Hurston/Wright Legacy Award-Winner: Racial Politics and Murder in Post-Reconstruction Philadelphia

Book review: Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso, by Kali Nicole Gross

In 1887, in a pond just outside of Philadelphia, the dismembered torso of a man was discovered, triggering a search that eventually led to Hannah Mary Tabbs, a Maryland native and seemingly very unpleasant lady, according to many who knew her. She had been, quite scandalously for a black woman in 19th century Philadelphia, committing adultery with the deceased, a mixed-race man of deceptively light skin tone, Waite Gaines.

The man pictured with Hannah on the cover is not the owner of the disembodied torso in question, rather it’s her accomplice in the murder and/or the perpetrator of it himself, George Wilson. Gaines, the victim, and his death received an unusual amount of attention because his race was initially ambiguous. If he’d been clearly seen as black from the start, it’s implied that the case wouldn’t have been pursued as aggressively at it was. Wilson was also light-skinned, prompting further public and police interest in the overall situation.

I was motivated to read this (it’d been languishing on my to-read list for awhile) after seeing that it won the 2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction, honoring the work of black American writers. Quoting the judges: “This book is a marvel. It accomplishes the very difficult task of weaving together a brutal story of murder while simultaneously creating empathy for the circumstances of the killer–a black woman trying to negotiate her own position in a society that has in turn, brutalized her. Tabbs thus reflects the condition of black women writ large at the turn of the 19th century–she is neither a hero, nor an anti-hero, yet, altogether riveting in her life-story.”

That’s some lofty praise. Enough to make me pick it up right away.

And it brings us to the greater topic covered in this story – race in the post-Civil War era, specifically in the Pennsylvania-Maryland region that had a split history in terms of being slave versus free, North versus South. That part was fascinating, mostly overshadowing the crime story as a whole. This is because so much more concrete information is available about the racial makeup and social statuses of the time, unlike about the case itself, which Gross pieces together mainly through court and public records.

Some of these archival documents are excellent, like detectives’ notes and trial transcripts, which normally I hate reading. But too many of them were drier. Telling a story with primary sources such as addresses and marriage records can get a little dull, and unfortunately this one did stray there at times.

But as the book is fairly short, it remains mostly compelling and is easily finished even if some sections are less than fascinating.

More bothersome is that Tabbs is repeatedly described as violent, famously and frighteningly so – her neighbors and acquaintances come forth in droves to repeat rumors of how violent and scary she is. But aside from the assertions of her “niece”, Annie Richardson, that her aunt beat her, there wasn’t any concrete evidence shown of her nasty nature.

The circumstances of the murder are murky, but Gross lays out clearly her theory of what happened. And through various witness testimonies and those from Tabbs and Wilson, it does seem fairly clear what must’ve transpired. It’s an interesting case and the social politics were the most enlightening element. Tabbs demonstrates a lot about what black women faced in this time, even with slavery a thing of the past, and how they adapted to social conventions and expectations. In the above quote from the judges, I think they put it best: she’s neither hero nor anti-hero, but she serves as a fascinating example of her place and time.

Often the validity of facts, or a given side’s story, rested substantially on how well witnesses and defendants executed, frequently to dramatic effect, mainstream notions of race, gender, and sexuality – at least as determined by the white men tasked with rendering verdicts.

Gross also interestingly explores the forensics in use at the time, and it’s surprising what advanced state they were in considering that another topic is how skin color was generally viewed:

Depicting blackness as a potentially contagious disease revealed the height of white social paranoia as well as the role that science and medical research could play in stoking those fears. 

Blackness was considered potentially contagious, because they still weren’t quite sure what “caused” it, yet they medical science had taken some considerable leaps and bounds in terms of determining things about a death, like whether a person had been alive when cuts were made to their body. I found this whole juxtaposition of science and pseudoscience very interesting and well-done.

Historically important and mostly engaging, heavily-researched work shedding light on elements of the African-American experience in both everyday life and headline-grabbing crime in post-Reconstruction America.
My rating: 3/5

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

published February 3, 2016 by Oxford University Press

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository, a great site offering free worldwide shipping. 
It means I get a small commission (at no extra expense to you) if you buy via these links.
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