Coe, Alexis. “Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis”, Pulp/Zest Books, 2014.
A Look Back In Time
I never realized how much I do not know until I started reading seriously and I soon discovered that when I started to write book reviews that I had better have my facts together. When I started reading “Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis”, I was really aware what I did not know. I had never heard of this story—that in 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess. However it was not her crime that was so shocking, but what motivated her to commit the crime Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancée Freda Ward. However, when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again.
Freda adjusted easily to this but it stunned Alice who had a broken heart. She became more and more desperate as days passed. Soon her letters went unanswered and then her father’s razor disappeared. On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat and her same-sex love was deemed insane by her father that very night. Medical experts agreed that this was a dangerous and incurable perversion and the crime was publicly talked about. Alice spent months in jail until a jury of Memphis’s finest men declared Alice insane, she was remanded to an asylum, where she died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later.
This book is the story of the Freda, Alice and so much more– a love story, a murder, a trial and it is illustrated with over 100 love letters, maps, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper articles, courtroom proceedings, and intimate, domestic scenes— and we get a picture of the world that was then.
Alexis Coe did tremendous research to write this book including historical settings, background information, family information, and hand-written letters so this is the real thing. We must remember that back in 1892 in Memphis, the term same-sex love did not exist and it was impossible to think about it unless one had a direct relation to what we now regard as same-sex love. The only rational way to deal with it in the minds of the men who were considered the bet of Memphis was to label it as insanity. This was what the defense used for Alice Mitchell who killed the woman she loved because she could not have her. After all Alice had made the proposal and said she would dress as a man so they could marry.
We get a detailed look at a fascinating and tragic real life murder case and we also get a look at the attitudes of the American south. Freda and Alice were two middle class teenage Memphis girls who met at a type of finishing school. Alice fell passionately in love with Freda and Freda seemed to return her affection though remained flirtatious with men. Alice proposed the scheme where she would pass as a man and marry Freda and following the wedding they would elope to a new life in St. Louis. When this plan was discovered and stopped by Freda’s family members in the summer of 1891, Alice became increasingly obsessed with the girl who she considered her one true love. Then in 1892 shortly before Freda was to leave Memphis, Alice slashed her throat with a razor she had stolen for that purpose. Freda died soon after and it was suspected that Alice had planned to kill herself but was stopped from doing so. Then came the trial and her commitment to an insane asylum where she died at the young age of 25.
In my opinion, the value of this book is in what it has to say about the way sexuality was regarded and in some places, still is. We also get a good luck at the role of women and even race relations during the 1890’s. Aside from the illustration, photos and letters, there is an extensive bibliography and seventeen pages of research notes.