Book Review – Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis by Alexis Coe
April 15, 2015
In 1892, America was obsessed with a teenage murderess, but it wasn’t her crime that shocked the nation—it was her motivation. Nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell had planned to pass as a man in order to marry her seventeen-year-old fiancée Freda Ward, but when their love letters were discovered, they were forbidden from ever speaking again.
Freda adjusted to this fate with an ease that stunned a heartbroken Alice. Her desperation grew with each unanswered letter—and her father’s razor soon went missing. On January 25, Alice publicly slashed her ex-fiancée’s throat. Her same-sex love was deemed insane by her father that very night, and medical experts agreed: This was a dangerous and incurable perversion. As the courtroom was expanded to accommodate national interest, Alice spent months in jail—including the night that three of her fellow prisoners were lynched (an event which captured the attention of journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells). After a jury of “the finest men in Memphis” declared Alice insane, she was remanded to an asylum, where she died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later.
Alice + Freda Forever recounts this tragic, real-life love story with over 100 illustrated love letters, maps, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper articles, courtroom proceedings, and intimate, domestic scenes—painting a vivid picture of a sadly familiar world.
Why did I pick this one up? I had read a review and was surprised that this was not a story that I had encountered at any point in my life, and it is a big one on so many levels. My thoughts in brief:
- This is a completely fascinating story that I think very few people have heard of. The actual murder isn’t what made it so significant, but rather that it was the first time that such a prominent murder was attributed to insanity due to homosexual feelings.
- The novel does bring attention to the issue of homosexuality and gay rights. It is clear that our country has come a long way in the last century, but the message is that we still have a long way to go. Hearing about beliefs during the time of the murder can make for uncomfortable reading at times, but it is so important to read about this part of our nation’s history.
- I loved the copies of the handwritten notes – it gives an added feel to the love affair between the two women.
- Coe has clearly done a great deal of research on this case, and she sites numerous sources throughout the book. There is also an extensive bibliography if the subject matter interests you and you would like to do more research.
- The illustrations rarely added significantly to the story. I often found them to be slightly immature and to detract from the overall message being conveyed.
- There is an appendix with additional letters included – I’m not sure why Coe didn’t weave these letters into her novel as well.
- I was left wanting to know a little more about the fallout of the murder and the trial for the family and friends involved – loose ends often make me crazy! I think that is why I tend to prefer historical fiction to straight up nonfiction novels.
Have you heard of the case of Alice + Freda? Have you read this novel? What are your thoughts?