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Sep 07

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On January 25th, 1892, a young Memphis teen named Alice Mitchell allegedly attacked her former “girl lover,” Freda Ward, with a knife, slitting her throat.  Her motivation?  Perverted love sickness, according to the feverish press coverage that began locally but quickly spread across the state, and then the country.  American readers, it turned out, were fascinated by the prospect of female sexual deviance at the turn of the century, at a time when young women were first entering public life en masse as workers, consumers, and sexual agents, increasingly bending the rules of traditional gender roles.The trial sparked the production of hundreds of lurid articles about the two lovers (“Girl Slays Girl”!), medical studies on the disputed topic of Ward’s insanity, folk ballads and a whole raft of other cultural products detailed in Lisa Duggan’s brilliant Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. It ultimately culminated in Mitchell’s conviction, followed by her psychiatric hospitalization, with the judge calling the crime “the most atrocious and malignant ever perpetrated by a woman.”

Just one year later, America was gripped by an even more sensationalized trial: that of Lizzie Borden, a young woman from Fall River, Massachusetts, charged with killing her father and stepmother with a hatchet.  Borden’s case, too, sparked a veritable cottage industry of commentary, with hundreds of reporters covering each twist in the trial and dozens more writing books about Borden’s surprising acquittal.  Again, speculation after the trial was rife about Borden’s sexual identity (was she dating female silent film star Nance O’Neil?!), as well as her sanity.More than a century later, Borden still features in children’s jump rope rhymes (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/and gave her mother forty whacks…”), academic dissertations, award-winning documentaries, themed bed-and-breakfast retreats and a well-reviewed punk rock musical, “Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe.” Most recently, HBO announced the development of a mini-series based around the lurid murder, starring Hollywood it-girl Chloe Sevigny, who apparently regards Borden as a “countercultural icon.”

How did Patty Hearst cross the line from being a perfect girl-victim to an unforgivable girl-perpetrator?  Around 9 pm on February 4th, 1974, the 19-year-old heiress to the Hearst family publishing fortune was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California, where she sat with her fiancé in her blue bathrobe.  After ten weeks of captivity in the hands of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), Hearst was photographed participating in the armed robbery of a San Francisco bank; in a stunning turnaround, she appeared to have joined her captors as a self-proclaimed “urban guerilla.”  Next came a sensational courtroom drama that many deemed “the trial of the century,” in which Hearst was found guilty of bank robbery despite pleas of having been brainwashed and sexually traumatized by the SLA.