Mitchell, Alice

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MITCHELL, Alice (b. 1873; d. 1898).

Alice Mitchell, age nineteen, was committed to an asylum for the notorious murder of her "girl lover" Freda Ward, age seventeen, on 25 January 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee. She then unwittingly became a central figure in debates over the meaning of lesbian love that continued, in the United States and Europe, until the middle of the twentieth century.

Born to George and Isabella Scott Mitchell in 1873, Mitchell grew up alongside her three surviving siblings (of seven children born to her mother) in a prosperous and well-known Memphis family. She attended the private, all-white Higbee School for Girls, where she met Freda Ward. The close friendship that developed between Mitchell and Ward at the Higbee School was considered, by teachers, students, and other observers, to be typical of the "chumming" relationships common among schoolgirls there. But when Mitchell and Ward concocted a plan to elope and marry, Ward's relatives expressed alarm and forbade Ward to continue her friendship with Mitchell. The plan was revealed when Ward's older sister read letters that she had confiscated, which detailed Mitchell's plan to dress as a man and go by the name of Alvin Ward, take a boat to St. Louis with Ward, and marry her there. Mitchell then intended to set up a household and work to support Ward.

After Mitchell was separated from Ward, she withdrew into a deep depression and began to lose weight and lose hope for future happiness. Ward, in contrast, continued the life that she and Mitchell had once shared. They had both corresponded with boys under fictitious names, occasionally meeting them at public places in the city. Ward continued to do so. Mitchell's feelings of abandonment and betrayal, expressed in letters that were later read at trial and published in the Memphis newspapers, led her to increasingly desperate attempts to contact Ward and resume their relationship. When these efforts failed, Mitchell planned to kill Ward in order to prevent her from marrying one of the boys.

On 25 January 1892, Mitchell slit Ward's throat on her way to board a Mississippi riverboat. Ward died, and Mitchell was arrested and placed in a special section of the jail reserved for privileged, white inmates. Mitchell was not tried for murder, but examined at an inquisition of lunacy, to determine whether she was insane and unfit for trial. At the inquisition, the many conflicting and confused theories about the meaning of her love for Ward were aired and publicized. Mitchell's lawyers, in consultation with her father and various prominent Memphis physicians, argued that Mitchell was "presently insane" and unable to stand trial for murder. Family members and neighbors testified. Some believed that her love for Ward was an ordinary girlish passion, not an indication of insanity, and that the murder was probably motivated by envy of or competition for boys. Some argued, in the press or on the stand, that the plea of present insanity was a legal trick to protect her from a murder trial. Others believed that Mitchell's passion and marriage plan were an indication of a suspicious and possibly dangerous peculiarity that might indicate insanity or might be more straightforwardly a sign of bad character.

Doctors and asylum superintendents testified, presenting and explaining a wide range of theories and possible diagnoses of Mitchell—erotomania, hermaphroditism, paranoia, monomania, imperative impulse or emotional morbid impulse, contrary love, or perverted sexual attachment. Some physicians argued that Mitchell's love for Ward was in itself insane, while others argued that it was not insane, but only eccentric or perhaps immoral.

The testimony at the lunacy inquisition in Mitchell's case was widely publicized in the new mass circulation daily newspapers in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe as well. The newspaper reports drew upon French novels featuring erotic passion between women, newly available in cheap editions in the United States during the 1890s. These newspaper reports in turn fed the imaginations of twentieth-century novelists, who reworked the various "stories" of the Mitchell/Ward case into new fiction. At the same time, the medical press published various case studies of Mitchell, and compared an avalanche of new cases of "sexual inversion" or "lesbianism" to Mitchell's. She appeared in the internationally influential work of sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, and persisted as a central figure in sexological writing on lesbianism into the 1950s.

The character and life story of Alice Mitchell, as represented in fiction, the press, and the medical literature of the first half of the twentieth century, bore little relation to the living historical person. Her "case" was appropriated within these fields of publication, to forward the development of a notion of "the lesbian" or "the homosexual" as a unique kind of character. Mitchell's story most often became a template for representations of masculine, predatory, potentially violent lesbians who constituted a danger to the gender and sexual order of the family and the nation. But her story also became a starting point for defenses of "the lesbian," and for critiques of the oppressive constraints on her freedom that might lead to tragedies if not reformed. Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel, The Well of Loneliness, recapitulates and rewrites central elements of the Mitchell/Ward story, converting it from a central mode of attack on sexual love between women into the most widely circulated defense of that love available before World War II.

Alice Mitchell, the living historical person, was committed to the state mental hospital where she died in 1898, at the age of 25. Reports in the press claimed she died of tuberculosis, then widespread in such institutions. But an interview with one of her attorneys, published in a Memphis newspaper during the 1930s, revealed that she killed herself by jumping into a water tower. She is buried in Memphis, Tennessee.


Duggan, Lisa. Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence and American Modernity. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2000.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.

——. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.

Lindquist, Lisa. "Images of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis." Journal of the History of Sexuality 6, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 30–61.

Lisa Duggan

see alsotranssexuals, transvestites, transgender people, and cross-dressers; violence.

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