How do you shove back into a box a woman who transgresses societal ideas of sexuality, gender, and violence? You feminise her by pathologising her. One of the most popular ways of understanding why Mitchell killed Ward – the way that saved Mitchell from execution – was to call her insane. Again, it wasn’t Mitchell’s slitting Ward’s throat that was the problem, it was her desire for Ward in the first place.
Medico-legal discourse had to adopt a curious balancing act here. This pathologising legal defence necessitated dually acknowledging Mitchell’s sexual difference and invalidating it as an individual sickness, something both tragic and ultimately containable. Mitchell’s scandalous queerness, and the implicit possibility of sexual difference in society more broadly, could hence only be contained by reducing it to a one-off manifestation of supposedly inherent feminine susceptibility. Mitchell’s lawyers’ case for insanity was based on the premise that she had inherited a mental illness from her mother, who had been unwell during pregnancy. The way this worked was that nineteenth century US understanding of mental illness was that pregnant people’s episodes could result in their children developing illnesses themselves. This narrative conveniently, and hardly coincidentally, feminised mental illness.
The general line was that Mitchell spoke perfectly sensibly about everything but the murder, something that was not in accordance with then current understandings of mental illness. A response of pathologisation, in a way that deviated from societal understanding of mental illness, was constructed in order to pull Mitchell back within the bounds of medical understanding of women’s psychology. They tried really, really hard to find something to pin on her: the media, reporting on Mitchell’s lunacy inquisition, frequently noted her lack of tears, emotions, and general “womanly” feeling.
So, what was this mental illness Mitchell supposedly had? Well, that’s the thing. We don’t know. For a popular case, the Mitchell case had a lot of mystery around it. We don’t know how she died, either: we know she was only twenty-five and died in the institution she’d lived in since the trial, but reportage differs as to whether she drowned herself, or died of a disease, or what. It was probably in the interests of the image of institutions to keep that one a little vague. I digress. Medical experts could not agree on a diagnosis, but that didn’t seem to matter: the point was to prove that Mitchell was ill. Moreover, newspapers habitually edited medical testimony right down with the justification that medical matters couldn’t be of interest to the general public. They routinely reported, however, that medical experts insisted that Mitchell’s and Ward’s love had been purely “mental” and they had definitely not, no way, no how, had sex. Like, can you imagine, two ladies? I am not sure what the experts would have based that on; no one seems to have asked Mitchell herself whether they’d had sex or not. Many doctors seemed rather convinced that she had no true understanding of sexuality, anyway.
This lack of clarity meant that the precise threat that Mitchell purportedly represented did not have to be confronted by a society that refused to be ready for her sexuality. She could simply be reduced to feminised illness, as was the norm of an emerging sexology that figured difference as bad. This medical strategy worked for Mitchell’s lawyers, and the jury was convinced of Mitchell’s illness not because of the murder, but because of her same-sex desire. The lawyers were successful precisely because they harnessed social discomfort with difference over and above the original response of horror at a person’s violent murder.