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A Murder Remembered

In her new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, Alexis Coe takes a humanistic look at a forgotten 1892 crime.
(Photo: stevies_snaps/Flickr)

(Photo: stevies_snaps/Flickr)

Writing on the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese, Nicholas Lemann observed that: “If crimes don’t involve anyone powerful or well known, they generally aren’t considered news. But a few such crimes do become news, big news, and hold the public’s imagination in a tight, enduring grip.”

That grip can last for decades, even centuries. The murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 is one such crime. Even though, as Lemann tells us, it was only one of 636 murders that year in New York City, it alone generated articles and editorials, then monographs and recreations, and even today whole books are still being written about it. Why some crimes attract such attention and others do not is not easily explained, especially not decades later when the dust has settled and all of the sources have died. Freda Ward’s murder might very well have been one of those crimes that languished forever in the archive if it were not for Alexis Coe’s new book, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis.

Both girls deserve something more dignified than scandal and something more human than scholarship, and Alexis Coe provides it.

Coe first read about 17-year-old Freda Ward and her murderer, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell, during graduate school, but she found a way to tell their story years later while working as a research curator in the exhibitions department of the New York Public Library. Taken by the contemporary newspaper coverage of the teenage lovers, Coe turned their story into a kind of “exhibition case” of related materials, including recreated artifacts, documents, letters, headlines, and portraits. Alice + Freda Forever is a new kind of true crime narrative, where the evidence isn’t just verbal taxidermy or a tiny section of photographs and diagrams, but instead is spread throughout the book, in chapter titles and inset illustrations.

Alice and Freda met at prep school, the Higbee School for Young Ladies in Memphis. At first, their close friendship seemed to be only an extreme example of what Coe tells us was known as “chumming,” a kind of adolescent rehearsal for marriage. But the girls began exchanging love letters, and Alice designed a plan whereby she would pass as a man so the two could marry. She even gave Freda a ring, and in February of 1891, they got engaged.

At the same time that Alice was planning their escape, Freda’s family left Memphis for a small town called Golddust. The girls visited each other, but Freda’s sister Ada grew very suspicious of their relationship, and Freda herself began entertaining male suitors. Ada forbade the girls from seeing each other, and even wrote to Alice’s mother. Desperate for her partner, Alice sent frantic letters, even trying to disguise their postmarks. She pleaded with Freda, but months passed without any reply or acknowledgment. Finally, in January of 1892, Freda wrote Alice to say she intended to obey her sister’s wishes. The letter came less than a year after their engagement, and Alice was distraught.

After Alice slashed Freda’s throat with a razor on January 25, 1892, one headline read “Girl Slays Girl.” Memphis was scandalized not only by the murder, but by the prurient details of the case as they leaked during Alice’s trial. It would be easy to let the historic coverage dictate her contemporary assessment, but Coe opts for analysis over sensationalism. She situates the teenage love affair in the history of sexuality and gender identity, Alice’s eventual insanity plea in legal and medical history, and the entire case in the context of 19th-century Memphis.

Both girls deserve something more dignified than scandal and something more human than scholarship, and Alexis Coe provides it. Alice + Freda Forever is a fine book, one devoted to its characters and eager to understand exactly how their story made headlines but then faded from history.