Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 536-539
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Sex, Violence, and American Modernity
Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. By Lisa Duggan. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. Pp. 280. $17.95 (paper).
Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity is Lisa Duggan's eagerly awaited, book-length study of the trials of Alice Mitchell. First introduced to historians in Jonathan Ned Katz's Gay American History (1976), Alice Mitchell achieved infamy in her own day following her January 1892 murder of her romantic female companion, Freda Ward. There was never any question whether Mitchell was guilty of the crime, but in the ensuing trial and extensive newspaper coverage a series of competing perspectives emerged that debated Mitchell's mental state and considered whether she should be imprisoned or placed in an insane asylum. By the end of 1892, Mitchell was interned in a state mental institution in Tennessee, where she remained until her death in 1898.
Lisa Duggan, a professor of American studies at New York University, began her research on the Mitchell trial while a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her initial findings appeared in her dissertation, "The Trials of Alice Mitchell: Sensationalism, Sexology, and the Lesbian Subject in Turn-of-the-Century America" (1992), and were published, in abbreviated form, in the journal Signs in 1993. Sapphic Slashers, however, differs greatly from her previously published work on the trials. While Duggan's article in Signs demonstrates how evidence from the trial revealed the processes by which lesbian identity was constructed in the late nineteenth century, the book focuses on the construction of whiteness, the representation of racial violence, and the configuration of American modernity. In the introduction, Duggan writes that the book is "a study of the emergence and circulation of the cultural narrative of lesbian love murder at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States" (p. 2). Moreover, by recounting the multiple narratives about a shocking crime committed over a century ago, Duggan seeks to demonstrate "(1) in general terms, how narrative technologies of sex and violence have been deployed to privatize and marginalize populations, political projects, and cultural concerns in the United States, promoting the substitution of moral pedagogy for public debate and (2) in specific terms, how the lesbian love murder was racialized at the turn of the century in relation to other narratives animating social and political conflict" (p. 3). [End Page 536]
The book is organized into two sections, each of which analyzes narratives constructed about the trial and their articulation of or influence on American modernity. The first section, "Murder in Memphis," examines the immediate social, cultural, and geographic context for the committing of the crime and the criminal and lunacy trials that followed. Looking at the site of the crime, the first chapter argues that the rise of racial violence and the antilynching campaign led by Ida B. Wells in Memphis provide the most useful context for interpreting why the murder of Freda Ward by Alice Mitchell became such a sensation. Duggan writes, "for all [Wells's and Mitchell's] differences, their separation in historical accounts obscures our vision of the history that shapes twentieth-century U.S. modernity" (p. 13). In other words, Duggan claims that the narratives surrounding the actions of both Wells and Mitchell highlight the degree to which access to power was contingent upon the established hierarchies of the day: white over black, male over female, gender normative over gender transgressive, wealthy over poor, and heterosexual over homosexual. According to Duggan, the simultaneous construction of the "black beast rapist and the homicidal lesbian" served to reinforce these social inequalities by loudly articulating the need to protect the white home (p. 30). Having established the main themes of the book, Duggan eases into a consideration of the multiple narratives of sex, violence, race, and gender that emerged from Mitchell's trials. Chapter 2 begins with an enlightening discussion of the mass circulation press and then examines how that institution told Mitchell...