cover image Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis

Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis

Alexis Coe, illus. by Sally Klann. Zest Books, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-936976-6

Coe, a columnist for The Awl, sheds light on one of the most lurid murder trials of the late-19th century, in this lively, provocative history. Prior to January of 1892, Alice Mitchell had planned on wedding her 17-year-old lover, Freda Ward. The two teenagers devised a plan in which Alice would try to pass as a man. But when their love letters were uncovered and the two were separated, a heartbroken Alice brutally murdered her ex-fianc%C3%A9e. As the details of their relationship were revealed during the subsequent media frenzy and trial, the American public struggled to comprehend the then-unspoken-of concept of same-sex love. But as Coe shows, the affair between Alice and Freda started as a socially-acceptable bond between two women, before deepening into something far more profound, bordering on outright insanity (known then as eratomania). Gender politics and societal expectations brought undue pressure on the romance, and Alice's fate (institutionalized, dying soon after from consumption) is somehow mysterious. It's an odd, even unsettling look at cultural attitudes of the 1890s. Coe argues that Alice acted not as a frustrated lesbian, but as a dangerous person just waiting for the right trigger. The author addresses the many cultural issues entangled in the controversy, providing impressively compact, albeit not expansive, coverage of the event. It's a well-written effort that makes the most of its source material on two levels, both as true crime and as social commentary. Illus. (Oct.)