Responses to Mitchell’s sexual and gendered difference often dehumanised her, but these existed alongside the attempts to neutralise her difference – which, of course, were attempts to take away something of her humanity, too. The failure ‘to solve the problem of her strange life,’ said The Chicago Daily Tribune at Mitchell’s death, meant that she had to be institutionalised, contained within but indubitably apart from society. She wrote to Freda, the article continued, ‘as a sentimental lover would write to his sweetheart’. The trial itself frequently featured testimony on Alice’s headaches, nosebleeds, fondness for sport, and general attitude. This behaviour was figured as boyish, to be sure, but not as inhuman. Such responses to the case, which tried to understand Mitchell’s desire as a variation on acceptable human behaviour rather than as monstrous, proliferated. Judge DuBose might have termed the murder ‘the most atrocious and malignant’ crime a woman had ever committed, and medical, legal, and media authorities may have tried to play down Mitchell’s queerness (Julius DuBose quoted in author unknown, “Lillie is at Home,” 28 Feb 1892, Memphis Appeal Avalanche, page number unknown, quoted in Duggan, Sapphic Slashers, p.85.). Ultimately, however, responses that tried to neutralise Mitchell’s threat to gender norms and heteronormativity, along with those that tried to place her outside human society, were put into question.
There is no possibility of distilling and normativising the Alice Mitchell case under a singular response. Mitchell was pathologised, dehumanised, and lied about, and the legitimacy of her sexuality and gender were subject to much doubt. Competing narratives ran rampant because Mitchell’s agency to determine her own identity and actions was denied. The media storm perpetuated itself by selling competing narratives of Mitchell’s behaviour to by turns fascinate and terrify readers. Mitchell refused to be pinned down to a normative or alien nature, even as her case was used to try and redraw the boundaries around social and moral acceptability. The vagueness of medical and legal discourses of pathologisation facilitated this range of responses. Some might have thought of queer women as inhuman, but Mitchell’s case helped form emerging ideas of a queer female identity. The sheer variety of responses to the Mitchell case shows how intimately it resonated at every level of this social change.
Author unknown, “Alice Mitchell Insane,” 31 July 1892, The New York Times, p.1.
Author unknown, “Alice Mitchell is Dead,” 1 April 1898, The Chicago Daily Tribune, p.4.
Author unknown, “A Most Shocking Crime,” 26 January 1892, The New York Times, p.9.
Author unknown, “Jealousy the motive,” 29 January 1892, The New York Times, p.1.
Author unknown, “Miss Mitchell in Court,” 16 February 1892, The New York Times, p.3.
Author unknown, “Mitchell-Ward Murder,” 1 February 1892, The Waco Daily News, p.5.
Author unknown, “Murdered her Rival with a Razor,” 26 January 1892, The Chicago Daily Tribune, p.7.
Author unknown, “She Loves Men, Too,” 23 June 1895, The San Francisco Call, p.2.
Author unknown, “Testimony in the Mitchell Case,” 23 July 1892, The Chicago Daily Tribune, p.9.
DuBose, Julius, quoted in author unknown, “Lillie is at Home,” 28 Feb 1892, Memphis Appeal Avalanche, page number unknown, quoted in Duggan, Sapphic Slashers, p.85.
Hastings, Grace, and John Quincy Wolf, Jr., “Alice Mitchell and Freddy Ward,” The John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection, hosted by Lyon College.
Diggs, Marylynne, “Romantic Friends or a ‘Different Race of Creatures’? The Representation of Lesbian Pathology in Nineteenth-Century America,” Feminist Studies 21, no. 2 (Summer 1995), pp.317-340.
Duggan, Lisa, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000).
Lindquist, Lisa J., “Images of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6, no. 1 (July 1995), pp.30-61.