The Daily Agenda for Wednesday, January 25
January 25th, 2012
Creating Change Conference: Baltimore, MD. Today is the kickoff for the annual five day Creating Change: The National Conference on LGBT Equality put on by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. LGBT advocates are gathering from all over North America and other parts of the world, including business people, elected officials, students, faith leaders, non-profit groups, and grass roots volunteers. Featured speakers this year are Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP; Ugandan LGBT advocate Val Kalende; Cary Johnson, Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commissionl and of course NLGTF Executive Director Rea Carey.
TODAY IN HISTORY:
Alice Mitchell Kills Freda Ward: 1892. Freda Ward was the socialite daughter of a wealthy planter and merchant. Alice Mitchell was the daughter of a retired furniture dealer. Both were well known about town, daughters of two of the best families of Memphis, Tennessee. Alice would later say that as far as she could remember, she had am “extraordinary love” for Freda. According to one newspaper account, “Twice Alice went to visit Freda’s family, during which time the two girls, as witnesses attested, showed “disgusting tenderness” for each other. They were seen to swing together in a hammock by the hour, hugging and kissing each other — “they hugged and kissed ad nauseum”. Alice was ashamed of doing this in public, but Freda upbraided her for this.” Their relationship grew. Alice proposed marriage, but it appears that Freda either refused the offer or was prevented from accepting it by her family. As Freda was about to leave Memphis to board a steamboat to her family’s home town in Arkansas, Alice waylaid her and killed her on the streets of Memphis.
Newspapers around the country followed every detail of the case and trial. And since this occurred at about the time psychologists and medical professionals were beginning to understand homosexuality and lesbianism as something other than simply criminal acts, the Mitchell-Ward case was dissected in the nation’s medical journals as well. The Memphis Medical Monthly carried an extensive report of the trial in which Mitchell was judged insane. Other medical journals weighed in on the exact nature of her insanity. It was a common nineteenth century belief that insanity was the result of “degeneracy,” which was a body of beliefs that held that human beings, through the natural course of evolution, would naturally produce children who “de-generated” some of their parent’s characteristics in an imperfect form — think of a xerox copy of a xerox copy. Degeneracy didn’t always yield blemished children — according to degeneracy theory, geniuses, also were examples of a kind of positive “de-generation” because they deviated from the norm (and they often also had other quirks as part of their personality). Yet it was an extraordinarily short trip from “de-generation” to degeneracy, and the Mitchell-Ward case literally become one of many textbook examples. Even two decades later, like in the following passage from 1914 by Douglas C. McMurtrie from the American Journal of Urology. He cited other psychologists and sexologists who observed that “congenital sexual inversion is widespread in America, homosexual women being frequently found in societies and clubs.” He then turned his attention to the still talked-about Mitchell-Ward case from two decades earlier:
One of the most widely known cases of violent crimes due to sexual inversion in the female occurred in Memphis, Tenn., approximately in 1891, though the exact date is unknown to me. The facts were typical of sexually inverted affection and are of considerable interest. They have been reported by Comstock. [Here, he quotes a brief account of the crime by T. Griswold Comstock for the New York Medical Times in 1893] … In accounting for the deed, Comstock, while diagnosing Alice Mitchell as a sexual “pervert,” considers her insane. It appears that her mother in her first confinement had child-bed fever and puerperal insanity, and was confined in an asylum, and that before the birth of Alice she was deranged, and this aberration continued until some time after labor. Although no actual determination was made of Alice’s mental state it was decided she was insane.
This may have been the case. In the light of present knowledge regarding this sexual anomaly, however, it may be said that no more insanity might have been involved in this crime of homosexual jealousy than is involved in analogous crimes of heterosexual jealousy which come constantly before the courts.
A full account of the case of Alice Mitchell giving the facts as proved in court and the various testimony of the medical witnesses is given in the Memphis Medical Monthly. The article also contains a report of the direct examination of the defendant. It is noteworthy that in none of the medical evidence was there any mention of there having been a sexual condition chiefly accountable for the crime.
In fact, if there is anything noteworthy about this affair, it is the fact that it wasn’t the nature of the love interest which proved to be the mark of Mitchell’s insanity during her trial even though the lesbian aspects of their relationship were very widely reported. (Indeed, it was the main reason the case was such a sensation in the popular press.) Instead, she was judged insane because her mother was judged insane. She was the unfortunate degenerated offspring of a degenerated mother, and Mitchell’s degeneracy was seen as a more generalized sort which had little to do with her sexuality. The homosexuality of gay men, on the other hand, was often regarded as degeneracy sui generis, with one Texas physician in 1893 advocating castration for those judged to be afflicted with this “trait” so that it could not be passed on to future generations — to “nip it in the bud,” so to speak.
Degeneracy theory, which provided a theoretical basis for eugenics, would eventually die with the worst excesses of the eugenics movement. People with physical, mental, emotional or other anomalies – whether those anomalies were in the direction of weakness or strength — would soon lose the tag of “degenerate.” Everyone except for gay people. For them, the last remnant of this discarded theory would live on as the name commonly used against them — degenerates — until well into the late twentieth century. And in some circles, still today.