Friday, September 11, 2015

Star-Crossed: Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe

Alice had yet to figure out how to transform herself--a plump, handsome woman--into a man, but she knew how to act like one. If a man wanted to spend the rest of his life with a woman, he proposed, and in February of 1891, Alice did just that. She could not make her intentions known to Freda's family or procure her father's permission, but she could ask Freda to marry her, and that was all that mattered. She sent to proposal in a letter, and in return, she received a fervent acceptance.

Of course, it would be nearly thirty years before women had the right to vote in America, and more than 120 years after Alice and Freda's engagement, same sex marriage was still illegal in the state of Tennessee.

But for Alice and Freda, these were just details, minor problems in need of creative solution.

Shakespeare's best-known tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, gains its popularity because the playwright dealt frankly with the passions of teenagers for whom love is worth dying for, and Alexis Coe's Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis (Zest Books, 2014) tells the same story--with a twist.

Life for females in the 1890s was still under the influence of the Victorian milieu. Men held the jobs and the power, and their wives and daughters were totally under their control. Some more wealthy teenaged girls were educated in genteel girls' schools, often oddly termed "finishing schools," which taught subjects such as literature and music, dancing and handcrafts, aimed at turning out suitable cultlured wives for men of their class. But teenagers will be teenagers, and the overblown emotions of that age often showed themselves in intense female friendships, termed "chumming," between girls, often including hugging, kissing, hand-holding in public, and written protestations of undying affection. Chums spent all their free time together, although their loyalties did not preclude simultaneous flirting and exchanging secretive notes with boys of their same age whom they might meet at church or at highly chaperoned social dances. More daring girls, like Alice and Freda, even corresponded with young men who advertised in the "lonely hearts" section of the newspaper.

Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward seemed like an intense chumming pair, taking buggy rides about Memphis with their sisters, who were also chums, having extended sleepover visits together, and sending a constant stream of letters back and forth between them. But Alice's passion for Freda grew more strong over time, and in a radical departure from the Victorian model, Alice proposed marriage to Freda, even including an engraved gold engagement ring. But Alice's plan went much further than the more frivolous Freda could have imagined.  Alice put forth her scheme, in which she would assume the identify of a man, "Alvin J. Ward," and she and Freda would manage to board a river steamer bound for St. Louis and live together as man and wife in a new life.

But when Freda started to hesitate, writing Alice of her flirtations with a young man named Ashley Roselle, Alice's jealousy became obsessive. At first Alice determined that Ashley must die. Consumed with melancholy, she sent such horrifyingly emotional letters that Freda became frightened and vacillated even more, protesting that although she loved Ashley, she loved Alice more. Alice pressed her demands, and at last Freda agreed to an after-midnight rendezvous to make their way to a steamer set to depart for St. Louis at dawn.

But unknown to Freda, her older sister and guardian Ada had discovered their plan.
Ada had noticed that Alice and Freda had grown very close. Ada had a front row seat to Alice and Freda's conspicuous affection. She developed a strong aversion to their tender embraces, the constant kissing and fawning. But like most Americans in the nineteenth century, Ada had no explanation for what she was seeing.

But then Ada discovered Alice's passionate letters to her younger sister and was appalled to learn of the planned elopement. She wrote to Alice's mother and father and insisted that they never see each other again.

This prohibition drove Alice to more obsessive affection, and at last she decided that if she could not have Freda, no one would. And one day, with her father's stolen straight razor in her pocket, she waylaid Freda and brutally slashed her throat.

"I don't care if I hang," Alice declared, and indeed that was one expected outcome of what became the trial of the century for Memphis. With no model of same-sex love, the court had only two choices, to view Alice simply as a murderess or, as Victorians, to view her as completely insane to have conceived of two women living together in a conjugal relationship. The sensational trial drew out all the deeply held beliefs about women and their nature at the time, and eventually the jury decided that a well-bred young lady from a good family obviously had to be insane to enter into such a plan.

Ironically, the verdict of "currently insane," however bound by the limited beliefs of the period, saved Alice from the scaffold, although, again ironically, her sentence to an insane asylum resulted in her death six years later, likely from tuberculosis contracted from other inmates there.

But this lurid story of what we now see as lesbian love has continued to fascinate historians, and Alexis Coe's thoroughly-researched and documented historical account of Alice and Freda unearths the changes in social attitudes toward homosexuality that the many years since have brought, while still raising the question of whether the long-ago verdict of a mentally unbalanced obsessive compulsion might have had some truth to it. This is a riveting true crime story in which young adult readers can find a compelling story with much to ponder. School Library Journal gives it a starred review, and Kirkus Reviews adds, "In revisiting such a fascinating and nearly forgotten true-crime event, Coe argues that the societal, gender and cultural restraints of the era limited the options and civic compassion that could've been visited upon Alice, a woman the author presents as both a psychotic murderer and a scorned lesbian—yet it remains a mystery which personality trait took such drastic vengeance on that fateful day. A historically resonant reminder of how far societal tolerance has come and that it still remains a work in progress."

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