with a flashlight under the covers. Coe previously interviewed Abbott for The Toast (where she is a columnist), so we wanted to see what would happen if Abbott interviewed Coe. Click through to read the resulting interview.
In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenaged murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation — it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancée Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again. Heartbroken and desperate, Alice filched her father’s razor and, in broad daylight on a winter afternoon, slashed her ex-lover’s throat.
In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever, historian Alexis Coe recounts their story “with the color and liveliness of a novel” (The New Yorker). The book is also an Amazon Best Book of the Month. Coe talked to Flavorwire about the women’s illicit relationship, Alice’s lurid crime, and a trial that enthralled — and confounded — 19th-century America.
Karen Abbott: In the introduction, you talk about carrying around this story for a long time. What kept you interested?
Alexis Coe: I wasn’t just a historian who stumbled upon a provocative, forgotten piece of history. Alice and Freda became people I cared about, and I was upset over the injustice both faced. Obviously Alice committed an unconscionable crime, but both of the young women died when they were so young, and had so little control over their lives and their legacy. By not telling their story, I almost felt complicit in silencing them.
How did the insanity plea come about?
Alice’s father, George Mitchell, was such a dangerous man. He had a successful track record of peremptorily diagnosing women in his family. He’d placed his wife, Isabella, in a hospital after she gave birth on three separate occasions, deeming what was probably postpartum depression unsuitable for a wife and mother. In the 1890s, committable behavior included a new mother’s resistance to sex soon after birth. Once in the hospital, Isabella supposedly passed from melancholia to insanity to acute mania, and after two months of restraint, she was finally released. She expected be reunited with her two month old infant, but she returned to an empty bassinet. In her absence, and perhaps as a result of it, the infant died. If she dared mourn, George would once again have her institutionalized. She gave birth to seven children during her lifetime. Four survived to adulthood.
On the very night Alice killed a perfectly healthy seventeen-year-old woman in broad daylight, with plenty of witnesses and evidence to prove it was premeditated, George convinced two of the most formidable lawyers in Tennessee that his daughter could not be tried for murder. At that point, Alice’s hands were covered in blood. George wasn’t denying that his daughter killed Freda, but he couldn’t accept her motivation. Alice was never ashamed of her relationship with Freda, and was forthcoming about their intention to marry, and that she killed Freda because she loved her, and could not stand the thought of anyone else having her. In 1892, Alice’s explanation wasn’t just inconceivable to them — it seemed nothing short of insane.
How did Isabella’s mental health history factor into the case?
The defense painstakingly reviewed Isabella’s hospitalizations in order to establish hereditary history, a requirement of the insanity plea. They argued that when Isabella had Alice, she passed on her insanity to her daughter. Physically. This was salient point in a nineteenth century courtroom. These accounts were then printed and debated in all the newspapers. As you can imagine, Isabella, while spoken of often, rarely made public appearances after Alice’s arrest.
The defense seemed so flimsy. How was it so successful?
That was the brilliance of the insanity plea! The evidence didn’t need to make sense, it just needed to offer some kind of explanation for what seemed inexplicable. No one wanted to believe that this was simply a crime of passion, and that such passion could exist between two women. They wanted to believe that Alice, a white woman from a respectable family, was a sympathetic victim of her own illness. In Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault argued that physicians who sought to define reason were also silencing unreason. It was a handy way to regulate whole classes of people society deemed deviant.
The only voice of reason in all of this was George Peters, the Attorney General, but he was really ineffective. It wasn’t for lack of effort. No medical expert in the entire state of Tennessee would testify that Alice’s same-sex love wasn’t insane.
Was the case forgotten after Alice was sent to the asylum?
Alice lived on in the medical community. She inspired a lot of articles linking same-sex love to violence, and due to the verdict, insanity. One article in a medical journal used Alice as an example of why all people who display such “perversion” should be castrated, no matter gender or class.
Was it difficult to spend so much time on such a tragic story?
Oh, yes. I kept experiencing their relationship over and over again, from happy days to dark ones. The love letters were particularly difficult, and I reread them often. I obviously knew what was happening, but that knowledge never lessened my reactions. There were several threatening episodes long before the murder, and with each one, I saw so many opportunities for Freda to save herself. One night, she woke up to Alice clutching a bottle of poison. She was sharing a bed with someone who was contemplating killing her, and drama continued the next day. Why did Freda stay in bed with Alice? Why didn’t she tell someone?
That being said, there was plenty of wry humor. The chapter headings are lifted from primary sources, which allowed me to name one “Erotomania” and another “Sexual Monsters.” I found comic relief in nineteenth century phrases, many of which I now unsuccessfully attempt to use in conversation. When I hear a crazy theory, I exclaim, that’s the “ebullition of a crank!” I could also illuminate the more ridiculous moments in the text and through illustrations. I catalogued the absurd evidence used by medical experts to support Alice’s insanity plea, and then had Sally Klann, my illustrator, list them above a few hapless looking doctors. Their faulty reasoning included: She is left-handed. Her face is larger on side than the other. She intended to commit suicide, but forgot. She is weak minded. She dominated the mind of Freda Ward.
If Alice was weak minded, how she dominate the mind of Freda Ward?
That’s something I often ask aloud, much to my dog’s confusion. The defense and medical experts were trying to link same-sex love to insanity, and that ridiculous contention called for a lot of unstable arguments and conclusions. At times, it seemed like they were just throwing things against the wall to see what stuck.
You have a detailed chapter on the use of media, and local papers’ relationship to men who played major roles in the Mitchell-Ward case. Conflict of interest?
The middle to upper class white men in Memphis stuck together! Alice’s attorneys and judge had all worked at or invested in the local newspapers. Articles and letters to the editor were splashed across pages for half of 1892, and definitely influenced the jury. Some reporters were clearly pandering, which seemed to accomplish several goals. When one paper praised the jury, whose “chivalry exceeds their sense of justice,” they considered it a compliment, but it was also a directive. Alice’s father was well liked and respected in Memphis, and the court could not possibly impugn the honor of a well-bred young lady by branding her a criminal.
These men also knew each other in municipal capacities, and from the KKK. Alice’s judge, Julius DuBose was one of the foundering members of the Tennessee Ku Klux Klan. Alice was in the same jail as the victims of the infamous People’s Grocery lynching. They’d dared open a market in the Curve, a densely populated black neighborhood that already had one grocer. He was white, and didn’t like the competition. Rumor has it that DuBose was at the lynching, and I’m inclined to believe it. I don’t think the angry mob had any trouble getting the Sheriff to hand over Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Henry Steward. DuBose knew the jailers well, and possibly had his own set of keys. After all, he presided over all the cases in that jail.
Is the case well known in Memphis?
Alice and Freda’s plots are a part of the tour at Elmwood Cemetery, a gothic, creeptastic place. I went back several times to take in the elaborate headstones. Some look like bathtubs, and others resemble monuments.
Outside of Elmwood and research institutions, Alice and Freda’s story is not well known. Memphis history tends to focus on Civil War, their catastrophic Yellow Fever outbreaks, the assassination of Martin Luther King and, of course, Elvis. I tried to spread the word when I was researching there, and reactions were diverse — and a few were quite shocking. I was unprepared for the assumptions thrust in my direction about my sexual preference, and there were just a couple of hateful comments — not unlike what I saw posted outside Baptist churches.
Most Southerners, however, are far too polite to say such things, and the majority was eager to learn more, which was really encouraging at the beginning of such a massive undertaking. An archivist in Nashville had my favorite reaction: “Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit!”
How do you think the book will be received in Memphis?
I’m eager to find out! I’ve been doing a lot of phone interviews with journalists in Memphis, and they seem excited to discover this significant, forgotten part of their history. I arrive the day after the book hits stores, and my tight schedule suggests they’re at least curious. I hope I don’t hear anyone say, “Bless your heart.” That’s not a good thing.
Will people make connections between the past and the present?
I found Alice and Freda’s world sadly familiar. The most acrid arguments and language used by opponents of same-sex marriage today are almost identical to the ones used to describe Alice and Freda’s relationship in 1892: Unnatural. Perverse. Pointless without progeny. I’m continually amazed that, over 120 years later, a marriage between Alice and Freda would still be illegal in Tennessee.
Will there be Alice+Freda Forever, the movie?
I get asked that all the time! My literary agent at William Morris Endeavor is handling the tv/film rights, so the book is in good hands. I’ll admit I’ve imagined Saoirse Ronan as Alice.
Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.