Alice Mitchell might have been a killer, but white womanhood still had to be protected. Not everyone thought of Mitchell as a vulnerable, ill innocent, and there was a fair bit of backlash against the explanations offered for her actions – see the lyrics to a popular song about the case. Meanwhile, society needed to reassure itself that Mitchell really was a conventional woman. Cue the attempts to reconcile Mitchell to heterosexuality and femininity.
Reports of Mitchell’s court appearances routinely began with descriptions of what she was wearing. This attempt to feminise her ran up against the narrative of Mitchell as monstrous in her much-discussed practice of veiling in court, something Judge DuBose eventually made her cease. In appearing in irreproachably feminine dress, yet shielding herself from public evaluation, Mitchell scandalously frustrated attempts to pin her down to a singular behavioural narrative. It was a very clever intervention, even if Mitchell ultimately didn’t have the agency to control her own narrative. I guess she got what she wanted the minute she slit Ward’s throat, in any case.
When made to stop veiling, ‘Miss Mitchell did not seem at all disconcerted, and coolly returned the gaze of the large crowd’ (Author unknown, “Miss Mitchell in Court,” 16 February 1892, The New York Times, p.3). Such descriptions fed media continuation of the narrative of Mitchell’s “unwomanly” cold criminality, but Mitchell’s placidity was also used to paint her with simpleminded feminine vulnerability. The clash between fascination with Mitchell’s difference and the need to deny it, then, meant a proliferation of dualistic responses.
Shoring up normativity to balance out Mitchell’s unorthodox desires was so important that baseless rumours flourished. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that a ‘rumour is current that Miss Mitchell was enraged because Miss Ward had won her sweetheart away’ (Author unknown, “Murdered her Rival with a Razor,” 26 January 1892, The Chicago Daily Tribune, p.7). This was in spite of Mitchell and her family insisting that she avoided men’s company. The other popular theory was that Mitchell had killed Ward in revenge for rumours the Wards had spread that threatened Mitchell’s ladylike social standing. The man, it was claimed, and proof of the rumours would be found and used in court! Women’s violence and desire presented such an infringement on the normative male role that a man had to be fabricated to put Mitchell back in her sexual and gendered roles.
Three years later, The San Francisco Call was still desperate to align a now institutionalised Mitchell with femininity. In an article called “She Loves Men, Too,” the newspaper reported that she ‘was daintily dressed in pink’ and, apparently baselessly, two instances of Mitchell having become ‘desperately infatuated’ with men. This forceful insistence on one narrative points to the whole reason for interest in the story: the competing narrative of Mitchell’s deviance. The reporter breathlessly intimates that the basis of Mitchell’s case was that her ‘mind and her emotions were as if she were a man’. Even as the public was reassured that Mitchell’s terrifying difference was now neutralised, the very continued fascination with that difference showed that the potential for otherness remained in the scandalised public imagination. It was in the media’s expanding interests to continue the controversy by playing on these duelling narratives.
Sometimes the backlash had a veneer of kindness, and sometimes it outright bayed for Mitchell’s blood. It was cruel either way, and far more about social panic over difference than pursuit of justice.