Alice Mitchell was an American woman charged who gained notoriety for the murder of her lover Freda Ward. On February 23, 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, exploited by sensationalist press, and focused attention of the sexual attachments of women and drew out into the public discourse discussions of lesbianism. The case was headlined as "A Very Unnatural Crime" across the country. The case influenced the popular literature of the era which began to depict lesbians as "murderous" and "masculine". One identity that came to be through lesbians was the "mannish lesbian" creating dialogue of gender expression.
The case history produced by Mitchell's defense describes her as "a regular tomboy". In the courtroom Alice Mitchell was presented as "insane" by her attorneys and her trial was not tried in criminal court but for questioning of lunacy.
This story was featured on Investigation Discovery's Deadly Women.
Mitchell's story is the subject of the book Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe.
Alice Mitchell was born in 1872 to George and Isabella Mitchell Alice was never interested in the toys that young girls were interested in. She was interested in playing on the swing in her yard, and playing both baseball and football. Alice had four siblings: her older brothers Robert and Frank Mitchell, her eldest sister Mattie Mitchell and her older sister Addie Mitchell. She was closest with her brother Frank. Together, they played with marbles and practiced shooting with a rifle. Alice also liked horses and helped take care of her father’s horse. Her mother tried to teach her sewing and needlework, but Alice never enjoyed doing this work nor was ever able to learn how. Alice was not interested in boys as a child as most girls her age were. In fact, as she grew older, she was sometimes rude to young men.
Alice and Freda met at the Higbee School for Young Ladies. They were very open about their relationship: they kissed, hugged, and held hands. This was seen as normal, and intimate female friendships was called “chumming” in Memphis. However, their relationship was more serious than chumming and Alice especially had an obsession with Freda. Because Alice and Freda did not live in the same city, they only saw each other occasionally. However, when one of them would make the trip to see the other, they would stay together for weeks at a time. When visiting, the two would share a bed at night. However, Freda was not as serious about the relationship as Alice was and was interested in two men in addition to Alice. However, the two would date until Freda’s eldest sister and surrogate mother Ada Volkmar would split them up.
Noticing that Alice and Freda would see each other often, Ada Volkmar (Freda’s surrogate mother and older sister) sent a letter to Alice and to Alice’s mother Isabella telling Alice to stay away from Freda. Because their relationship was exposed and they were not allowed to see each other, Alice fell into a deep depression. She was rarely with her family, would stay awake at night, and ate very little. Alice would spend her time remembering her relationship with Freda: she would observe her photograph of Freda and reread letters. Alice often signed receipts with the name “Freda Ward” and claimed that she did not realize what she was doing.
Freda Ward was with her older sister Jo Ward and her friend Christina Purnell in Memphis when Alice stabbed Freda with George Mitchell’s razor. Alice killed Freda because if they could not get married, she figured, then there was no reason for either of them to live and no one should get to marry Freda if she cannot. Freda, Jo, and Christina were heading to board the Ora Lee to head to Golddust. Freda saw Alice and walked over to her on thawing ice. Alice took her father’s razor from her pocket and stabbed Freda in the neck. Jo tried to protect Freda by attacking Alice with an umbrella, but the attack was not successful. Angered by the umbrella, Alice sliced Jo’s collarbone. Freda, bleeding and disoriented, was finally killed with a slice along her throat by Alice. After killing Freda, Alice told her best friend Lillie Johnson what she did.