Winner of the 2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction
Hannah Mary Tabbs and The Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America
Shortly after a dismembered torso was discovered by a pond outside Philadelphia in 1887, investigators homed in on two suspects: Hannah Mary Tabbs, a married, working class, black woman, and George Wilson, a former neighbor that Tabbs implicated after her arrest.
As details surrounding the shocking case emerged, both the crime and ensuing trial—which spanned several months—were featured in the national press. The trial brought otherwise taboo subjects such as illicit sex, adultery, and domestic violence in the black community to public attention. At the same time, the mixed race of the victim and one of his assailants exacerbated anxieties over the purity of whiteness in the post-Reconstruction era.
In Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso, historian Kali Nicole Gross uses detectives' notes, trial and prison records, local newspapers, and other archival documents to reconstruct this ghastly who-done-it true crime in all its scandalous detail. In doing so, she gives the crime context by analyzing it against broader evidence of police treatment of black suspects and violence within the black community.
Winner of the 2006 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize
Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910
Colored Amazons is a groundbreaking historical analysis of the crimes, prosecution, and incarceration of black women in Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century. Kali N. Gross reconstructs black women’s crimes and their representations in popular press accounts and within the discourses of urban and penal reform. Most importantly, she considers what these crimes signified about the experiences, ambitions, and frustrations of the marginalized women who committed them. Gross argues that the perpetrators and the state jointly constructed black female crime. For some women, crime functioned as a means to attain personal and social autonomy. For the state, black female crime and its representations effectively galvanized and justified a host of urban reform initiatives that reaffirmed white, middle-class authority.
Gross draws on prison records, trial transcripts, news accounts, and rare mug shot photographs. Providing an overview of Philadelphia’s black women criminals, she describes the women’s work, housing, and leisure activities and their social position in relation to the city’s native-born whites, European immigrants, and elite and middle-class African Americans. She relates how news accounts exaggerated black female crime, trading in sensationalistic portraits of threatening “colored Amazons,” and she considers criminologists’ interpretations of the women’s criminal acts, interpretations largely based on notions of hereditary criminality. Ultimately, Gross contends that the history of black female criminals is in many ways a history of the rift between the political rhetoric of democracy and the legal and social realities of those marginalized by its shortcomings.