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Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe: "She was wholly without that fondness for boys that girls usually manifest"



In 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee, 19-year-old Alice Mitchell slashed the throat of her ex-fiancée, Freda Ward. The subsequent trial focused not so much on the horror of what she had done, but on the defense's argument that her engagement to a woman meant she was clearly insane.

Alexis Coe's book Alice + Freda Forever is short and has a bangin' cover.

She's clearly done a lot of research, and lays out the story clearly and chronologically while not getting mired in the historian's pitfall of injecting too much detail. She goes from the murder to the trial to the questioned fate of Alice Mitchell (spoilers: she died in an insane asylum, but whether it was of natural causes or suicide is unknown). I like true crime and I like lesbians and I like the 19th century, so this seemed immensely far up my particular alley.



There is some frustration, as Alice Mitchell's feelings are never really known. She kept no surviving journal from her months in jail, so the only things we have are her letters to Freda. Did she realize that murdering the girl she professed to love so no one else could have her was basically the emperor of shitty reasons for doing something? Who knows. She did stop at Freda's grave before being committed and collapse on top of it, but that could be for any number of reasons. 

There's a fine line to walk in this book, and Coe tends towards the greater-LGBT-rights-at-issue side. Yes, it does indeed suck that people in Tennessee in 1892 thought a woman wanting to marry a woman should be committed. But for me, I can't get past the basic fact that one person murdered another person. And in a cruel, cruel fashion. She cut her throat on the street and then chased her and finished killing her. In front of Freda's sister.

I can't see this as a love story. At all. I think Alice Mitchell was a mentally unsound 19-year-old who should have been either committed or imprisoned, and if she had never attacked Freda Ward, Freda should have gotten as far the hell away from her as she could.

If you're into 19th century true crime in America, maybe read about the Burdell murder. That one's pretty fun. Everyone in that boarding house was boning everyone else. It was like the trashy reality show house of olde.

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