The Murder of Freda Ward: Background information when reading In the Dream House

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

In the Dream House

by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado X
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2019, 272 pages

    Dec 2020, 272 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Murder of Freda Ward

This article relates to In the Dream House

Print Review

Portrait of Freda Ward In Carmen Maria Machado's memoir In the Dream House, she writes of her abusive relationship with another woman and the lack of scholarship and cultural representations available on the subject of abuse in queer relationships in general. Having researched the subject exhaustively, she provides snapshots of examples throughout the book, including the 1892 murder of 17-year-old Freda Ward by 19-year-old Alice Mitchell, with whom Freda was romantically involved.

Freda and Alice met at the Higbee School for Girls in Memphis, Tennessee. They grew close, and it was not unusual at the time for girls to hold hands, kiss and otherwise express affection, so their attachment was not regarded with any special notice by most. The Wards moved to Arkansas, and Alice took the separation especially hard. Her sadness was compounded when she learned that Freda was being courted by men. She attempted to overdose on laudanum but survived. Freda's mother eventually came to the conclusion that her daughter's relationship with Alice was inappropriate and forbade them from seeing one another.

In response, Alice proposed to Freda and Freda accepted. The two planned to elope and move to St. Louis, where Alice would live as a man. In August of 1891, Freda was caught by her older sister as she was preparing to leave for Memphis to meet Alice. All correspondence was cut off between the two in the aftermath, and Freda continued to see men, even entertaining another marriage proposal.

On January 25, 1892, Freda visited a family friend in Memphis with her sister and, unbeknownst to her, was followed by Alice Mitchell and a friend, Lillie Johnson. Alice jumped from her buggy to confront Freda by the dock where she was waiting for the ferry to return to Arkansas, and shouted, "I'll fix her!" before cutting Freda's throat. Freda was carried into a nearby office, where she bled to death. Alice and Lillie were both arrested the following morning.

Lillie Johnson's trial for aiding and abetting the murder was held first, in February, 1892. It attracted an enormous amount of public attention and thousands of people showed up to court for the proceedings. Lillie was released on bail, and the charges against her were eventually dropped after her lawyer argued she had no prior knowledge of Alice's plan to murder Freda.

Alice's trial began in July, 1892. Her lawyer contended that she was insane, and her father and brother testified on her behalf. While it certainly seems likely that Alice was mentally ill, her sexuality was used as evidence to that effect. In her 2014 book on the murder, Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, author Alexis Coe writes, "There was no denying that she had killed Freda, but in 1892 her motive was utterly inconceivable...Alice's insistence that she killed Freda because she loved her and could not stand the idea of anyone else having her...seemed nothing short of insane."

The jury found Alice legally insane and she was committed to the Tennessee State Insane Asylum. She reportedly died there of tuberculosis in 1898.

While things might have unfolded differently for Alice and Freda if their relationship took place today, Alice exhibited all the classic behaviors of a controlling and abusive partner, factors that transcend time and often end in tragedy.

Portrait of Freda Ward from the Memphis Appeal Avalanche newspaper, 1892

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to In the Dream House. It originally ran in January 2020 and has been updated for the December 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Red Memory
    Red Memory
    by Tania Branigan
    Tania Branigan's Red Memory is an astounding and often harrowing study of Mao's China. A lead writer...
  • Book Jacket: The Postcard
    The Postcard
    by Anne Berest
    Anne Berest's The Postcard — with an elegant translation from the French by Tina Cover &...
  • Book Jacket
    by Jennifer Saint
    Few cultures in history mastered the art of tragedy quite like the ancient Greeks. And very few ...
  • Book Jacket: Salvage This World
    Salvage This World
    by Michael Farris Smith
    In the near-future universe of Michael Farris Smith's Salvage This World, life-threatening ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The First Conspiracy
by Brad Meltzer & Josh Mensch
A remarkable and previously untold piece of American history—the secret plot to kill George Washington

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Little Italian Hotel
    by Phaedra Patrick

    Sunny, tender and brimming with charm, The Little Italian Hotel explores marriage, identity and reclaiming the present moment.

Win This Book
Win Girlfriend on Mars

30 Copies to Give Away!

A funny and poignant debut novel that skewers billionaire-funded space travel in a love story of interplanetary proportions.



Solve this clue:

Y S M Back A I'll S Y

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.