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 to support her seventeen-year-old fiancée, Freda Ward.
If it would please Freda, Alice—who would be known as Alvin—promised to grow a mustache; how, she never said. Their kissing and hugging and hand-holding was certainly noted by those around them, but during the Victorian era, demonstrative relationships between women were considered unremarkable. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called these romantic friends a "rehearsal in girlhood of the great drama of a woman's life," but for Alice, this was no rehearsal. Their relationship had been plagued by jealousy and infidelity, and Freda promised she'd be true once they married. Alice looked forward to enjoying all of the rights afforded to a husband, including working outside of the home and exerting complete control over Freda. On the very night they were supposed to sneak out of their homes and run away to St. Louis, their love letters were discovered, and they were forbidden to ever speak 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 own father that very night, and every medical expert in the State of Tennessee agreed: This was a dangerous and incurable perversion. After a jury whose "chivalry exceeded their sense of justice" declared Alice insane, she was remanded to an asylum, where she died under mysterious circumstances just a few years later.
For days on end after the two girls were separated, a heavy snow descended on Memphis. The roads were slick with ice and the wind was chilling. Nineteen-year-old Alice was trapped in a home that had become a prison. If the snow continued, she would miss Freda altogether. But she wouldn't let that happen. She had made a solemn declaration, and she intended to make good on it.
Every morning, Alice arose from yet another sleepless night to find a landscape unaltered, a city blanketed in white. Through the frosted windowpane, she watched her father and brothers come and go as they pleased. No one questioned their trips downtown or suggested their business could wait until the weather improved. But the Mitchell women were governed by a different set of rules. And what would Alice say on her own behalf? The truth was not an option, and she could conjure no lie convincing enough to justify exposing herself to the tempest outside.
So she waited, enduring one anxious, blustery day after another, finding no solace in her house, no distraction through sewing or reading. Alice had no interest in food, but she spent most of her waking hours in the kitchen, where she had hidden the locked box containing Freda's treasures: the love letters, the photograph, the engagement ring. It was an archive of heartbreak, and it was all she had left.
Alice had shown the ring to Lucy Franklin, the Mitchell family's African-American cook, and shared her tale of star-crossed love, how her hopes for the future had been so cruelly dashed by disapproving relations. Lucy played the captive audience, feeling genuine concern for young Alice and trying as best she could to console her. But over the course of her storytelling, Alice withheld parts of the narrative from Lucy, allowing assumptions to stand in the place of truth. But as Lucy would later testify, the inconsistency of the one-sided love story hardly mattered. What concerned her was Alice's manner, which grew unsettling to the point of distraction.
But there was no one Alice could truly confide in. Certainly not her mother, who had forbidden her to see Freda, nor her older sisters, who had long ago dismissed her as anxious. Even Lillie Johnson, her closest friend, was ignorant of the truth, and she had been there from the very beginning.
Only Freda knew the whole story, and she wanted nothing to do with Alice anymore. It was as if their love had never existed, her world shattered by a phantom. The box, hidden in the kitchen, was all she had left, the only proof that Freda had ever loved her.
Before the snow had come, Alice would often claim the family's buggy and invite Lillie to ride downtown, a social call that conveniently masked her true goal of surveilling Freda. But the weather that week had often made prisoners of them all.
Twenty-five days into the New Year, 1892, Alice awoke to a clear sky on the very day she needed it. It was nearly three o'clock by the time she carefully steered the newly shod horses along the thawing roads to Lillie's house. Her friend was caring for a young nephew, but nonetheless readily accepted the invitation, wrapping herself and the boy in jackets and hats, gloves and scarves. They soon settled into the buggy alongside Alice, completely unaware of her plan. The only warning sign was carefully hidden away in her dress pocket.
There was nothing unusual about two young women from respectable families spending a Monday afternoon aimlessly riding through downtown Memphis. No one expected them to spend this fleeting time between school and marriage attending college or working. There was little for them to do but check the post office, call on male relations at work, and perhaps treat their young charge to a sugary treat. But Alice held the reins that day, and she had been steering the buggy toward Hernando Street all along.
Lillie was generally obtuse when it came to Alice, to a degree a grand jury would soon find suspect. She had played accomplice on enough of Alice's investigative missions that month to know why her friend slowed the horses to a near-halt before the widow Kimbrough's home. Freda and her older sister, Jo Ward, had been staying there for nearly a month, during which time they had shown no interest in Alice and Lillie, who'd once been their closest friends at the Higbee School for Young Ladies.
Lillie had adjusted to this reality, but Alice could not. The Ward sisters had moved up the river to Golddust, but visited Memphis often. In the old days, they had almost always stayed with Alice. In the weeks leading up to such happy reunions, she and Freda would exchange a flurry of letters, with much consideration given to sleeping arrangements. The goal was always to spend the night together, alone in Alice's bed.
But these days, when Alice learned the Ward sisters were in town, the information came by vigilance or luck. Her sleuthing had yielded general information about this visit—they would be coming sometime after Christmas, likely staying with Mrs. Kimbrough—but nothing more. And so, Alice went on self-imposed surveillance duty, riding and walking on Hernando Street as often as she could, hoping to see Freda through the window, or better yet, to run into her on the street.
Alice had been trying to contact Freda for months. Her letters were returned unopened, or presumably discarded, until finally, just a week earlier, Alice received a response, though it offered her no comfort. Freda admitted to being in Memphis, but momentarily leaving on the Rosa Lee—an impossibility. The city had practically come to a wintry standstill, and everyone knew the steamers were running on an irregular schedule. Alice studied every line of the letter, each crammed full of lies and broken promises, and grew apoplectic over her ex-fiancé's sloppy attempt to deceive her. The Rosa Lee had most certainly not gone out, and neither had the Ward sisters.
On January 25, however, the Ora Lee was due to depart. If they had not left already, Alice seemed certain they would leave before sundown on this steamer. If she were right, Freda and Jo would have to leave Mrs. Kimbrough's house soon. This was her moment.
Through equal parts perseverance and chance, Alice had learned how to unravel Freda's lies over the years. And sure enough, from atop the inching buggy, she watched as the front door of the widow Kimbrough's home swung open—and her dear Freda emerged. She was followed by Jo and another friend, Christina Purnell. They moved toward bustling Front Street, just north of the customhouse, blithely unaware of the buggy slowly pursuing them along the busy streets of downtown Memphis. They pushed past the businessmen and workers heading in all different directions, gingerly sidestepping women clutching their skirts, all the while tiptoeing carefully over patches of ice and mud.
Alice had been right. They were headed toward the waterfront. If Freda boarded the Ora Lee for Golddust, there would be no guarantee she would return to Memphis any time soon, if at all. She might just marry one of the young men she corresponded with, and move even farther away. Alice knew this might be her last chance.
And what did Freda know, as she made her way to the docks? She knew there was only one way out of their engagement, just as she knew Alice was not one to break promises.
The sure-footed horses proved far steadier on the slippery, thawing ground than Freda, Jo, and Christina had. Distracted by frequent stops to steady themselves, they did not seem to notice when Alice's buggy passed them. Their slow advance offered plenty of time for Alice to settle the horses in front of the post office, climb down, and watch the trio approach. Alice's eyes locked on Freda.
She searched Freda's face for an invitation, open to a wide range of signals. In days long gone, Freda had gone on about the many expressions she pulled, each look imbued with meaning. And now, despite all evidence to the contrary, Alice was sure, at the moment the young women passed by, that she had seen Freda wink with her right eye. It meant, "I love you."
It was the sign Alice had been waiting for all along, and she took it as an invitation. The time had come.
"Where are you going?" Lillie called out from the buggy, as Alice sprinted off in Freda's direction.
"I am going to see Fred once more," she shouted over her shoulder, using her pet name for Freda. Lillie stayed behind. The horses needed looking after, and so did her nephew, but in truth, Alice had never invited her to come along. It was not going to be that kind of parting.
Freda was not faring well on the slippery slope. She stopped often to regain her balance, while Alice moved toward her with determination. By the time they reached the north gate of the custom house grounds, Alice was upon them.
Alice reached into her dress pocket, her fingers sliding over Freda's last letter, in search of her father's razor. She had been carrying it around for months, waiting and plotting, but the grade leading down to the waterfront was not the destination she had imagined. Alice knew where people congregated, and where the crowd thinned. She needed to get Freda alone. There could be no intervention.
The streets swirled with faces, both familiar and not, allowing Alice to move undetected. She had hoped it would remain this way until they reached the steamer, but Christina Purnell noticed their old friend suddenly lurking beside them. There was no more time to waste. Turning from Christina's disbelieving eyes, Alice leaned in toward Freda's face, as if to kiss her cheek.
"Oh!" Freda shrieked.
"You dirty dog!" Jo screamed as she watched blood pour down her sister's neck, staining her dress red. She grasped the only weapon she had, the long umbrella in her hand, and lunged toward Alice.
It was no match for the razor. Alice had only intended to harm one Ward sister that day, but the umbrella enraged her, and she turned her blood soaked razor on Jo, slicing at her collarbone.
"Leave my sister alone!" Jo yelled, now with her own gaping wound. She had lost her only means of defense. In the scuffle, Alice had gotten hold of the umbrella, and proved more successful in using it. She lunged at Freda, knocking off her hat.
"Alice, you dirty dog," Jo screamed again, a last-ditch effort to distract her as Freda made a dash for the boat. "You'll hang for this!"
"I don't care if I'm hung! I want to die anyhow," Alice shouted back.
A pool of blood stood in Freda's place, and Alice, seeing that it formed a trail toward the steamer, took off in its direction. Bleeding and disoriented, Freda struggled even more on the icy slope, allowing Alice to easily catch up.
It took just one more slice, this one all the way across her throat, before Freda crumpled onto the ground.
And that was when Alice noticed people moving toward them, their eyes focused on Freda. Alice had only realized half of her plan—but the rest would have to wait. Razor in hand, she sprinted back up the hill, leaving the love of her life bleeding on the railroad tracks.