ALICE AND FREDA FOREVER – Interview with Alexis Coe


Alice+FredaForever_9781936976607ALICE AND FREDA FOREVER

Q&A with Alexis Coe and Erica Ruth Neubauer

In the late 1800’s, American society was rocked  by a graphic and shocking murder—a young woman named Alice Mitchellbrutally cut the throat of her former friend Freda Wardon a busy street in Memphis, TN. But what the nation found  even more shocking was that the two women were once engaged to one another, and had made plans to run off and live together as a married couple. Alice planned to disguise herself as a man, and Freda would play the part of proper domestic housewife. Concerned family members thwarted their plans and Freda went back to flirting with various men of her acquaintance—it is unclear how serious Freda was about the plan or her love for Alice. Alice, however, could not bear to let Freda go, and made many threats to Freda’s life and her own. If Alice could not have Freda, she was determined that no one would. Alice’s subsequent trial brought fascinated spectators by the hundreds to Memphis, as Americans devoured storiesabout the ill-fated former lovers. Newspapers even went so far as to publish love letters that had been sent between the girls.

Alexis Coe brings Alice and Freda’s story to life in her book Alice and Freda Forever, rescuing this tale of same-sex heartbreak and obsession from the passage of time. Alexis holds an MA in early twentieth-century American history, and previously worked as research curator at the New York Public Library.

Erica Ruth Neubauer: You contribute to a variety of different outlets. What are most of your articles about? Is there a general area of interest or topic?

Alexis Coe: I’m a historian and writer who focuses on women, and I’m quite lucky to do so: there’s an embarrassment of riches to found. Working outside of academia allows me to pursue a wide array of topics—with the exception of Alice+Freda Forever—and I take full advantage of that freedom. I spent two years writing a thesis on the 1922 Cable Act, and while I’ve never regretted it, I found the range of materials I worked with at the New York Public Library thrilling, and I’ve applied that experience to my writing. In any given month, I may write about lady pickpockets of the Barbary Coast, professors and marriage, the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow competition, a Nobel Prize winning woman scientist, and Charles Dickens’letter opener, made out of his beloved cat’s paw.

I’m often called a women’s historian, or someone who writes women’s history, and I worry about this label. It suggests an alternative history, a late addition that is less important than real history. I’m the Toasts “in house historian,”and I wrote at length about the process of naming my column “Archival Mix,”not “Women’s History.”I think it can be really dangerous, as I wrote about when I reviewed Wendy Lower’s Hitlers Furies. Yes, I take issue with the label as a feminist, but more so as a historian: It has created and perpetuated a historical blind spot, and we’ll never truly understand the past if we’re excluding half of the population. My book focuses on two young women, but men play a prominent role. If I had minimized their importance, it would’ve been a real disservice to the narrative.

I do write about men, too, though no one seems to believe me! You can find plenty of proof over at the Awl, where I’ve had a column called “Hammer Time”since April 2013.

ERN: Where did you come across the story of Alice and Freda? What drew you to their story and made you feel that you wanted to retell it?

AC: When I was in grad school, I read a scholarly article about the case, but I kept losing Alice and Freda’s story in the dense academic text . I was already committed to another topic , and yet I found myself collecting newspaper articles about the case. Years later, I was still reading around the subject and wondering about the girls. My interest never waned, so it seemed the only choice was to indulge it.

ERN: Was the article a story about lots of cases, and you lost this one thread? 

AC: I focused on early twentieth century political history, but I still read around topics and took seminars on other time periods. We all make different choices with the material we research and write about—how many books do we have on Lincoln?—but yes, the Mitchell-Ward case was competing with other cases, and easily lost or overshadowed in the name of intersectionality, or presented in an academic style of writing as a kind of conduit for bigger concepts.

ERN: Can you talk about the source materials you used to piece together Alice and Fredas story?

AC: America was obsessed with the same-sex murder, which made for an abundance of sensational newspaper articles, some of which contained Alice and Freda’s love letters. I also relied on medical journals, school catalogs, courtroom proceedings, asylum records, and books and articles.

ERN: With such rich source material, were you ever tempted to take the story into your own hands and write it as fiction? 

AC: No, I was never tempted to fictionalize their story for readers, though I’ve often done so for myself. I’ve imagined so many different endings for Alice and Freda—and in every instance, they both live.

My favorite alternate ending is closely tied to the girls’ original plan  [to live together as a married couple in St. Louis]. I skip the elopement in Memphis, as that part was ridiculously faulty, and instead have the girls light out for St. Louis. Shortly after they arrive, a Mr. Darcy-like character brings a very willing Freda back to her family but Alice, passing as Alvin J. Ward, decides to stay. She finds a job, and someone who loves her back, truly and completely.

Freda both marries  and realizes “true womanhood,”or perhaps she makes her own daring escape, and indulges her love for the stage and demonstrated proclivity for theatrics. I see Freda touring with a traveling company, even stopping in St. Louis. Alice sees the poster outside of the theater, but she doesn’t buy tickets or try to see Freda. She lingers for just a moment, before heading home to have dinner with her wife.

That’s my happiest version. I’d settle for Freda taking any of Alice’s many threats seriously, even if it meant Alice still ended up in the asylum.

ERN: Alice was pretty isolated in her desire to continue in a same-sex relationship . How do you think this story would play out today?

AC: In 1892 Memphis, Alice and Freda weren’t allowed to marry each other, and if they were alive in 2014, they’d meet the same reality. When I was writing the book, I hoped that would change by the time it was published, but over 120 years after Alice and Freda got engaged, same-sex marriage is still illegal in Tennessee.

ERN: The arrests and trials of Alice and her accompliceLillie were highly sensationalized in the media  (Lillie was merely in the carriage with Alice before and after the murder, knowing nothing about it, but was charged as an accessory). Various newspapers ran accounts of how both girls acted, looked and even sounded that were often completely subjective and according to the writers whim. How much do you think the media affected the outcomes for both Alice and her friend Lillie?

AC: I think national attention affected their hearings more than their outcomes. The presiding judge, who founded the Tennessee KKK, ordered that the courtroom be expanded to accommodate the media, as well as the needs of his own ego. As a result, there were so many sideshows, so much more humiliation for the sake of the crowd.

The expansion also meant that Alice languished in jail for a few extra months. We don’t know what that was like, as Alice didn’t correspond with anyone or keep a diary—she’d learned that lesson when her love letters were reprinted in newspapers across the country.  Her lawyers allowed just a few visitors and a handful of medical experts, so we can assume that she was quite lonely, and probably downright frightened.

ERN: Can you talk a little bit about why society found Alices motivations for killing Freda so threatening?

AC: If Alice had been a man, her murderous act would’ve been called a crime of passion, but that was the privilege of white men. By claiming that power in what was understood to be a masculine act, Alice posed yet another challenge to the national identity of male whiteness , an inherently unstable ideology threatened by the Civil War, Reconstruction, an influx of immigrants, the nascent suffrage movement, and calls for fair wages and broader political enfranchisement.

Alice wanted the same rights as the men of her family, to come and go as she pleased and work and marry whomever she wanted. Her pursuit of happiness and desire for equality had the capacity to enervate the established order, one reinforced by the country’s laws and religion. This was treated like a cautionary tale. If a young woman from a respectable family was coming after the advantages and authority of white men, it was only a matter of time before all races and classes followed. Alice and Freda’s  case wasn’t just about same-sex love, murder, and insanity—it was about American modernity at the turn-of-the-century.