Alexis Coe brings to light a tale of “tainted” love in the true story of Alice +Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, combining storytelling with history in her debut novel out October 7.
In the year of 1892, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell murdered her ex-fiance, 17-year-old Freda Ward. The crime shocked not just Memphis, but the entire nation. However, it wasn’t the murder that appalled them: It was the motive.
Before the murder, Alice had devised a plan to pose as a man to marry her love, Freda. But on the very night they were destined to run away together, their love letters were uncovered and their plan ripped apart. Using more than 100 illustrations by Sally Klann, Coe pieces together the facts to tell the story of a love America considered wrong and unnatural.
“When I first read about this case in grad school, it was in a scholarly article and it was really lost in dense academic text” says Alexis Coe. “I was already committed to another topic and yet I just found myself wondering about Alice and Freda and what their story would be like if it were told in a narrative way. And then years later I’m still reading around the subject and quietly collecting these articles. My interest never waned so it seemed like the only choice was to indulge it.”
In school, Alice and Freda were known for their “chumming.” It was the word used for intimate female friendships and was viewed as women preparing themselves for their future lives with husbands. For Alice Mitchell, this wasn’t practice. It was real. The two women exchanged copious love letters, using both real names and fictitious ones. Alice even purchased an engraved ring for Freda, after proposing to her three times. But despite of all this, Freda never ceased communicating with various males, most particularly one by the name of Ashley Roselle.
Alice wanted to emphasize she would hold the man’s role in the relationship. As a man, Alice could claim all the rights and responsibilities of one. Men had more freedom, and this appealed to Alice.
“I think Alice wanted out of the Mitchell house,” says Coe. “It seemed like her family was cold toward her and she had to accommodate her father’s and brothers’ wishes. They had certain privileges that weren’t available to her. I don’t think she wanted to be a man. She wanted the rights afforded to men. I think what she wanted most was the right to control Freda: to marry her, to have her at home, to work to support her and to be able to tell her what to do. She wanted the authority that in 1892 Memphis was only available to white men.”
Their engagement called off, Alice was devastated, but Freda appeared to be just fine. Whether or not Freda truly loved Alice and Freda’s infidelity were major issues in their relationship. Freda’s easy acceptance of their terminated engagement may show that, for her, the relationship was never serious.
“I have a hard time imagining what would have happened had they successfully run away to St. Louis,” Coe says. “I don’t think Freda would have been happy with that reality.”
Alice’s mother was also known to have experienced what was most likely postpartum depression after several of her childbirths. George Mitchell, Alice’s father, had diagnosed her insane on every occasion. He and Alice’s attorneys were convinced Alice’s love for women was a result of the insanity her own mother had displayed several times.
Alice Mitchell clearly felt alone, and thus her devastation all the more vivid. In her time period, women’s rights were severely prohibited. And if same-sex love causes problems now, it was all but unheard of in Alice’s world. Her abhorrent love for another woman deemed her insane. In fact, when her insanity inquisition began, the prosecution could not find one physician to testify that Alice was sane. Her love for a woman was enough to prove it, no further tests needed.
“It would have been significant for her to realize other women shared her desires,” says Coe. “In her time period she had no examples, she had no words for what she felt, and she felt as though maybe this was unique. When she found Freda, someone who shared this with her, that was a big part of the appeal, that Freda reciprocated these feelings. And without an example, she did not know that if Freda left her she might find someone else to love. She may have believed that Freda was the only person in the world who also felt this way.”
This story is not simply a tale of love gone wrong. It is a tale of women’s rights in a world where they had little — if any. It is a tale of what is considered “right” and “wrong” love. Had Alice not felt so alone, things may have ended differently. As Coe explains, most tales of same-sex love at the time came from French novels, books Alice probably had never even heard of. Perhaps if she had known there were others like her, she would have known there was more to the world than Freda.
In addition, Alice’s inquisition displays the intense power of the media. The press was ripe with yellow journalism, with sensational headlines and giving very little thought to fact-checking. It probably didn’t help that the defense had them eating out of the palm of their hands.
“The media was used by Alice’s lawyers quite effectively to craft a sympathetic narrative and they were supported by refutable science and pretty impressionable interviews,” says Coe. “They very skillfully released things to the public.”
Coe explains that, in her opinion, even without the media the end result would have been the same. She states the inquisition would have been shorter, but that George Mitchell would have never allowed his daughter to be tried for murder.
The fatal love story is enhanced with some of the actual letters written by Alice and Freda. The letters, more than anything, display Alice’s deep obsession with Freda and Freda’s almost impassiveness. And Sally Klann’s illustrations are certainly not to be ignored. Her drawings breathe life back into the people, places and objects of this tragic tale.
The engagement ring, the attire, the people and even Alice’s jail cell will enrapture reader’s and fuel the imagination, truly enforcing the tale. The most poignant piece of artwork is the image of Alice fallen on Freda’s grave. Her grieving stance evokes anguish and Freda’s body lying under the soil makes for an even gloomier story. Coe says her favorite image is one where the doctors are seated at a table and above them are their ridiculous statements on why Alice was insane.
“Alice and Freda are not a prominent part of the city’s [Memphis’s] history,” says Coe. “There’s a lot about their story that feels familiar 120 years later. They were teenagers in love and they planned to spend the rest of their lives together. Their relationship was plagued by jealously and infidelity, which might describe a lot of teenage relationships. Perhaps to a story like Alice and Freda that we can all relate to on a certain level, it will affect people in perhaps a different way.
“It’s a good story, and it’s one that hasn’t been told,” she continues. “It has everything in it. It has race, gender, class, it’s a really important time in American history and the national identity of whiteness was being challenged. It was inherently unstable and one of the things that challenged it was a woman like Alice Mitchell.”
See Alexis Coe at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, October 10-12. She is included in the Sunday panel Before “It Gets Better”: The LGBT Experience in American History.