Love and Death at the River's Edge: the Story of Alice Mitchell and Frederica Ward

April 4, 2014

by Richard Alley, 2014 Volunteer Writer-in-Residence 

On the banks of Memphis on January 26, 1892, where cobblestones from an Illinois quarry had been laid not long before to facilitate commerce flowing into the city via the Mississippi River, visitors disembarking a river boat might have expected to see throngs of people coming and going. There would have been men groaning beneath the weight of cotton bales being loaded on and off barges while others, dressed in all their finery, waited to board vessels of the Lee Line, bound for Vicksburg or New Orleans. On a bluff above the activity, construction of the Cossitt Library being built of red sandstone and taking on the shape of a modern-day castle, would have impressed and awed the new arrivals.

What they wouldn’t have expected, what no one could have imagined there on a day filled with the excitement of travel and the thrum of the masses, would have been the murderous scene played out before their eyes. It was on that day at 4 p.m., on the railroad tracks at the bottom of the Customs House Bluff overlooking the cobblestones, that 19-year-old Alice Jessie Mitchell cut the throat of 17-year-old Frederica Ward.

These young women weren’t strangers to each other, they’d been schoolmates at the Higbee School for Girls at Beale and Lauderdale. But they were more than friends. In a time when such things were kept behind closed doors, whispered about in hushed voices, if at all, Alice and Freda, as she was known, were lovers.

The two had elaborate plans to run away together to St. Louis where they would live as husband and wife with Alice dressing the part and taking the name “Alvin J. Ward.” They’d discussed it, they’d dreamed of it all along, and an engagement ring had been exchanged. But Freda’s family had moved upriver to Gold Dust, Tenn., and when her sister, Ada Ward Volkmer, became aware of the affair, she wrote a letter to Alice ending it.

Freda came to Memphis the next winter with another sister, Josephine, to visit a family friend, Mrs. Kimbrough. During their stay, Alice had developed a habit of driving her buggy back and forth in front of the house on Hernando Street to catch a glimpse of her former love. On the day Freda was to leave Memphis, Alice followed her and her sister from Kimbrough’s house to the top of the bluff where they began the descent to the river on foot. Alice came up behind Freda, reached around her body and slashed at her throat with a straight razor. Leaving Freda bleeding on the train tracks where bystanders gathered her up to rush her to a doctor, Alice made her way back to the top of the bluff and home to 215 Union Street, where she told her mother what she’d done.

The newspapers of the day – the Public Ledger, Evening Scimitar, Memphis Appeal Avalanche and Memphis Commercial – played to the sensationalism of the circumstances of the crime. It is said to be the first time the word “lesbian” appeared in news print. The sensationalism spilled over into the courtroom of Julius DuBose, a colorful judge with a flair for show. When the trial began in July, he’d had the courtroom enlarged to accommodate the crowds.

Alice’s attorneys, General Luke Wright and Colonel George Gantt, entered a plea of insanity. Love letters between the two young women were read aloud and Alice’s friend, Lillie Johnson, who had been present at the murder, testified that they’d had plans to elope. As evidence, the engagement ring was produced; an inscription read “From A. to F.” While on the stand, Alice admitted, “I wanted to cut her because I knew I could not have her, and I did not want anyone else to have her.”

After a six-day trial, it took the jury just 20 minutes to declare the defendant insane. She was sentenced to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum in Bolivar, Tenn.

Alice died on March 31, 1898, at the age of 25. The official cause was “consumption” or tuberculosis, while her death certificate states only “non-contagious.” Another story says that Alice drowned herself in the water tank atop the asylum. She is buried in the family plot at Elmwood Cemetery.

Freda is across the cemetery in an unmarked grave, a lone sapling marking the area where she is interred. 

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