In the 1890s, the United States was cementing its national identity, and it was predicated upon maintaining the white home on a national level. Same-sex love and African American men and women were cogent threats to the rigid hierarchy of race and gender, and the reactions on a local level from the judge, jail, sheriff, and newspapers speak to the national construction of American modernity.
–Alexis Coe, Alice + Freda Forever
Alice Mitchell met Freda Ward at a school for young ladies in Memphis, where the two young women fell in love in a way referred to as “chumming” in the 1890’s, considered practice for marriage to a young man. Their love was anything but practice, however, and once they left school and were forced to live apart in their respective homes, they sent intense love letters. Once their families realized the intensity of their love, they were forbidden from seeing each other. A heartbroken Alice decided if she couldn’t marry Freda, no one could. After several failed murder attempts, nineteen-year-old Alice slit her love Freda’s throat with a razor. Freda attempted to leave on a steamer, and Alice stopped her for good, turning a cold winter day into a desperate scene on the docks.
I promise I haven’t spoiled Alexis Coe‘s Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis for you, as the murder itself takes place in Chapter One, called “I Don’t Care if I’m Hung!” as this is what Alice defiantly yells after the killing her true love. The murder itself is the beginning of a strange story–from the consideration of Alice as insane due to her belief that she could live with another woman, to the reporters traveling from all over the United States to cover the case, to the judge building a larger courtroom to hold the onlookers–the murder was public spectacle, and a private tragedy.
This is historian Alexis Coe’s first book, and it is a true crime novel unlike any other. Truman Capote and Joseph Wambaugh, masters of the true crime genre, referred to their style as the “non-fiction novel,” where the author by necessity uses imagination to rebuild captivating scenes of a crime. Coe, in staying true to her field, explains in the Introduction to Alice + Freda Forever that she “imagined a book that was both written and curated.” Scenes and snippets are illustrated in an innocent style by Sally Klann, whose drawings render Alice and others into innocent cherubs stuck in history, victims of time and circumstance.
Rather than building the facts into a single story line for the reader, Coe takes the reader on a historical journey, examining the implications of race, sex, and class in 1892 Memphis. This works well as the artifacts from the case are plentiful, and love letters, news headlines, and trial excerpts intertwine with Coe’s telling of the story, which feels dedicated to telling the story without sacrificing truth. In this way, the book reminds me a bit of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, as he wasn’t afraid to tell his reader what he could and couldn’t know, and where the limits of historical storytelling lie.
I saw Alexis Coe and Mallory Ortberg discuss this book at The Booksmith in San Francisco a bit ago, and it was a great combination of smart and funny discussion. Ortberg pointed out how much she loved the chapter titles (“Erotomania,” “Vicarious Menstruation”), which Coe explained came from actual statements made by doctors or the press about the case. They talked about how this may be a book with no heroes, or Ida B. Wells may be its hero. Ortberg urged the audience not to murder anyone, many times. Since I hadn’t read the book yet, I asked if it was difficult to stick to the facts when telling the story, but now that I’ve read the book I realize Coe isn’t someone who struggles with sticking to the facts, she’s right at home amongst them.
- Girl Slays Girl: An Excerpt From Alice + Freda Forever (jezebel.com)
- Alice in the Asylum (vice.com)