Alice + Freda Forever: A Memphis Murder was a dual purpose read for me. I bought a copy for the museum’s library for some obvious reasons. It happened in Memphis and is relevant to our mission to education the public about the cultural history of the Mid-South. We are also trying to pump some new life into our staff library by introducing some new material. I imagine that many people who read the book will be learning about Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward’s story for the first time. I’ve known about them for several years since I first found about Freda’s murder while doing research for the museum. Honestly, since I am a historian who works in and on Memphis, it would be a little weird if I hadn’t found out their story before this book. So I read it for work. I also read it because it’s interesting. There aren’t many LGBT histories about Memphis; off the top of my head, this book brings the total up to two. It’s also written in an interesting manner with a healthy dose of illustrations and contextualized letters from the two principle actors.
I thought Coe researched the book well. She definitely utilized the Memphis’ rich archives, which shows clearly in her extensive bibliography. She also does a good deal of racial, gender and class analysis, which I particularly liked as a social historian. At points, the illustrations border on distracting. However, there are a few key points in the narrative where they serve a real purpose, specifically in the section about the trial to show the difference in how Alice was portrayed by the newspapers.
There is one glaring problem with the book that I am surprised neither Coe nor her editors caught. At more than one point in the narrative, she mentions that Memphis is in East Tennessee. Absolutely not. Not even a little. Memphis is the largest city in West Tennessee. It might not seem like a big deal, and the first mention I shrugged off, but it kept happening. At one point she even talked about a doctor from “nearby” Knoxville. Other side of the state. The reason this matters is because Tennessee is a very long state, and the historical realities of East Tennessee are different from West Tennessee. To put it in context, Memphis is closer to St. Louis, MO, than it is to Knoxville. This lack of geographical understanding gave me serious pause and made me question Coe as a writer. I think that her analysis of the facts stands up, but as a local historian, I’m disappointed that no one looked at a map.
Admittedly, this is a small quibble in the light of an otherwise well researched and interesting book.