The sin was not so much the taking of the throat as the wanting of it in the first place. And what a fine throat it was, the way it captured those who saw it: men loitering at the Customs House; boys down by the river, who stretched their own necks to catch a glimpse of its fine whiteness; eventually the entire nation. But Alice Mitchell was the first to be lassoed by Frederica Ward’s charms, becoming hooked while they were still schoolgirls.
It must have been the way Frederica walked into the music room at The Higbee School for Young Ladies. The Higbee School took only the best girls, from the best families in Memphis—not always the first families, those with places at the Cotton Exchange on Front Street, mind, but always the most respectable families, which is how Frederica’s people were set, a touch heavier on the respectability than the money. But my God, how that girl could twirl her hips like the women selling their wares down on Pontotoc Avenue, laughing like a child before breaking into song. And the voice! Frederica could catch a river full of fish with her singing, hooking a finger in her lips between songs, walking haughty and making fun when the Mistress wasn’t looking. Known to her friends as Freda or Freddie, but mostly just Fred, she had brown eyes and a body like a new branch in spring, thin but coming together with new growth. Like the petals of a magnolia, Fred’s body was all silk white and cupping.
The brick building on the corner of Beale and Jessamine was shaded from the afternoon sun by a stand of slender elms. All seventeen of its classrooms provided wide, cool spaces for lessons in art, literature, Latin, and Greek. There were French lessons, a music room, even a governess named Miss Aurelia Lane: how could the girls not emerge from The Higbee School more charming than when they’d entered? All that poetry and music in their heads, roses climbing outside their windows. Three hundred of the best girls in Memphis attended the school in 1890, among them Alice Mitchell and Fred Ward.
All they did at first was look. Just look. Something moved in Alice while following the hair gathered at Fred’s neck, the turns of it, the lone dark curl tucked behind the ear, and yes, the throat, as if made of marble. Memphis had not ever seen a finer child, and she knew it, Fred did, piling that hair and running a finger along her mouth as she swallowed, smiling all the while, smiling at her dearest friends, including Alice, who replied in kind. Until it was only Alice, the girls talking in a code they’d devised, a universe unto themselves, appearing to speak no words, but saying everything with the work of their mouths.
“How I love thee; none can know.”
~Letter from Alice Mitchell to Fred Ward, 1891
The girls could not have been more different. Fred embraced music and drama and flitted from room to room while Alice’s passions seemed limited to baseball and horses. Despite their differences, the girls became fast friends, and in at least one way were a perfect match: Alice adored Fred, who, in turn, demonstrated great skill at being adored. They had pet names, Fred calling Alice “Sweetheart” and Alice calling Fred “Petty Sing.”
The girls twined round each other in the hammock for hours, held hands, and spent so much time in each other’s clutches that, at times, friends called them disgusting. But these complaints were launched lightly; such relationships were not only accepted at The Higbee School, but were also encouraged by society as they kept girls from good families from ruining themselves with men before marriage. Neither Allie nor Fred would likely have been allowed to interact with boys or the world outside of home and school without strict supervision. But with each other, they would have enjoyed nearly limitless freedom.
“Sing, I have a rose for you; if it is not withered by the next time I see you, I will give it to you. I have been trying to get one for a long time. It beats all other roses.”
~Letter from Alice Mitchell to Fred Ward, 1891
But good God in heaven, what but what was up in Golddust, Tennessee?
Nothing but mud fields and shacks set onto stilts and row after row of cotton. Fred’s father had changed his business to planting and moved them all upriver, Fred and her sisters. Golddust was a romantic enough name, and Fred might have tried to make it sound pretty in her letters to Alice, writing of horned larks or the stand of pecan trees just outside her window. But Alice’s daddy must have been up that way and would have told Alice there was nothing about Golddust but mud. Mud and cotton. But if he tried to console his daughter with such images, Alice did not oblige. The girl wouldn’t touch a thing on her plate—no matter how her mama and Lucy, their cook, begged, the reality of Golddust itself had become a cake of dirt on her tongue.
Golddust was all Alice could think of, the place that held what she most wanted to hold. It killed her to think of Fred with her pretty dresses and feathered caps, sitting in a stilted shack sixty miles upriver. Fred could still come to visit Memphis, of course, but there would be no more regular dances at the social club, no more nights together at Miss Higbee’s school. Alice must have tortured herself with memories of nights they’d sneaked away to stare up at the stars, the moonlight guiding them. And surely there were other memories, secrets held tight between the girls. Either way, there was nothing to do but stand at the levee and look across the river to Arkansas, waiting for steamers to carry letters to and from Golddust.
Fred was miserable, too, without Allie, or she at least claimed to be. Her letters from Golddust confessed flirtations with young men, coupled with promises of fidelity to Alice, whose anxieties multiplied with each new letter:
Fred, do you love me one-half as much as you did the first winter? I believe you loved me truer than you ever did. You didn’t fall in love with every boy that talked sweet to you then. Sweet one, you have done me mean, but I love you still with all your faults.
Yes, Fred replied, she did love Alice still:
Sweet love, you know that I love you better than anyone in the wide world. I want to be with you all the time, for I more than love you. Good-bye until tomorrow.—Sing
There were visits, weeks when Alice went on the steamship to Golddust, times when Fred stayed at the Mitchell home in Memphis. Satisfying exchanges, evidently—so satisfying that by late July 1891, the newly seventeen-year-old Fred began to wear a piece of jewelry, a gift sent up from Memphis by her eighteen-year-old beloved.
“I received the ring all O.K. I know you are true to me Love and I more than idolize you. I will be so happy when we are married.”
~Letter from Fred Ward to Alice Mitchell, 1891
Something must have threatened to spill from Alice—what joy she must have felt, to have secured such a promise from her love. At heart, they might have known how hopeless their engagement was, and perhaps it was this that led them to act too quickly—though there was no particular schedule that would have improved the chances for two women eloping in 1891. Such a marriage was impossible, but what is impossibility in the face of love?
They hatched a plan: Fred would take the steamship Rosa Lee from Golddust to Memphis, where Alice would be waiting. Fred might not recognize Alice straightaway, for she might be already dressed as a man, wearing trousers and a Norfolk jacket, hair set under a bowler hat, and answering only to the name of Mr. Alvin J. Ward. The girls knew enough to know that one of them would have to pass for a man if they were to marry, and Alice was the natural choice.
They might have heard of women posing as men at Miss Higbee’s school, whispering in the dormitory, giggling in the corner of the drawing studio. Their parents had lived through the Civil War, and the girls might have heard stories of women who dressed as men to fight, women such as Mollie Bean and Cathay Williams. Fred, who delighted in the theater, would have known of Viola posing as Cesario in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Portia as Balthazar in The Merchant of Venice. With no boys to fill the roles, the girls might have even played male parts during productions at The Higbee School.
However the idea arrived, it came to them strong and sure, so that the girls had no trouble imagining Alice in trousers and short hair. It became the ticket to freedom for them both, Alice’s manning up, the one thing to allow them to say goodbye to Memphis and board the steamer, holding hands and heading north this time, to St. Louis, where they’d disembark and say, “I do.” A date was set for late July, and what thoughts the girls must have had as the hour approached.
The heat hangs heavy along the lower Mississippi River in summer. Both girls must have wiped their brows as they packed their cases, Allie in Memphis and Fred up in Golddust, each girl preparing for a new life to the backbeat of crickets, the whir of cicadas. How short every breath, how humid the air. The scent of jasmine wafting from verandas, the air thickening as evening arrived, expectant as a descending storm.
This was the moment, the point at which they were still girls, half-drunk on possibility, all jittery and looking forward, hearts flung foolish and wide.
Miss Allie Mitchell:
Ere now you must fully realize that your supposed well laid plans to take Fred away have all gone awry. You should have taken into consideration that Fred had a sister watching over her who had good eyes and plenty of common sense. . . . I return your “engagement ring” as you called it, and all else that I know of your having [sent] Fred.”
~Letter from Mrs. W. H. Volkmar, 1 August 1891
They were caught. Of course, they were caught.
If their friendship seemed more affectionate than usual, it was tolerated. Even when the girls were separated, no one thought of them as anything but the usual chums until the night they packed their bags and tried to insert themselves into the wide, moving world without the permission of fathers, brothers, or husbands.
Who knows what girls dreamt of in 1891? Perhaps the very idea of dreaming anything other than roles as wives and mothers was a radical act. In this way, Fred and Alice were absolute renegades.
It’s said that Fred dreamt of the stage, an impossibility for a girl of her social class, whose wedding day with its garland of orange blossoms and stacked cake would be the most drama she could expect. But she dreamt of it anyway, the sway of glittered hemlines, the never-ending change of costumes, the beauty of art in motion, a northern city, far from the sand and muck of Golddust, far from the snarls of men baling cotton, far from lines of women grown tired with waiting.
As for her dreams, Allie seems to have wanted most of all the sight of Fred in a bridal dress, a tree to climb perhaps, a shared bed, night after night, the sound of horses galloping in a nearby field, the freedom of running, the freedom of trousers.
But it was not to be. Fred’s brother-in-law saw a light on in her room late at night, found her packed and waiting, and stopped her from leaving Golddust, a Winchester in his hand. Did she protest? The sight of all those fields cracked dry in the summer, the cotton starting to open, miles of white dabs clinging to the plant in all directions but the river. And what of Alice waiting downriver? Where did she fix her eyes? How many stars in the sky that night? How many times must Alice have retraced the contours of the past, remembering them together under the cloak of night sky as she waited for the sight of Freddie—oh would she, oh would she, oh would her one true Sing come?
“Sing, I don’t do a thing but have the blues all the time.”
~Letter from Alice Mitchell to Fred Ward, 1891
The blues were nothing new to Memphis. W. C. Handy hadn’t yet written “The Memphis Blues,” but by the 1890s, there was already plenty of soulful singing on Beale Street. Freed people had come from all parts of the Deep South to the shops and storefronts along Union and Beale. And to the fields. It was the Delta, after all. Cotton was still king, baled and stacked by the river, as it had always been, graded and sold in the same places where, a few decades prior, human cargo was unloaded. Buggies and mules shuddered beside the levee while men made deals along the riverfront and streetcars screeched through packed streets, competing with the sounds of the new railroad bridge going up over the Mississippi.
No, Handy hadn’t written his famous song yet, but Memphis had already endured its share of the blues. The city had been broken by yellow fever epidemics, the last of which hit in 1878 and claimed so many lives that Memphis collapsed under the weight of its losses.
By 1890, the city was booming again, but even as the girls sat studying Latin at Miss Higbee’s school, it was not uncommon for violence to erupt in the streets surrounding them. Alice and Fred would have grown up with stories of the saffron-colored skins of relatives lost to the Fever. They would have heard talk of black men hanging from trees, would have absorbed the sounds of the lonesome singing on Beale, the strumming of strings. Yes, even those girls at Miss Higbee’s school, wrapped in their ruffles and lace collars, would have understood what it meant to have the blues.
When Alice was cut off from Fred and the engagement ring returned, she threatened to kill herself with laudanum. She cried to her mama and told her troubles to the cook in the kitchen, must have struggled to make sense of the way her heart was caving in on itself. But no one seemed to understand, especially not the cook, who only replied that at “least you have plenty of money.”
No one could raise Alice from her bed. She continued writing to Fred, but received no response. No matter how those around her tried, Alice refused to budge from her grief, becoming so thin that her dresses began to float about her as summer moved into fall. The crepe myrtles lost their flowers, the water oaks dropped their acorns, and even the holiday season, with its firecrackers and gunshots, did nothing to rouse her. Alice could not bring herself to care about a thing. Until Fred came to town.
A freeze settled on Memphis that winter, a rarity in the part of the state that leans upon the Mississippi Delta with both its knees. There had been snow and ice for weeks, and when, finally, the weather relented enough to allow travel, Alice took a buggy out. She asked her friend Lillie to join her, and together they clopped up and down the streets near their homes, including Madison, where they passed the widow Kimbrough’s house, and imagine Alice’s surprise when there at the window sat Fred!
After the shock of it, after keeping herself from clawing through the window, Alice must have pulled back and taken stock. She would have smarted at seeing Fred come to town without so much as a word. As if Alice no longer mattered. As if Alice would not find out. As if Miss Frederica Ward could puff her sweetness over Memphis and think Alice would not know. The world must have felt as if it were in ruins, Fred so close by and never once come to call. It would have hit her then, all of it. When she returned home to her small box of special things, the box she liked so much to mull over, she would have found the ring Fred had worn when she promised to be true. How Alice must have stared at that small band, setting it into her own hand, pushing her finger over its cold surface, going round and round, thinking of what to do.
In January 1892, snow fell white as cotton as three girls walked past the Custom House toward the steamship docked at the landing. Fred, her sister, and a friend were headed back to Golddust; the girls must have shivered as they huddled together and crossed toward the levee, none of them noticing the buggy trailing them.
Alice, with her friend Lillie once again beside her, followed the trio toward Front Street, the buggy moving in their shadow, Alice saying to Lillie as she jumped, “Oh, Lil, Fred winked at me . . . I’m going to take one more look and say good-bye!”
Had she winked? Was Fred playing a game with Alice, teasing the girl who was loyal as a dog in her affections? Or was the wink a lie, something Alice only hoped to see? Something she wanted so badly, she actually did see? Either way, no one in Fred’s party paid much mind, none of them seeming to notice the fair-haired girl as she jumped from the carriage and ran up the stone path, none of them noticing the wild look in Alice’s eyes until it was too late, none of them recognizing just how serious she was until the razor was unfolded and in her hand.
A Most Shocking Crime.
A Memphis Society Girl Cuts a Former Friend’s Throat. The New York Times, 26 January 1892
A Tragedy Equal to the Most Morbid Imaginings of
Modern French Fiction
Memphis Public Ledger, 26 January 1892
That Alice killed the one she loved best was never disputed. Lillie described Alice’s return to the buggy, the way she refused to wipe away the blood on her face because it had belonged to Fred, and how she asked only about the quickest way to kill herself. Alice herself admitted to the killing, saying she’d planned to cut her own throat, as well, but had been thrown off course when Fred’s companions interfered.
In fact, the trial, which captivated the nation, was not for murder, but for lunacy. Alice admitted her love for Fred in open court, speaking of their plans to marry, her own idea to dress as a man and take a job to support them. She spoke of these things openly. In 1892 Memphis. Without a speck of shame.
The press descended on Memphis. Public interest in the “Memphis Girl Murder” was so great that the judge had his courtroom enlarged with a special stand for the press. The room was said to be the largest in Memphis, outside of the local theaters—an apt comparison, since the room was jammed each day with men and women, black and white, craning their necks as the prosecution attempted to paint Alice as a cold-blooded killer. And given the way she’d cut a throat in broad daylight, with witnesses, and her own confession, it seemed a fair enough portrayal.
But the defense’s claim that Alice Mitchell was insane was supported by witnesses who spoke of her preference for sports, her skill at baseball. They testified about a sack of marbles found in her room, the lack of dolls. One young man testified that Alice had refused to dance with him at a picnic. Another claimed that when he called her a tomboy, Alice had not seemed to mind.Out and out insanity.
“A girl that thinks to assume the mask of a man, can shuffle off the baptismal name given her and take the name of Alvin J. Ward, take the place of a man and marry a woman—Your Honor knows there was madness at the bottom of that.”
Colonel Gantt, testifying for the defense
“The Pity of It,” Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, 26 February 1892
of the progress
of the unparalleled
Girl Murder Trial
fully illustrated .
Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, 24 February 1892
In the end, there were no surprises. Alice’s love for Fred was considered more outrageous than the act of murder, and she was found to be legally insane and was committed to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum in Bolivar on 1 August 1892—a year from the day she’d stood waiting for Fred to step from the Rosa Lee, a year from the day on which her prospects for a wider world were shown to be as small as the mud flat town where Fred sat crying sixty miles upriver.
Perhaps Alice was truly a lunatic and would have killed Fred anyway. Maybe something was loose in her head, so that even if they had made it to St. Louis and she could coax a mustache from her face, an episode of violence might have occurred. But who would have ever remembered it then, a man killing his wife? No, it is only the fact of their shared girlhood that shocked the world. Nice girls from good families, so that people were left to wonder over those nights at Miss Higbee’s school, the neck and the blade, the claims of love. What could they do with such a girl but send her to the madhouse, Alice perhaps stealing one last look at the wide bend of the Mississippi before turning in her seat and leaning into her mama as the carriage headed east, away from the singers along Beale and the river Alice would never see again.
There goes that Alice Mitchell
With arms tightly bound down
For the crime she did in Memphis,
She’s bound for Bolivar now.
from “Alice Mitchell & Freddy Ward”
Sounds of the Ozark Folk, vol. II. Collected by John Quincy Wolf, Jr.
The ride east seems to have been gentle, given the circumstances, and those in the carriage complied when Alice asked to stop to say goodbye to Fred. They pulled up at Elmwood Cemetery on the way out of town, likely stopping for a moment near the gate, taking whatever shade they could get under oaks that had been standing there longer than the cemetery itself. When they could go no longer by carriage, they would have passed bald cypresses on foot, treading through limestone angels and stone anchors, the air filled with the sound of whistling as trains pulled coal from one side of the country to the other, Alice leading the way until, finally, she stood over the square of turned earth that had not yet settled back into the space over Frederica Ward’s body.
Did she hear her voice then? As she stood beside the grave, did the sound of low and hard whistling give way to Fred’s voice? That sound must have been to Alice what the singing of birds is to the sky. If she closed her eyes right then, was she back on Jessamine and Beale, where nothing was so true as the light coming through the windows of Miss Higbee’s school, the sound of hooves on the stones beneath the music room? Could she feel the heat of the other girls, their laughter and delight, as Fred practiced her flirty walk? It might have seemed, for a moment, as if Fred had never left. And if she closed her eyes just right, Allie might have even allowed herself to imagine that they’d boarded that boat to St. Louis, after all, that she stood not before a new grave, but at the very edge of the river, aboard a steamship, holding her love’s hand, watching the levee disappear as they headed north, the world opening before them.