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.
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.
Gross, K.N. and Hicks, C.D. “Introduction.” Gendering the Carceral State: African American Women, History, and Criminal Justice. A Special Issue, Journal of African American History, Guest Eds. K.N. Gross and C.D. Hicks, Vol. 100, No. 3 (Summer 2015).
Gross, K.N. “African American Women, Mass Incarceration and the Politics of Protection,” Special Issue: Historians and the Carceral State, The Journal of American History, Vol. 102, No. 1 (June 2015): 25-33.
Gross, K.N. “Exploring Crime and Violence in Early 20th Century Black Women’s History,” in Contesting Archives: Historians Develop Methodologies for Finding Women in the Sources. Eds. Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry Katz, and Betsy Perry. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010: 56-71.