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Alice MITCHELL

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The case received unprecedented media coverage and drew discussion of lesbianism into public light
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: January 25, 1892
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1872
Victim profile: Freda Ward, 17 (her lover)
Method of murder: Cutting her throat
Location: Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Status: Found insane by means of a jury inquisition on July 30, 1892 and placed in a psychiatric hospital until her death in 1898
 
 

 
 

Alice Mitchell was an American murderer. On January 25, 1892, the 19-year-old Mitchell cut the throat of her lover, 17-year-old Freda Ward. Mitchell was subsequently found insane by means of a jury inquisition and placed in a psychiatric hospital until her death in 1898.

The case received unprecedented media coverage and drew discussion of lesbianism into public light. The case influenced the popular literature of the era which began to depict lesbians as "murderous" and "masculine".

The case history produced by Mitchell's defense describes her as "a regular tomboy".


Alice Mitchell murders Freda Ward: Memphis, Tennessee, 1892

Outhistory.org

"I killed Freda because I loved her, and she refused to marry me"

On July 18, 1892, a young woman named Alice Mitchell was taken before the Shelby County Criminal Court in Memphis, Tennessee, in the hope of determining whether she was insane or of sound mind, and thus subject to stand trial for the violent murder of a young woman named Freda Ward, to whom Mitchell had been passionately attached. The murder had occurred on January 25, 1892, when Mitchell cut the throat of her Freda Ward.

The details of Alice Mitchell's life and relations with Ward are described in a long report of her hearing, published soon afterward, in the Memphis Medical Monthly. At this hearing Alice Mitchell was judged to be insane, based on eyewitness accounts of her behavior and character traits, her own statements, and the "expert testimony" of a number of medical specialists. These "experts" agreed on a diagnosis of insanity and attributed the cause of her disordered mind to an inborn inheritance from her mother, who had a history of mental derangement.

The details of Mitchell's tragic romance with Ward leave no doubt that Alice Mitchell was a bewildered and lost young woman, her sense of reality confused, her emotional life beset by conflicting and passionate feelings. But the once-popular theory of constitutional insanity now seems an inadequate explanation of her problem. Mitchell's disturbance and violent behavior can today be seen as the result of a family experience, educational system, and society that conspired to frustrate her and drive her mad by keeping her in ignorance of her own character and emotions, and in childlike ignorance of this society's own workings.

The following excerpt from the report by Dr. F. L. Sim, one of the "expert witnesses" at Mitchell's sanity hearing, gives the basic facts of the case as they were established in court.

Alice was a nervous, excitable child, and somewhat under size. As she grew she did not manifest interest in those childish amusements and toys that girls are fond of.

When only four or five years old she spent much time at a swing in the yard of the family in performing such feats upon it as skinning the cat, and hanging by an arm or leg. She was fond of climbing, and was expert at it.

She delighted in marbles and tops, in base ball and foot ball, and was a member of a children's base ball nine [team]. She spent much time with her brother Frank, who was next youngest, playing marbles and spinning tops. She preferred him and his sports to her sisters. He practiced with her at target shooting with a small rifle, to her great delight. She excelled this brother at tops, marbles, and feats of activity.

She was fond of horses, and from early childhood would go among the mules of her father and be around them when being fed. About six or seven years ago her father purchased a horse. She found great satisfaction in feeding and currying him. She often rode him about the lot bareback, as a boy would. She was expert in harnessing him to the buggy, in looking after the harness, and mending it when anything was amiss. To the family she seemed a regular tomboy.

She was willful and whimsical. She disliked sewing and needlework. Her mother could not get her to do such work. She undertook to teach her crocheting, but could not. She was unequal in the manifestation of her affections. To most persons, even her relatives, she seemed distant and indifferent. She was wholly without that fondness for boys that girls usually manifest.

She had no intimates or child sweethearts among the boys, and when approaching womanhood, after she was grown, she had no beaux and took no pleasure in the society of young men. She was sometimes rude, and always indifferent to young men. She was regarded as mentally wrong by young men toward whom she had thus acted.

Alice was a slow pupil at school. Efforts to teach her music and drawing were a failure. She would ask to have instructions repeated in a confused and absent way. She could not get her mind on the subject or remember what was said to her. The teachers were of opinion that she was badly balanced and not of sound mind. Since quitting school she has shown no taste for books or newspapers, and reads neither the one nor the other.

About the time her womanhood was establish~d she was subject to very serious and protracted headaches. She had far more than the usual sickness at that period. She was subject to nervous spells, in which she would visibly tremble or shake. She is still at times subject to these attacks of extreme nervous excitement, but does not, now, and never did, wholly lose consciousness in them but upon one occasion.

For Freda Ward, a girl about her own age, she had an extraordinary fondness. Whenever she could do so she was with her. They lived neighbors, and spent as much of their time together as possible. The attachment seemed to be mutual, but was far stronger in Alice Mitchell than in Fred [Freda Ward].

They were very different in disposition. Fred was girl-like and took no pleasure in the boyish sports that Alice delighted in. Her instincts and amusements were feminine. She was tender and affectionate. Time strengthened the intimacy between them. They became lovers in the sense of that relation between persons of different sexes. May, a year ago, the Ward family moved from Memphis to Golddust, a small town on the Tennessee side of the Mississippi river, about eighty miles north of Memphis. The separation greatly distressed Alice, but an active correspondence by mail was at once opened, and in this way they modified the regret caused by the separation. In the summer after the removal of the Wards Alice visited her beloved Fred, and remained with her two or three weeks. They were continually together, and often seen embracing and clasped in each other's arms.

Alice got a promise that Fred should visit her in the fall or winter, and this promise was kept, Fred spending about two weeks with Alice in December, 1890.

During this visit Alice entertained the idea of taking her own life or that of Fred. She bought laudanum with that view. She considered the plan of giving it to Fred whilst sleeping, but in some way Fred was aroused and suspected that Alice had some design, either on her own life or that of Fred, and remained awake the greater part of the night. Alice showed her the bottle marked poison. The next day she went with Fred to the boat on her way home at Golddust, carrying the bottle of laudanum with her. She locked herself and Fred in a stateroom on the boat, and took the contents of the bottle with suicidal intent. She suffered greatly for many days for this rash act. The reason assigned by Alice was that Fred loved Harry Bilger and Ashley Roselle and she [Alice] meant to end her existence and troubles and leave Fred free to become the wife of her choice of the young man named. . . .

During this visit Alice manifested the most ardent attachment for Fred, and some days after Fred reached home she wrote Fred of her recovery, and then began again a regular correspondence, showing all the warmth of lover for lover.

In February, 1891, Alice proposed marriage. She repeated the offer in three separate letters. To each Fred replied, agreeing to become her wife. Alice wrote her upon the third promise that she would hold her to the engagement, and that she would kill her if she broke the promise.

Alice again visited Fred in June, 1891. She had saved from time to time small sums of money, amounting in the aggregate to about $15. With this sum she purchased a ring, and on her June visit formally tendered it to Fred as their engagement ring, and Fred accepted it as such.

They were often seen in each other's embraces, and the married sister of Fred, Mrs. Volkmar, remarked that they were disgusting in their demonstrations of love for each other.

Alice felt a sense of shame in allowing others to see her hug and kiss Fred. She did not think it proper for lovers to be openly hugging and kissing. Fred did not take that view, and rather reproached Alice for being ashamed of showing her love for her in that way.

On leaving, Alice got a pledge that Fred would pay her a visit the coming November. Their engagement was a secret then only known to themselves.

It was agreed that Alice should be known as Alvin J. Ward, so that Fred could still call her by the pet name, Allie, and Fred was to be known as Mrs. A. J. Ward. The particulars of formal marriage and elopement were agreed upon. Alice was to put on man's apparel, and have her hair trimmed by a barber like a man; was to get the license to marry, and Fred was to procure the Rev. Dr. Patterson of Memphis, and of whose church she was a member, to perform the marriage ceremony, and if he declined, they intended to get a justice of the peace to marry them. The ceremony performed, they intended to leave for St. Louis. Alice was to continue to wear man's apparel, and meant to try and have a mustache, if it would please Fred.

She was going out to work for Fred in men's clothes.

In the latter part of June, 189 I, Ashley Roselle, before mentioned, began to pay court to Fred, who gave him one of her photographs. The watchful vigilance of Alice got track of this affair, and she remonstrated warmly with Fred, and charged her with deception and infidelity. Fred acknowledged she had done wrong, vowed unshaken fidelity to Alice, and promised never more to offend.

The scheme of marrying and eloping seemed almost ready for execution in the latter part of July. Fred was to take a St. Louis packet [boat] at Golddust and come to Memphis and notify Alice of her arrival, and they were then to marry and go at once by boat to St. Louis, as they had agreed to do. The boat Fred was to take was to reach Golddust at night between 10 and 2 o'clock.

By chance, Mrs. Volkmar, the married sister before referred to, with whom Fred was living, saw part of the correspondence of the girls, which disclosed the relations between them, and the plan to elope and marry. She was surprised and indignant. She communicated the fact to her husband, and he determined to watch Fred and prevent her from taking the boat for Memphis. He suspected a man was at the bottom of the affair, and watched with his Winchester rifle. No man appeared. When the boat whistled announcing her arrival, he went to the room of Fred. He found a light burning in her room, and she was dressed, had her valise packed, and was ready to take the boat. An exciting scene ensued. Mrs. Volkmar wrote to Mrs. Mitchell, the mother of Alice, and at the same time wrote Alice, returning the engagement ring and other love tokens, and declaring that all intercourse between the girls must at once cease. Mrs. Mitchell knew that Mrs. Volkmar was in feeble health, and thought that she had grossly exaggerated and misunderstood the matter. She told Alice of the letter received from Mrs. Volkmar. Alice listened in silence. Mrs. Mitchell destroyed the letter. She then knew nothing of Alice's secret.

The effect on Alice of the return of the engagement ring and the inhibition of all communication with Fred, was almost crushing. She wept, passed sleepless nights, lost her appetite, frequently declining even to come to the table.

She hid the returned tokens of love in the kitchen, in a cigar box, to which there was a lock and key. She would often go alone to this hiding place and gaze in an abstracted ~ay upon these tokens of affection. She spent hours in the kitchen, alternately crying and laughing.

She told the cook that she was engaged to marry; said her father and mother were good to her; but her sisters were not kind. The cook supposed she was engaged to marry some man, and the sisters of Alice opposed the match. She had no notion that it was a woman she was engaged to marry. She thought they were not treating Alice right in the house, in some way, but did not know how. She thought Alice was not right in her mind. Alice showed her the engagement ringwould gaze upon it and pass from tears to laughter whilst doing so. The cook had a child about six years old, and Alice talked a great deal to this child-seemed to take a fancy to the child, in her distress. She said they would not lift her troubles off her.

In August and September the winter supply of coal for the family was being delivered, and she receipted five of the coal bills in the name of Fred Ward, and on being asked why she did so, replied that she was not conscious of doing so; that she was thinking of Fred, and used her name without knowing it. For weeks before the killing her eyes shone with a strange luster.

Alice was plump and round before the passion for Fred possessed her. After that she grew thin, and her face wore an anxious expression. She seemed absent and absorbed, and quite strange to her acquaintances.

That singularity of behavior which always characterized her, increased, until those who had long known her, concluded that she was mentally wrong.

November was the time when Fred was again to visit Memphis, according to her promise to Alice. On the first of November Alice clandestinely possessed herself of her father's razor. When she took it she was thinking of Fred. She feared they would take Fred from her. She could not bear the thought of losing her. Sooner than lose her, she would kill her. . . .

In January, 1892, Fred came to Memphis, but went to stay with Mrs. Kimbro, instead of Alice. She did not see or write to Alice, who had a burning desire to be with her, or receive some message from her. She tried to communicate with her by letter-wrote her two letters, and managed to get one of them into her hands during her stay at Mrs. Kimhro's. These letters told of her love in the most passionate terms. One was returned with the word "returned" written upon it in Fred's handwriting.

Alice sought opportunities to see Fred--to look upon her, to speak to her, but invain. Fred's sister, or some one else, was on the lookout, and her desire was thus thwarted.

One day while upon the watch, she saw Fred go, unattended, into a photograph gallery. In a short time she came out, but did not observe or speak to Alice. She went from the photograph gallery to Mrs. Carroll's.

Alice thought of using the razor, which she had with her on the occasion, but found some difficulty in getting it out, and the feeling then to take the life of Fred with the razor passed off, and she returned to qer home. At the time she thus thought of killing Fred, she loved her as much, or more, than ever. On January 18 Alice got the last letter she ever received from Fred. This letter told of Fred's continued love for Alice; but said she was not allowed to see her, or speak to her, and prayed the forgiveness of Alice.

Alice and Miss Lillian Johnson, an estimable neighbor girl, about the same age, were intimate, and loved each other, but as one girl loves another. She was aware of the ardent attachment of Alice for Fred, but did not at first suspect that it was different from the love of one girl for another.

On the morning of the homicide, Alice had the buggy horse shod and engaged Miss Johnson to drive with her that evening. Alice, Miss Johnson and the nephew of the latter, about 6 years old, occupied the buggy in the evening drive. Alice knew that Fred would probably take the boat that evening for home .... Without disclosing her purpose, she drove so as to meet Fred on her way to the boat. Josie Ward and Miss Purnell were with Fred .... She drove directly to the Customhouse, and all three got out of the buggy. In a few seconds Fred and her companions came up and turned north, in order to reach the way that led to the steamboat upon which Fred and her sister proposed to leave. Fred passed within less than two feet of Alice, who turned to Miss Johnson and said: "Oh, Lil; Fred winked at me." In a few seconds Alice said she must see Fred once more, and walked after Fred. She soon overtook her, and without a word cut her with a razor. Fred's sister undertook to interfere, but was slightly cut by Alice and forced to retire. Alice then turned upon Fred and again cut her, one of the wounds being mortal, cutting her throat almost from ear to ear. Fred fell to the earth and Alice ascended the steep walk to the buggy, in which she found Miss Johnson and her nephew. . . .

Persons who saw the prisoner as she ascended the hill from the scene of the homicide, describe her as almost in a run, looking wildly, with her hat off and her hair disheveled and streaming down behind her, and her face bloody. She moved with a quick, determined step to the buggy in which Lillian Johnson and her little nephew were seated, and seemed to take possession of it by violence-seizing the reins and grabbing the whip she lashed the horse and moved off at a dangerous speed. One of these persons followed her, fearing that she would overturn the buggy and injure the occupants. This person supposed from her appearance and manners that she was insane, and had violently taken possession of the buggy of some other person and was driving it in her mad fury in the most reckless manner. . . .

As they dashed along, she asked Miss Johnson if there was not blood on her face, and being told that there was, she· requested Miss Johnson to take her handkerchief and wipe it off, but instantly checked her by saying, "No, let it remain; it is Fred's blood, and I love her so." Miss Johnson asked her what she had done. She replied, "Cut Fred." On reaching home, Alice drove in the back way, and on entering the house, asked for her mother, who was not in, and turning to her sister, said, "Do not excite my mother;" but declined to say what had occurred. Presently her mother came, and she told her that she had cut Fred's throat. She appeared to be quite nervous. The blood was washed from her face, her cut fingers were tied up, and by that time, the chief of police arrived and told Mrs. Mitchell that he had come to arrest one of her daughters. She asked him not to take her away until her father could see her. He soon came, and Alice then went with the chief of police to the county jail. She appeared to be cool, and said she cut Fred because she loved her and because Fred did not speak to her. That night and the next morning she did not seem to realize that she had committed a criminal act. Nor does she yet realize it.

Alice intended to follow Fred on the boat and there kill her. Why she did so before she got on the boat she cannot tell. In her language, she more than loved Fred. She took her life because she had told her she would, and because it was her duty to do it. The best thing would have been the marriage, the next best thing was to kill Fred. That would make it sure that no one else could get her, and would keep her word to Fred. She saw no wrong in keeping her word and doing her duty, and now sees none.

For many nights before the killing, she was all the time dreaming of Fred. She says she now sees Fred, when awake and asleep, and can't understand that Fred is dead.

She shows no remorse nor regret for the bloody deed, but weeps when her love for Fred is referred to.

On the night of the homicide, on being asked if she and Fred had run off and married in St. Louis, what they would have done, she looked puzzled; said that she had never thought of that, and in turn inquired, what would they have done?

On the next morning she asked where Fred was. She showed no feeling or emotion when making this inquiry. Being told that her body was at Stanley & Hinton's, she turned to her mother, and with great feeling and with tears pouring from her eyes, begged her mother to take her to Fred and let her lie down with her.

She kisses passionately all the pictures and cuts of Fred she can lay hands on, and hunts the newspapers for them.

Alice J. Mitchell has been tenderly and carefullu, brought up by Christian parents. Her family is one of the best in Memphis, and Fred Ward's family is above exception.

Nothing coarse or immoral is known of Alice or Fred.


Freda Ward - "Girl Slays Girl"

Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, aged 19 and 17, had become close friends at the Higbee School for Girls in Memphis. So close, in fact, that they declared their love for each other and planned to elope to St. Louis to live together as husband and wife. When Freda’s family stopped the relationship, forbidding Freda from seeing Alice, events took a dreadful turn. On the afternoon of January 25, 1892, Alice Mitchel met Freda Ward on Front Street and cut her throat with a straight razor. Was Alice driven by insanity, jealousy, or “an unnatural love?”

Date: January 25, 1892

Location: Memphis, TN

Victim: Freda Ward

Cause of Death: Slashing

Accused: Alice Mitchell

Synopsis:

Freda Ward and her sister Jo, daughters of a wealthy planter and merchant, met Alice Mitchell and Lilly Johnson, also from prominent families, at the Higbee School for Girls in Memphis Tennessee. They became very close friends, with Freda especially close to Alice. It was not uncommon in 1892 for girls to form close relationships and express undying love for each other in letters and diaries. They were considered “a rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of a woman’s life”, something the girls would outgrow when they reached adulthood. It was not considered unusual that Alice and Freda were seen kissing and embracing.

After Freda’s family moved several miles south to the town of Gold Dust, Arkansas, they began to see Freda’s relationship with Alice as unhealthy. One night in August 1891, Freda’s older, married sister, Ada Volkmar, caught Freda, with her suitcase packed, ready to leave for Memphis. Alice had given her a ring and the two considered themselves engaged. They had planned to elope to St. Louis where Alice would be the man, changing her name to Alvin J. Ward, and Freda would be the wife. Mrs. Volkmar stopped the elopement and forbade any further contact or correspondence her sisters and Alice Mitchell and Lillie Johnson.

The following January the Ward sisters were visiting a family friend, Mrs. Kimbrough, in Memphis. Alice and Lillie had attempted to visit them but were turned away. On January 25, Alice arrived at Lillie’s house with a horse and buggy and they went for a ride. They drove past Mrs. Kimbrough’s house and saw Freda and Jo leaving for the ferry to take them back to Gold Dust. As the sisters were heading to the dock on Front Street, Alice jumped out of the buggy saying “I’ll fix her!”

She ran to Freda, grabbed her by the arm and slashed her face with a straight razor she had concealed in her hand. Jo Ward knocked Alice down and hit her with an umbrella as Freda ran away. Alice jumped up and ran after her. She caught up with her and slashed her face again. Then Alice grabbed Freda by the hair, pulled her head back and slit her throat from ear to ear. Alice went back to the buggy and Freda was carried to a nearby office where she bled to death. Alice was arrested that night at her parent’s home and Lillie was arrested at her home the next morning.

Trials:

Lillie Johnson - February 23, 1892
Alice Mitchel - July 18, 1892

Lillie Johnson’s habeas corpus hearing was held first, to determine whether there was enough evidence to try her for murder. Though it would not determine anyone’s ultimate fate and was far less important than the pending murder trial of Alice Mitchell, it would be the most significant trial held in Memphis to date. The anticipated crowd would be so large that Judge Julius DuBose delayed the opening so that construction could be done to enlarge the courtroom until it had a seating capacity to rival Memphis’s largest theatres. On the day the trial opened judge Dubose was overwhelmed by a crowd of over a thousand people of all races and nationalities, about half of them women. In an effort stem the confusion he issued a “ballroom order”: “Ladies to the right, gents to the left.” Women were drawn to the hearing in numbers unprecedented for a criminal trial.


All of the salient evidence came out in this hearing; the “unnatural love” of Alice for Freda, the attempted elopement, Lillie’s intimacy with Alice and with the Ward sisters, and vivid descriptions of the murder scene. The defense argued that Lillie had no idea of Alice’s intention that day and in no way assisted her. But Judge Dubose ruled that:

"The proof is evident that the defendant aided and abetted in the commission of the crime, a crime the most atrocious and malignant ever perpetrated by a woman."

Lillie Johnson was released on $10,000 bail.

Alice Mitchell pled not guilty to murder but also entered a plea of “present insanity” which meant that before she could be tried for murder a hearing would be held to determine if she were mentally fit to stand trial.

To show a genetic predisposition to madness, Alice’s father testified that her mother, who had borne seven children, suffered from “puerperal insanity” after the birth of her first child and had to be committed to a lunatic asylum for several months. After the death of the child she became increasingly unstable. Other testimony brought by the defense stressed Alice’s boyish behavior growing up as an indication of her insanity. The engagement ring, inscribed “From A. to F” was entered as evidence and the story of the elopement was retold. Frank Mitchell, Alice’s brother, testified that Alice had once tried to commit suicide by taking laudanum over Freda’s infidelities.

The prosecution argued that though Alice’s behavior was strange, it was not insane. Her tomboyish behavior was not even unusual, just a normal part of growing up. However, the defense brought in a number of psychologists who unanimously thought Alice insane, probably incurably so. Her predisposition to insanity was triggered by an “exciting cause” - the emotional disturbance of love and jealousy. Alice’s belief that she could marry Freda was a manifestation of her insanity.

Throughout the trial, Alice seemed docile and unconcerned which, to some observers, seemed further evidence of her insanity. On the witness stand she remained calm and indifferent as she told of her love for Freda detailed their intended elopement. Then she told of her plan to kill Freda:

“I wanted to cut her because I knew I could not have her, and I did not want anyone else to have her… My intention was to cut Freda’s throat and then my own, but Jo’s interference made me cut Freda again.”

The trial lasted ten days and the jury returned the verdict of insanity. She was committed to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum at Bolivar, Tennessee. Charges against Lillie Johnson were later dropped.

Verdict:

Lillie Johnson - Sufficeint evidence to try for murder. Charges later dropped
Alice Mitchel - Present insanity - not competent to stand trial.

Aftermath:

Officials at the Tennessee State Insane Asylum could have, at any time, declared Alice Mitchell competent to stand trial, but she never left the institution. In 1898 she reportedly died of tuberculosis. However, one of her attorneys later stated in an interview that she committed suicide by jumping into a water tower.

In 1892 the terms “lesbian” and “homosexual” were not commonly used in America. At that time, the medical term for Alice’s condition was “sexual inversion”, the condition where a person inappropriately took on the characteristics of the opposite sex.

While much was said about the “unnatural love” of Alice Mitchell for Freda Ward, there was never a suggestion that their relationship was sexual. The public also had trouble accepting Alice’s sexual inversion as the driving force behind the murder. Though Alice never wavered from her assertion that she killed Freda for love, two other stories were told as a motive for the murder:

1. Alice, Lillie, and the Ward sisters were “fast” girls, always flirting with men. Freda was prettier than Alice and had more luck with men. Alice was jealous of Freda’s beauty and was only trying to disfigure, not murder her.

2. A mysterious man was involved. He followed Alice’s buggy and disappeared after the murder. The murder was the result of a rivalry for the love of this man. The folk song "Alice Mitchel and Freddy Ward" expresses this view.

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