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The Afterlives of Alice Mitchell

Abstract of man in hat, cover of Millen, Sweet Man
Sweet Man, by Gilmore Millen. Cover from Viking Press's 1930 edition. 

Alice Mitchell’s 1892 murder of her lover Freda Ward rocked their well-to-do Memphis community and scandalized the nation. The masculine Mitchell slashed Ward’s throat in broad daylight when Ward decided not to marry Mitchell. Lisa Duggan has provided the richest account of the murder to date and has exhaustively detailed the way that it was sensationalized in the period press as “a Very Unnatural Crime,” representing “a new narrative-in-formation—a cultural marker of the emergence of a partially cross-gender-identified lesbian.”[1] As Lillian Faderman has specified the Mitchell murder gave rise to a number of fictional works: Mary Wilkins Freeman’s short story “The Long Arm” (1895), Mary R. P. Hatch’s novel The Strange Disappearance of Eugene Comstock (1895), and John Wesley Carhart’s Norma Trist; or Pure Carbon: A Story of the Inversion of the Sexes (1895).[2] All three of these works were written shortly after Ward’s murder and also, in a way that is thematized in Freeman’s story, after Lizzie Borden’s “unnatural” 1892 killing of her father and stepmother, which also has lesbian undercurrents.[3] Mitchell and, to a lesser extent, Borden inaugurated the association between lesbianism and criminality that would persist throughout the twentieth century.[4] Because the Mitchell-Ward affair became a touchstone for the cementing of this linkage, this short essay will explore another virtually unknown literary text that represents the murder—without explicitly naming it as such—at a historically later moment: Gilmore Millen’s Sweet Man (1930).

Only the barest outlines of Millen’s biography are known. He was born in 1896 or 1897 on a plantation in Mississippi and then moved to Memphis during his youth (the same trajectory as the protagonist in Sweet Man).[5] His parents were white planters and he had (at least) two sisters and two brothers (“Gilmore Millen Dies,” LA Times, 2). His younger brother James Knox Millen was a playwright and screenwriter who wrote “Never No More” (1932) and “The Bough Breaks”(1937).[6] In addition to being a novelist, Gilmore Millen was a screenwriter and a reporter for the Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express, counting F. Scott Fitzgerald among his interviewees.[7] As a young man he attended the University of Virginia, got married, and worked for The Baltimore Sun (“Gilmore Millen Dies,” LA Times, 2; 1920 Census). He moved to Los Angeles in 1923 after getting divorced.[8] In 1930, he published Sweet Man, his only novel. A 1931 story in the Los Angeles Times gossips that Millen “has retired from motion-picture writing and has gone into hiding in order to finish his new novel. This new book will not be another Negro novel but will deal with a California figure in a California background.”[9] Sweet Man was published to a great deal of acclaim in 1930, praised or mentioned by such luminaries as James Weldon Johnson, Arna Bontemps, and Carl Van Vechten.[10] It was translated into French in 1932 as Un Nègre Tres Aimé: Roman Américaine. He died on June 5, 1937 after suffering burns a few days earlier on May 26, having fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand (“Gilmore Millen Dies,” LA Times, 2).[11] He had just gotten remarried a month earlier (Kingsport Times, June 7, 1937, 8).[12]

Sweet Man features John Henry, a mulatto sweetback who shares a name with the folkloric paragon of Black masculinity. “Sweetback” or “sweet man” was Black slang for, as Wallace Thurman and his collaborator on Harlem (1929), William Jourdan Rapp, put it, “a man who commercializes his sex appeal”; he is “a colored gigolo, or man who lived off women.”[13] Millen offers the sweet man as a counterpoint or alternative to normative conceptions of manhood. While John Henry travels about America being kept by many different women, most of the novel is set in Memphis (also the site of the Mitchell-Ward murder). The novel describes Beale Street as “the main street of the negro population of a city [Memphis] whose percentage of negro population is greater than that of any other city in America, and whose murder rate is the highest.”[14] Before narrating the famous lesbian murder, Millen rhapsodizes about Beale Street in all its lurid color:

It is a street of business and love and murder and theft—an aisle where Jew merchants and pawnbrokers, country negroes from plantations, creole prostitutes and painted fag men, sleepy gamblers and slick young chauffeurs, crooks and bootleggers and dope peddlers and rich property owners and powdered women with diamonds in the their chryselephantine mouths, and labor agents and blind musicians and confidence men and hard-working negroes from saw mills and cotton warehouses and factories and stores meet and stand on corners and slip upstairs to gambling joints and rooming hotels and barber shops and bawdy houses. (Millen, Sweet Man, 150–51)

As part of the narration of Beale Street’s storied and scandalous history, Millen narrates Ward’s murder: “Across the street, in front of that barber shop, two white women came screaming from Gayoso Street, a block over, and cut each other, for love of each other, with knives until their flesh fell like potato peelings on the sidewalk” (152).

This murder reverberates in the novel’s plot when John Henry is being “kept like a pet dog for the amusement of one of the most notorious women on all Beale Street,” the prostitute Helena Red (161). Another woman, Cora, who works in the same brothel as Helena Red and who dislikes her, attempts to try to steal Helena Red’s John Henry from her. For this transgression, Helena Red murders Cora: “The lights went off quickly, but before they darkened John Henry saw Helena Red’s knife flash in their light. He saw red blood spill from Cora’s powdered cheek, heard her scream and Helena Red curse. . . . He had seen Helena Red stabbing Cora again and again, in the face, the neck, the breasts” (165). The stabbing of Cora’s face, neck, and breasts—areas of bodily fetishization—begins to look even more eroticized in light of a third stabbed woman in the novel who is found to have been “loved . . . violently and brutally”; someone “had chewed up her nubile breasts and her thighs in his passion” (185). That the bodily locations of violence are here conflated with sexuality suggests a similar violent lesbian erotics between Cora and Red. This lesbian sexualization is even more pronounced in the description of John Henry watching Red’s “left hand striking and clawing at the red face of the woman on the floor slowly and as violently as if its fingers were sensing exquisite pleasure in the warm red flesh” (165). Here, the representation of “exquisite pleasure” in the fleshly touch of the two women and the fact that when “Red’s done this before” she always killed the cheating man rather than the woman, suggests not only Red’s regard for John Henry’s prowess as a lover, but also perhaps her homoerotic interest in Cora (168). That is, we might read it as a murder that echoes the Mitchell-Ward killing.

The novel’s rich representation of lesbian sexuality, its detailed account of Black gendering, and its status as a cross-racial novel suggest that it is at the heart of many of the most pressing concerns in modernist studies today.


[1] Lisa Duggan, “The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology, and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America” Signs 18, no. 4 (1993): 791–814, 799. See also Lisa Duggan, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). For other accounts, see Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 55-57 and Lisa J. Lindquist, “Images of Alice: Gender, Deviancy, and a Love Murder in Memphis” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6.1 (1995): 30-61.

[2] Faderman, 56. Mary Wilkins Freeman’s short story was to an uncertain extent coauthored with Boston Evening Transcript columnist J. Edgar Chamberlain. On this collaboration, see Laura Behling, “Detecting Deviation in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s ‘The Long Arm,’” American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 31, no. 1 (1997): 75–91, 90n6.

[3] Some of the evidence for Borden’s lesbianism turns on her relationship to Nance O’Neil (née Gertrude Lamson), an actress that Borden knew well. Their relationship led to a permanent falling out between Lizzie Borden and her sister Emma Borden. On Lizzie Borden’s relationship to O’Neil, see Joseph A. Conforti, Lizzie Borden on Trial: Murder, Ethnicity, and Gender (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2005), 214. On Borden’s nonnormative gender, see Duggan, Sapphic Slashers, 23.

[4] On the relationship between lesbianism and criminality, see, for example, Estelle Freedman, “The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915–1965,” Feminist Studies 22, no. 2 (1996): 397–423; Regina Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); Chris Coffman, Insane Passions: Lesbianism and Psychosis in Literature and Film (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006).

[5] “Gilmore Millen Dies of Burns,” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1937, part 2, 2. Some accounts have it that Millen was born in Memphis, though I am less persuaded by these accounts. See, for example, the 1920 United States Federal Census (via ancestry.com), and “Burns Prove Fatal to Newspaper Man,” Arizona Independent Republic, June 6, 1937, 1.

[6] Arthur L. Robinson, “One on Our Chins,” The Inter-State Tattler, March 10, 1932, 4; Katherine T. Von Blon, “‘Never No More’: Fervent Drama,” Los Angeles Times, part 3, 11.

[7] Conversations with F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press), 82–85.

[8] Kingsport Times, June 7, 1937, 8.

[9] “Millen in Hiding,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1931, part 3, 12.

[10] Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1930, part 3, 16; Arna Bontemps, “The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters,” The Yale University Library Gazette 18, no. 2 (1943): 19–26, 24; Carl Van Vechten, “The J. W. Johnson Collection at Yale” The Crisis (July 1942): 222–26, 223.

[11] “Gilmore Millen,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1937, part 1, 18.

[12] 1930 United States Federal Census, via ancestry.com.

[13] Wallace Thurman, The Collected Writings of Wallace Thurman: A Harlem Renaissance Reader (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 65. For more on the figure of the sweetback, see Benjamin Kahan, “Sheiks, Sweetbacks, and Harlem Renaissance Sexuality, or the Chauncey Thesis at Twenty-Five,” Journal of Modern Literature 42, no. 3 (2019): 39–54.

[14] Gilmore Millen, Sweet Man (New York: Viking Press, 1930), 151.