I find it fascinating to compare “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred & Allie” to the way the story was received at the time it happened. Livingston’s essay was published this year, in a society that’s beginning to accept same-sex marriage. Yet the case occurred in a time and place where same-sex attraction was considered by medical professionals to be a perversion, unthinkable to common, decent men. As such, it was major national news. Three years after the fact, an Alice Mitchell article led the second page of a San Francisco paper. The news at that time was, yes she’s insane, but she likes men too. The murder ballad of the incident, “Alice Mitchell and Freddy Ward,” denies their love outright, and says it was a killing over a man. But if it was, would it have been news? Would it be remembered?
One of the things that struck on the first reading of the essay was the line, “But who would have remembered it then, a man killing his wife?” Sad to say, that’s too mundane to be memorable. A female slasher is news, and a female killing another over a doomed love affair is the stuff of national headlines. But there’s another line in the essay, when Alice is whining of her heartbreak to the cook, who responds, “at least you have plenty of money.” That’s probably just as important in making the story significant. They’re both society girls, from the best of families. If they were poor immigrants living in tenements in NYC, would the public have noticed? Would the motive had mattered?