Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Girl Slays Girl."

Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, aged 19 and 17, had become close friends at the Higbee School for Girls in Memphis. So close, in fact, that they declared their love for each other and planned to elope to St. Louis to live together as husband and wife. When Freda’s family stopped the relationship, forbidding Freda from seeing Alice, events took a dreadful turn. On the afternoon of January 25, 1892, Alice Mitchel met Freda Ward on Front Street and cut her throat with a straight razor. Was Alice driven by insanity, by jealousy, or by “an unnatural love?”

Date: January 25, 1892

Location:  Memphis, TN

Victim: Freda Ward

Cause of Death: Slashing

Accused:  Alice Mitchell

Freda Ward and her sister Jo met Alice Mitchell and Lilly Johnson at the Higbee School for Girls in Memphis Tennessee. The girls were all from prominent Memphis families and became very close friends, with Freda especially close to Alice. 

Alice and Freda were often seen embracing and kissing but no one took much notice. It was not uncommon in the 1890s for girls to form close relationships and express undying love for each other in letters and diary entries. These relationships were considered “a rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of a woman’s life,” something the girls would outgrow when they reached adulthood.

After Freda’s family moved several miles south to the town of Gold Dust, Arkansas, they began to see Freda’s relationship with Alice as unhealthy. One night in August 1891, Freda’s older, married sister, Ada Volkmar, caught Freda, with her suitcase packed, ready to leave for Memphis. Freda said that Alice had given her a ring and the two considered themselves engaged. They had planned to elope to St. Louis where Alice would be the man, changing her name to Alvin J. Ward, and Freda would be the wife. Mrs. Volkmar stopped the elopement and forbade any further contact or correspondence between her sisters and Alice Mitchell and Lillie Johnson.
The following January, when the Ward sisters were visiting a family friend, Mrs. Kimbrough, in Memphis. Alice and Lillie had attempted to stop by and see them but were turned away. On January 25, Alice and Lillie went for a buggy ride that took them past Mrs. Kimbrough’s house where they saw Freda and Jo leaving for the ferry to take them back to Gold Dust. As the sisters were heading to the dock on Front Street, Alice jumped out of the buggy saying “I’ll fix her!

She ran to Freda, grabbed her by the arm and slashed her face with a straight razor she had concealed in her hand. Jo Ward knocked Alice down and hit her with an umbrella as Freda ran away. Alice jumped up and ran after her. She caught up with Freda and slashed her face again. Then Alice grabbed Freda by the hair, pulled her head back and slit her throat from ear to ear. Alice went back to the buggy and Freda was carried to a nearby office where she bled to death. Alice was arrested that night at her parent’s home and Lillie was arrested at her home the next morning.

Trials: Lillie Johnson - February 23, 1892
             Alice Mitchell - July 18, 1892

Lillie Johnson’s habeas corpus hearing was held first, to determine whether there was enough evidence to try her for murder. Though it would not determine anyone’s ultimate fate and was far less important than the pending murder trial of Alice Mitchell, it would be the most significant trial held in Memphis to date. The anticipated crowd would be so large that Judge Julius Dubose delayed the opening so that construction could be done to enlarge the courtroom until it had a seating capacity to rival Memphis’s largest theatres. On the day the trial opened judge Dubose was overwhelmed by a crowd of over a thousand people of all races and nationalities, about half of them women. Women were drawn to the hearing in numbers unprecedented for a criminal trial. In an effort stem the confusion the judge issued a “ballroom order”: “Ladies to the right, gents to the left.”

All of the salient evidence came out in this hearing; the “unnatural love” of Alice for Freda, the attempted elopement, Lillie’s intimacy with Alice and with the Ward sisters, and vivid descriptions of the murder scene. The defense argued that Lillie had no idea of Alice’s intention that day and in no way assisted her. But Judge Dubose ruled that:
"The proof is evident that the defendant aided and abetted in the commission of the crime, a crime the most atrocious and malignant ever perpetrated by a woman."
Lillie Johnson was released on $10,000 bail.

Alice Mitchell pled not guilty to murder but also entered a plea of “present insanity” which meant that before she could be tried for murder a hearing would be held to determine if she was mentally fit to stand trial.

To show a hereditary predisposition to madness, Alice’s father testified that her mother, who had borne seven children, suffered from “puerperal insanity” after the birth of her first child and had to be committed to a lunatic asylum for several months. After the death of the child she became increasingly unstable. Other testimony brought by the defense stressed Alice’s boyish behavior growing up as an indication of her insanity. The engagement ring, inscribed “From A. to F” was entered as evidence and the story of the elopement was retold. Frank Mitchell, Alice’s brother, testified that Alice had once tried to commit suicide by taking laudanum over Freda’s perceived infidelities.

The prosecution argued that though Alice’s behavior was strange, it was not insane. Her tomboyish behavior was not even unusual, just a normal part of growing up. However, the defense brought in a number of psychologists who unanimously thought Alice insane, probably incurably so. Her predisposition to insanity was triggered by an “exciting cause” -  the emotional disturbance of love and jealousy. Alice’s belief that she could marry Freda was a manifestation of her insanity.

Throughout the trial, Alice seemed docile and unconcerned which, to some observers, seemed further evidence of her insanity. On the witness stand she remained calm and indifferent as she told of her love for Freda detailed their intended elopement. Then she told of her plan to kill Freda:

“I wanted to cut her because I knew I could not have her, and I did not want anyone else to have her… My intention was to cut Freda’s throat and then my own, but Jo’s interference made me cut Freda again.”

The trial lasted ten days and the jury returned the verdict of insanity. She was committed to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum at Bolivar, Tennessee. Charges against Lillie Johnson were later dropped.

Verdict:  Lillie Johnson - Sufficient evidence to try for murder. Charges later dropped
               Alice Mitchell - Present insanity - not competent to stand trial.

Officials at the Tennessee State Insane Asylum could have, at any time, declared Alice Mitchell competent to stand trial, but she never left the institution. In 1898 she reportedly died of tuberculosis. However, one of her attorneys later stated in an interview that she committed suicide by jumping into a water tower.

In 1892 the terms “lesbian” and “homosexual” were not commonly used in America. At that time, the medical term for Alice’s condition was “sexual inversion”--the condition where a person inappropriately took on the characteristics of the opposite sex.

While much was said about the “unnatural love” of Alice Mitchell for Freda Ward, there was never an official suggestion that their relationship was sexual. The public also had trouble accepting Alice’s sexual inversion as the driving force behind the murder. Though Alice never wavered from her assertion that she killed Freda for love, two other stories were told as a motive for the murder:

1. Alice, Lillie, and the Ward sisters were “fast” girls, always flirting with men. Freda was prettier than Alice and had more luck with men. Alice was jealous of Freda’s beauty and was only trying to disfigure, not murder her.

2. A mysterious man was involved. He followed Alice’s buggy and disappeared after the murder. The murder was the result of a rivalry for the love of this man. The folk song "Alice Mitchel and Freddy Ward" expresses this view.

This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century
Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. New York: Duke UP, 2000

"Images of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis"-Journal article by Lisa J. Lindquist; Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 6, 1995

Freda Ward and Alice Mitchell are both buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, TN
Freda's grave is unmarked.

Ballad Lyrics (from Mudcat Cafe)


Anonymous says:
August 3, 2010 at 6:03 PM

I love this web site. I've always been interested in old court cases. Hope you will be able to add more info to this site.

NeMo says:
September 29, 2013 at 10:43 AM

Why is Freda's grave unmarked?

NeMo says:
September 29, 2013 at 10:43 AM

Why is Freda's grave unmarked?

Unknown says:
December 22, 2018 at 4:37 PM

My granddaughter just had the lead in a play about the Alice Michell case. She received great reviews and the play was well attended at Hofstra University

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