Sapphic Slashers

Sex, Violence, and American Modernity

Sapphic Slashers

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 6 b&w photographs Published: January 2001

Author: Lisa Duggan

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies, History > U.S. History

On a winter day in 1892, in the broad daylight of downtown Memphis, Tennessee, a middle class woman named Alice Mitchell slashed the throat of her lover, Freda Ward, killing her instantly. Local, national, and international newspapers, medical and scientific publications, and popular fiction writers all clamored to cover the ensuing “girl lovers” murder trial. Lisa Duggan locates in this sensationalized event the emergence of the lesbian in U.S. mass culture and shows how newly “modern” notions of normality and morality that arose from such cases still haunt and distort lesbian and gay politics to the present day.
Situating this story alongside simultaneously circulating lynching narratives (and its resistant versions, such as those of Memphis antilynching activist Ida B. Wells) Duggan reveals how stories of sex and violence were crucial to the development of American modernity. While careful to point out the differences between the public reigns of terror that led to many lynchings and the rarer instances of the murder of one woman by another privately motivated woman, Duggan asserts that dominant versions of both sets of stories contributed to the marginalization of African Americans and women while solidifying a distinctly white, male, heterosexual form of American citizenship. Having explored the role of turn-of-the-century print media—and in particular their tendency toward sensationalism—Duggan moves next to a review of sexology literature and to novels, most notably Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Sapphic Slashers concludes with two appendices, one of which presents a detailed summary of Ward’s murder, the trial, and Mitchell’s eventual institutionalization. The other presents transcriptions of letters exchanged between the two women prior to the crime.
Combining cultural history, feminist and queer theory, narrative analysis, and compelling storytelling, Sapphic Slashers provides the first history of the emergence of the lesbian in twentieth-century mass culture.


“[A] rich and complicated argument built out of fascinating material, and well worth the time of careful readers of American culture.” — Regina Morantz-Sanchez , American Studies

“[A]n insightful look at the politics of social construction. Reading [Sapphic Slashers] opens up the world and puts the creation of mass culture in historical perspective.” — Eleanor J. Bader, Foreword Reviews

“[I]mpressive. . . . [A] fascinating and unique investigation into how sensationalism of sex and violence was used to marginalize people and how lesbians (before such a concept existed) were ‘racialized’ at the turn of the century to explain their crimes. While it’s sometimes difficult to imagine a world without today’s intense categorization of sexual orientation, Duggan does a splendid job of accounting and analyzing two phenomena: a lynching narrative that motivated widespread murders and a lesbian love story that gave interpretive framework to rarer crimes.” — Diane Anderson-Minshall , Bitch

“An engrossing and meticulous study. . . .[Sapphic Slashers] exhumes and ponders a full arena of late-19th-century concerns, including racial injustice, boomtown commerce, suffragism, medical mores, expectations of middle class white femininity, and the impact of an emerging national press. This kitchen-sink approach is breathtaking. . . . Duggan nails the interconnections. . . . ” — Elizabeth Pincus , Voice Literary Supplement

“Duggan . . . analyzes the narratives of ‘Lesbian love murder’ for what they reveal about ongoing stereotypes of the homicidal butch and her femme victim. . . . Contemporary press coverage and letters between Ward and Mitchell are particularly compelling.” — Washington Blade

“Duggan extensively references works linking the cultural production of gender, race, and class.” — John Rockwell Snowden, Journal of American History

“Duggan has an admirable command of the multiple discourses which contexture reality. . . . With a helpful sense of irony [she] warns about the power of mass media and the narratives we construct for our tragedies today.” — Lauren Dockett, Girlfriends

“Duggan makes imaginative use of a celebrated murder case in late-nineteenth-century Memphis, Tennessee, to examine the emergence of the lesbian romance narrative and its power both to ascribe meaning to and set parameters for white, middle-class, heterosexual courtship and marriage. . . . [A] well-written and engaging account that deals with an aspect of American society and culture that has yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves.” — E. Susan Barber, North Carolina Historical Review

“Duggan presents an extensive study of the 1892 murder in Memphis. . . . A compelling read, this book presents a tremendous amount of primary-source material. . . .” — Library Journal

“Duggan’s Sapphic Slashers explains how various forces in American culture worked with and against each other in creating a turn-of-the-century subject, in this case the lesbian love murder. Americans would do well to pay attention to these same forces in our own era that help define how we imagine sexuality, love, race and violence.” — Elizabeth Reis , Sexualities

“In placing the story in a larger context, Duggan asks important questions. . . . [S]he has included part of the local press coverage and letters between Alice and Freda as valuable appendices.” — Perre Magness , Commercial Appeal

“Lisa Duggan’s wonderful new book charts a departure from the genre of US lesbian and gay social history. . . . [Her] emphasis on cultural analysis ushers lesbian and gay studies onto fertile new ground.” — Nan Alamilla Boyd , Women's Review of Books

“With a brilliant yet accessible prose style that sexily straddles the academic divide, Duggan places the almost-forgotten murder at the root of 20th-century American mass culture’s fascination with the figure of the homicidal lesbian. . . . [E]minently readable and bloodily compelling. . . .” — Bethany Schneider, Out

"Duggan provides a dense and broad reading. . . . Duggan has given us an important book that is required reading for anyone interested in how discourses of race and sexuality shape our modern perceptions." — Roberta C. Martin , NWSA Journal

"Duggan writes beautifully and has produced a book of wide scope. Each chapter . . . is informative, historiographically synthetic, and a great read." — Stephanie H. Kenen , Law and History Review

"Duggan's treatment of the Mitchell-Ward case itself is solid, insightful, often gripping and well-written, and the ensuing discussion of the scientific and literary construction of lesbianism is similarly commendable. It is also refreshing to read a book about the cultural history of the United States that acknowledges and incorporates influences and legacies from beyond its own borders, something that is still all too rare, especially in studies that involve the media." — Barbara M. Freeman , H-Net Reviews

"In less capable hands, [Alice Mitchell's] story, or rather the stories produced about her, would merit at most a footnote in histories of the period. In Duggan's hands, these stories help us to understand the operations of power and knowledge in American society, then and now." — Marc Stein , American Historical Review

“A book to die for! Theoretically sophisticated, yet written with clarity and elegance, Sapphic Slashers opens whole new worlds of understanding about sexuality, gender norms, racial injustice, violence, and the complex ways they are connected. Full of passion and intelligence, it made me think in fresh new ways about issues of great importance. Duggan’s is an amazing intellect.” — John D’Emilio, coauthor of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America

“Duggan seamlessly combines cultural theory with analyses of material conditions and demonstrates a breathtaking command of American cultural institutions—the mass press, the judicial systems, the medical literature. The book is not only smart about the interconnections between gender, sex, race, class, and nation, but is also lucid, making a good read.” — Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, author of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community

“In this stunningly coherent and compelling account of the development of ‘American modernity,’ Duggan captures our interest with the sensational tale of lesbian love murder but then insists that we read this tale through turn-of-the-century debates over racial violence and against the backdrop of the medicalization of homosexuality. Sapphic Slashers has ‘classic’ written all over it.” — Jack Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity

“What Duggan does in this original and moving book is take a murder case from 1890’s Memphis and make of it a prism through which to illuminate American modernity. Her method depends less on an account of the murder or of the judicial procedure that followed it than on an analysis of the many narratives—of lesbian love and sex and madness—that the case occasioned. Juxtaposing these narratives to narratives of lynching, Duggan produces a tour-de-force of historical understanding.” — Henry Abelove, Wesleyan University


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Price: $27.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lisa Duggan is Associate Professor of American Studies and History at New York University. She is coauthor of Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture and coeditor of Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and National Interest.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part I Murder in Memphis

1. Girl Slays Girl 9

2. A Feast of Sensation 32

3. Habeas Corpus 61

4. Inquisition of Lunacy 87

Part II Making Meanings

5. Violent Passions 123

6. Doctors of Desire 156

7. A Thousand Stories 180

More Than Love: An Epilogue 193

Appendix A: Hypothetical Case 201

Appendix B: Letters 213

Notes 233

Bibliography 281

Index 299
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2001 John Boswell Prize, Committee on Lesbian and Gay History (an affiliated society of the American Historical Association)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2617-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2609-0
Publicity material