Alice Mitchell was a white society girl who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the USA, during the late nineteenth century. Very much in love with her fiance, Freda Ward, she’d been devastated when Ward’s family cut off contact between them. Deciding that, if she couldn’t have Ward, neither could anyone else, on 23 January 1892, at nineteen years of age, she slit the throat of seventeen-year-old Freda in the street. And American ideas about sexuality, violence, and the nature of womanhood got shot to hell.
Except they didn’t, really, not at once. Let’s set the stage a bit. Present in Europe for a while, ideas of a queer female sexuality were just emerging in American sexology at this time. The ways in which Mitchell was pathologised were incredibly important to this case. Violence had been seen as inherently male, and Mitchell’s crime wasn’t simply one of murder, nor one of sexuality, but also one of gender. By desiring a woman, by murdering, and in a “masculine” fashion with the razor at that, and by having planned to take on a male role when their plans to run away and get married were still in sight, Mitchell had transgressed the boundaries of how her society understood gender.
Meanwhile, the 1890s was the start of mass national media in the United States. The Mitchell-Ward case was publicised incredibly widely, and made the front page of The New York Times more than once. Following Mitchell’s death, the 1 April 1898 edition of The Chicago Daily Tribune called the murder ‘one of the most remarkable tragedies in the world’s history’. Speculation abounded that no crime in Southern history had ever been written about as much. I doubt that’s the case, but that these hyperbolic responses existed at all says something about the impact Mitchell’s actions and the response to them had on the US psyche.
I’m not going to go into this very much, but I want to note how important it was to how the case was received that Mitchell was a white society woman. Southern understanding of violence was very much about protecting white womanhood against the supposed threat of black men. Mitchell really messed with this as a white woman acting violently against another white woman. She also had the benefits of a high social position, which helped her escape the death penalty as she had a legal team do a rather solid job of pathologising her instead. It also garnered her a lot of sympathy as a young lady from a perfectly nice family who just suffered an illness she couldn’t possibly help, delicate feminine creature as she was. Lisa Duggan covers this in some depth in her book Sapphic Slashers, which is definitely worth a read, both as the only book length work on this case and for racial context in particular which I don’t give here.
The crux of the case for me is the extraordinary divergence between responses to the case, be they from the media, medical professionals, Mitchell’s family, or the general public. Some did their absolute best to reconcile Mitchell to femininity and to explain away her sexuality. Others tried just as hard to figure her as a monster, which was, curiously, one of the rare times her sexuality was acknowledged as genuine. Almost all the controversy was about Mitchell’s transgression of gendered and sexual societal norms rather than the fact that she took someone’s life.
This is the first post in a series on the Mitchell case. I’ll list sources and further reading in the last post.