Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America - Kali Nicole Gross

Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso

by Kali Nichole Gross


"We do not have many stories of individual women who lived for themselves and did not put the race or their children or families first. And we certainly do not have tales about African American women who were very good at being very bad. Enter Hannah Mary Tabbs."

Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso uses a once-notorious but now-forgotten scandal as the framework for a deep exploration into racism, sexism, and police procedure of the time. The case of the disembodied torso itself is so outrageous that it neatly captivates the reader's attention into a story no less suspenseful than informative.


The story opens in 1887 when a disembodied torso is found wrapped in a package. Racial identity is immediately critical: if the torso had not initially been believed to belong to a white man, it would not have gained so much notoriety or police attention. The torso is eventually identified as that of Wakefield Gaines, a light-complexioned African American, supposedly due to the presence of "pigments that are found only in the skin of an African"-- an utterly false statement which demonstrates the prejudices of the time.


Gross deftly delves into the backdrop for the case: post-Civil-War turmoil led to increased migration of blacks from South to North, which in turn increased tensions within the African American community. I found the book very thoroughly researched; the footnotes and references comprise about a third of the text and are well worth the read. Even though the north had fought for abolition, most had no sense that blacks were in any way equal to whites. Deep fears of "miscegenation" led to even greater racism against light-skinned blacks. As Gross notes,

"The term mulatto, rooted in the Spanish word for mule (the sterile progeny of a horse and a donkey), reinforces those racist ideas and helped spawn scientific discourses that marked mulattoes as particularly degenerate."

As interactions between blacks and whites increased, so did racial hysteria in the north. An 1880 Philadelphia Times piece captured the mood of the era, describing blackness in terms that made it sound like "a potentially contagious disease."


As Gross discusses, the police system in Philadelphia was at that time undergoing systemic change that caused further racial stratification. The judicial system had been recently changed from a

"Fee-based, citizen-initiated arrests and prosecutions--which had granted black people a measure of power in judicial proceedings--to the process where police made the arrests and prosecutors determined which charges, if any, would be tried."

In fact, Gross introduces evidence that this transition itself occurred in part because it would remove the ability of "blacks and other social outcasts" to "clog" the courts. The recently-instituted "professional criminals act" attempted crime prevention by disregarding civil liberties: it allowed the imprisonment of anyone suspicious or anyone considered part of the "crime class" without trial or evidence. Officers who failed to arrest a criminal when a crime occurred on their beat were to be suspended. Officers therefore tended to arrest arbitrary black men who were seen in "strange neighborhoods," contributing to distrust between the police and the African American community.


Into this uneasy atmosphere enters Hannah Mary Tabbs. While she outwardly assumed a mantle of respectability, she flouted the mores of her era, carrying on an affair with a much younger man. At a time when 72% of black women tried by the courts of Philadelphia were found guilty, Tabbs would have known that wit and wiles would be required to extricate herself from the consequences. Her first act was to cast herself as frail and modest to try to escape the typical characterization of black women as "savage, sexually lascivious 'colored amazons'--hulking, jet-black figures that jeopardized white urban life." Her second was to implicate her apparent accomplice.


George Wilson himself was a rather simple young man with a fondness for notoriety. His light skin and features, which gave him the ability to "pass," quickly damned him in public opinion. News stories portrayed him as duplicitous and "aloof"--coding for "uppity." His photograph--and the fact that his story involved him standing and talking with"some white fellows"-- stirred "fears of infiltration". The police treated him with hostility and violence, and repeatedly "perp-walked" him to and from court. Wilson's past didn't help either, as he had spent his childhood in Philadelphia's House of Refuge for Colored Youth. Incarcerated by his family for supposed "incorrigibility," as Gross points out, this was probably simply "coded language for [...] abject poverty."


Throughout, Tabbs harnessed the expectations and prejudices of those around her. As Gross puts it,

"It is as if somewhere along the way, she embraced the nihilism of the era; she accepted that the rules were fixed and that if she really wanted to live, in any remote sense of that word, as a working-class black woman in that time, she would have to adopt a duplicitous relationship with the tenets of morality--particularly the moral rhetoric dictated by those who had arguably benefitted the most from violence, avarice, and individual pursuits."

Gross argues that Tabbs embraced the violence she would have observed and experienced during her early life in the South. Many of Tabbs' neighbors later accused her of brutality, but while Gross takes this as gospel truth, given the context, I'm unconvinced. From the outset, Gross herself is adamant that Tabbs committed the murder. I think Gross wants Tabbs to be the murderer and the supposed accomplice to be an innocent victim. While it's obviously possible, there isn't really proof either way, and I'd rather the narrative treat the case more evenly.


In the end, I think the most fascinating part of the story, and the aspect that Gross focuses on, is how Wilson and Gaines demonstrate "how whiteness could shape black men's access to justice." The strange social construction of whiteness and blackness is absolutely crucial to the case, as are the suspects' abilities to play the roles society has assigned them. Yet even so, as Gross notes:

"Much of Tabb's behavior contests her 'rightlessness' as a black woman and exists as a searing marker of it. Against the shadow of enslavement and the protracted denial of black citizenship by virtue of white racial violence, Tabbs somehow managed to see her own desires as worth fighting for [...] yet that she had to go to such lengths to have a measure of agency also underscores her powerlessness."

When violence was "usually the only reason for the existence of a historical record of a black woman's life," Tabbs' story provides a fascinating glimpse into a tense period of complex and rapidly solidifying institutionalized racism.


~~I received an advanced reader copy of this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Oxford University Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final published version, I believe they reflect the spirit of the book as a whole. Typos are mine.~~