“Alice + Freda Forever”: The Shocking and Sad Relevance of a 19th-Century Same-Sex Murder

on

“Did I ever want to be called a boy’s name?” I asked my mother recently, recalling the fervent short-haired, scraped-kneed tomboyness that made up the vast majority of my childhood.

“No, but you wanted to be Santa Claus once,” she said.

Most of us live our lives trying to bridge the gap—whether real or imagined—between our human, vulnerable, flawed self and the one we display to the world. When I was seven, I developed a huge crush on this girl from YMCA summer camp. At the time I thought I was a boy, so I never wore a girl’s swimsuit. Instead I put on baggy shorts and placed a towel over my head every time I had to go into the gendered locker room, to “hide” my girlness and my shame. I was convincingly boyish enough that my crush thought I was one, which I was secretly elated by—until she caught me going into the girls’ bathroom and proceeded to make fun of me in front of everyone for using the “wrong bathroom.”

It’s been more than 20 years since then and yet I can still perfectly recall the particular devastation that welled up in me at that moment, the humiliation I felt for trying so desperately to reconcile the parts of myself I deemed irreconcilable.

That memory came up again recently, while reading Alice + Freda Forever, Alexis Coe’s heart-rending historical retelling of the saga of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, who were, like countless teenagers before them, in love, and who expected to spend the rest of their lives together. Alice and Freda were also trying to reconcile conflicting parts of themselves. Of the many problems the couple faced (jealousy, possessiveness, infidelity), perhaps the most insurmountable one was that they were two women in love living in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1800s. The word “lesbian” would not exist for another 40 years. It would be 80 years before being homosexual was no longer considered a mental illness. It would be, well, it remains to be seen when same-sex marriage will be legal throughout the United States, though with the recent Supreme Court news has upped the number of marriage-ready states to 30.

alice-freda

Because they were living in an impossible situation at an impossible time, Alice and her fiancée planned to flee the South for St. Louis, where they would try to pass as man and wife. But the night they were supposed to leave, Alice and Freda’s love letters were discovered by Freda’s sister, who forbid Freda from ever seeing Alice again. Freda took this turn of events rather breezily, at least on the surface, but Alice, who was cutoff and desperate, eventually took her father’s razor and slashed Freda’s throat with it, in public, in broad daylight, screaming, “I don’t care if I’m hung. I want to die anyway!”

It is, of course, still illegal for two women to marry today in Memphis, an anecdote that Coe points out in the book. But in 1892, same-sex love was not only considered merely unlawful, it was considered unthinkable, perverse, unnatural, and mad. For that reason, Alice’s grisly crime of murdering her ex-fiancée was not the shocking part of her tale, at least not to her contemporaries, the newspapers, and the jury that eventually found her insane. The shocking part was that she loved Freda the way she should have loved a man. This was her true “crime,” the reason she would live out the remainder of her short life in an asylum before dying of mysterious causes a few years later.

“There is a good deal of fault to be found in both Alice and Freda,” Coe writes in the introduction. “[M]ost clearly, of course, in Alice’s unconscionable act of violence—but two women loving each other, and wanting to make a home and a life together, is not one of them.”

Coe is a calculated flamethrower. She writes urgently, with a lulling, captivating intimacy that makes readers forget the story took place more than one hundred years ago. Though the love story is central, Coe doesn’t shy away from covering the overt (and at times laughably absurd) sexism, racism, and classism at work in the turn-of-the-century American South (and which, of course, still persists today). In many ways, her book is a mercenary in a war-torn country of the heart. The grounding of the forbidden teenage love in Victorian-era politics makes the work illuminating, especially the time Alice spent in jail, which coincided with the night that three of her fellow black prisoners were lynched, and which garnered the attention of civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. At times, reading about the circumstances surrounding Alice and Freda’s story was like reliving a painful memory, much like the one involving my childhood gender dysphoria at the YMCA—not exactly cleansing, but necessary.

153049423

As a queer woman living in a liberal US city in 2014, I no longer question my ability to reconcile my seven-year-old boy self with my desire for women or even my desire to be Santa Claus. Unlike Alice, I have the freedom to inhabit all of those parts of myself (and then some). I no longer wear a towel on my head to hide who I am. The parts of ourselves we deem unworthy don’t have always the power to limit us. Others aren’t so lucky, I know, and we still live in a world where queer teens commit suicide at four times the rate as their straight peers, where the violence and murder of trans people is alarmingly, devastatingly high, and where “gay conversion” therapy is considered a viable “cure” for sexuality. The little-known story of Alice and Freda serves as a potent reminder of how far we’ve come, and yet how far we have to go.

Alice + Freda Forever is an ardent message that we all still very much exist in the gaps—in the rules dictated to us by society, cultural norms, our families, our religions, our geographies, our own prejudices, and by laws both arcane and necessary. Queer people can still be fired in 29 states for their sexuality (and if you’re trans, that number goes up to 34 states). But despite a certain ugliness of Southern, Victorian era beliefs, Coe writes about the customs and the horrors and the hopes with meticulous research, compassion, and insightful cultural analysis. In telling Alice and Freda’s stories, Coe beckons readers to participate in their mortality, vulnerability, instability. Their words come to represent an imprecise moment in time, an era whose relentless backwardness feels both hopelessly antiquated and completely feasible.

Near the book’s end, as we walk with Alice to Freda’s grave—the last place she’ll ever visit as a free woman—we watch her fall to her knees and weep openly for the life she ended and for the life she might have had, if only she had been born in another time and in another place. Using newspapers, medical journals, school catalogs, courtroom documents, love letters, and other historical documents, Coe invites readers to inhabit Alice and Freda’s story, and in turn to inhabit the gaps and contradictions that make up our own tortured selves, and maybe even, at least for a little while, embrace them.

103368646

Alice + Freda Forever is available now.

More you may like