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