If you’ve got a society set up around the idea of white female vulnerability, what do you do when a white woman kills another? What if her stated motive, that she killed her victim because she couldn’t have her, transgresses the boundaries by which you understand sexuality and gender? Why, you make up evidence, of course. Agency must at all times be denied to women. And there were many strategies employed to try and box Alice Mitchell back inside normative boundaries.
In the days following the murder, newspapers were filled with such sentiment as ‘all Memphis is still on a hunt for the cause. So far there has been no satisfactory answer given, though the air is full of theories’ (Author unknown, “Mitchell-Ward Murder,” 1 February 1892, The Waco Daily News, p.5.). That’s an odd bit of reportage as Mitchell had at this stage already stated her motive, as, unbelieved, she would countless times in the months to come: ‘I wanted to cut her because I knew I could not have her, and I didn’t want anyone else to have her’ (quoted in Lisa Duggan’s Sapphic Slashers). It’s not that Mitchell hadn’t said anything, it was that Mitchell’s desire and motive could not “satisfactorily” be explained in accordance with sexual and gendered norms. Written on the day of the murder itself, a New York Times article called “A Most Shocking Crime” exemplified this denial of agency and desire. It began by noting that Mitchell refused to ‘say a word’ as to her motive, yet ends by reporting ‘she loved Freda’ and ‘they had made a compact that if they should ever be separated they should kill each other’. The variance in the piece’s internal narrative is telling: Alice’s own voice must be overwritten from the start in order to shut out the possibility of difference. It’s ridiculous, it’s transparent, and it’s panicked.
A woman’s desire for another was incomprehensible to US society, an infringement, along with the “masculine” act of murder, on the male role. Even the medical testimony that was to come only acknowledged her difference by expunging Mitchell’s agency again. According to this response, hereditary “lunacy” had caused Mitchell’s sexual desires, this “lunacy” proved by the murder – even though Mitchell had apparently shown no sign of mental illness previously. There was no room for agency, or legitimacy of desire, or, just quietly, coexistence of queerness with an utterly irrelevant mental illness, if she really had one. That Mitchell had killed someone became incidental, as did whether a mental illness may have been tied up in that – which would tie in with contemporary tropes of mental illness, although we know that people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victims rather than perpetrators of crime. Many people were convinced that Mitchell was insane simply because of her desire. It was a horrible strategy, but it saved Mitchell from execution.
The most forceful responses were reserved for what Mitchell represented in terms of the formation of queer female identity. The defence used illness to explain away Mitchell’s queerness, and the prosecution too proceeded with ‘the assumption that there was a motive more human than that believed in by the public generally; that Alice Mitchell was not inspired by an infatuation for Freda Ward’ (“Mitchell-Ward Murder,” as above). ‘A motive more human’: can you imagine? Members of the public responded believingly to Mitchell’s sexuality, but those responsible for maintaining social norms thought that to be a queer woman was to be inhuman. Be a nice, vulnerable, mentally ill woman who doesn’t know what she wants, or be a monster. Either way, your sexuality isn’t right. Women like Mitchell threatened a social order that depended on strict gendering, and society pathologised those who transgressed the boundaries of gender roles constructed as natural.
All up, the media, medics, and Memphis were invested enough in ideas of female passivity that Mitchell’s agency was denied at every turn. This held even when the investment necessitated false reportage and shaky medical evidence, whether Mitchell’s sexuality was acknowledged or denied. Moreover, the societal need to contain Mitchell’s emotions and actions within a normativising narrative came at the expense of her agency in determining the cause of her own actions.
Besides which, these strategies didn’t ultimately work. The case was so powerful in the popular imagination because it came at the exact historical moment at which sexology and modernity were coming into their own. Rather than simply being shocking for her crime or understood as utterly other, Mitchell also came to represent a prototypical Western queer female identity. The idea of a queer woman was believable in a way it hadn’t been previously in the United States. And a terrified society tried everything it could to keep queer womanhood down, and white middle class women vulnerable.