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Winner of the 2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction

What Reviewers Are Saying


"Historian Kali Nicole Gross digs up the jaw-dropping case of Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso. Hollywood folks, if you're reading this, get the script ready for Viola Davis or Lynn Whitfield. This unsettling story of Tabbs, a married, working-class Black woman, who carries on a torrid affair, ends in a gruesome murder that rivals Lizzie Borden's legend."—Essence Magazine 


"Gross examines the intersections of race and gender in 19th-century Philadelphia in this dynamic and powerfully rendered account of the 1887 trial of Hannah Mary Tabbs...Gross builds suspense through descriptions of gruesome crime scene and details of witness testimonies, all the while filling the reader in on the intricate racial politics surrounding the case...Gross's in-depth accounts of the police brutality, forced confessions, and science-based forensics involved in the case feel surprisingly modern."—Publishers Weekly


"Gross delivers a narrative that informs the reader of the cultural mindset of the late 1880's.  She explains that existing racial, gender and age presumptions of the time, as well as its law enforcement and judicial system leanings.  Best of all the author produces a thought-provoking story."—Booksie 


"Gross provides disturbing insight into the late 19th century, including the treatment and depiction of African Americans, issues of domestic violence, and the textured currents of race relations, while also providing a compelling story told through thoughtful and skilled narration."—Library Journal


"It's the type of tale you don't often hear during Black History Month: the biography of an antiheroine who made her way in the world through violence, deception, and adultery. It's also a true-crime story told nearly 130 years after the fact - culminating in the century-late exoneration of a man who, Gross argues, was framed for murder...In uncovering the story, [Gross] shed light on the tense race relations of the time: Tabbs' vulnerable place under the law as a black woman, and Wilson's still-more-tenuous status as a light-skinned interracial man."—Philadelphia Inquirer


"Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso is an engrossing whodunit and a gripping read with a suitably ambiguous ending that is not easy to forget."—New York Journal of Books


"In following this specific, enthralling case from a time after the Civil War and before current tensions between police departments and communities of color, Gross connects the criminal justice system of the Reconstruction era with both its roots and where it ended up. Academic but accessible, this smart story is an absolute page-turner."—BUST Magazine  


"Gross explores the life and crimes of this fascinating woman. Gross details this murder and dismemberment resulting from a love triangle gone wrong, and explores the lives of blacks and mulattoes in post-Reconstruction Philadelphia."—QRB: The Black Book Review


"Using this 1887 murder of a mixed race victim as a starting point, Kali Nicole Gross explores America's complicated history with race, sex and violence.  Gross meticulously dissected the detective and trial notes to recount the story of a love triangle gone terribly wrong, with race and the aftermath of slavery playing a central role."—Metro


"In prose that demonstrates careful research and offers a realistic reconstruction of the crime, Gross comments on social standards for morality and relationships between races and genders. The case of the disembodied torso is not only a sensational piece of true crime, but an opportunity to reflect on these continuing complexities."—Shelf Awareness


"A sordid murder reveals beliefs about race, sex, and justice in post-Civil War Philadelphia. Historian Gross draws on police and prison records, witness testimony, newspapers, and other archival sources to produce a thorough, absorbing examination of the crime, its context, and the two people tried."—Kirkus Reviews


“This is a disturbing book, not only because the story swirls around a most gruesome murder, or because Hannah Mary Tabbs executed her crime with cold-blooded resolve and cinematic flair, or because its spellbinding narrative will leave you breathless at times.  Rather, this is a disturbing book because Kali N. Gross disturbs all of our inherited categories, proving once again that woman, man, black, white, agency, evidence, truth, even justice, are too small for the historical subjects whose lives we wish to know.   This is why Kali N. Gross is one of the most original and imaginative historians of her generation.”—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original


“Kali Gross is one of the smartest historians around these days.  And she’s the most uncompromising in her commitment to discovering and telling true stories about fierce and fascinating lives--stories that illuminate the flaws running right through the rock of American history. You’ll discover more than just the identity of the disembodied torso in the tale Gross spins about Hannah Mary Tabbs—but you’ll discover that, too.”—Edward E. Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism


“Kali Gross has written a riveting narrative of the crimes of an ordinary but notorious woman in late nineteenth-century urban America. She does not flinch from the harsh truths her subject forces her to face. She sketches a portrait with the complexity and sensitivity it deserves.  The book bristles with lessons for understanding vulnerable communities and their engagement with the criminal justice system today.”—Tera Hunter, author of To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War

Available for purchase from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Oxford University Press.


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 rigorously researched and lively written account of Black women’s circulation through Philadelphia’s criminal justice system in the decades after Reconstruction and offers a compelling history of punishment and of the evolution of racism at the turn of the twentieth century. . . . It would be a wonderful addition to courses on Black women’s history, urban studies, or penal studies.” — Courtney Denine Marshall, Women’s Studies

“[A] must read for those wishing to fully investigate the inner workings of freedom and justice in America. Colored Amazons serves the important purpose of suggesting how much more we have to learn from the way crime and criminalization operate in society. Gross has demonstrated the power of crime as a social prism, and Colored Amazons will both inform and inspire scholars.” — Shawn Leigh Alexander, Journal of American History

“[T]he depth and empathy of Gross’s analysis, coupled with her smooth writing style, make this work an outstanding contribution to African American studies, women’s history, criminology, and legal studies. For scholars and graduate students in these disciplines, Colored Amazons is well worth the time and effort.” — De Anna J. Reese, Canadian Journal of History

“Gross’s innovative work is exceptional for its position in the historiography of black women’s history, brilliant use of source material, and noble application of social history. . . . Colored Amazons is not only for academic audiences but also for public policy analysts, legal professionals, and people who are interested in understanding how the complexities of race, gender, and class affect America’s ideology on crime and prison reform. . . . [It] is a remarkable study.” — Sylvea Hollis, H-Net Reviews

“In this deeply researched account of fin-de-si`ecle Philadelphia, Kali Gross combines social and cultural history. . . . Gross’s arguments are enhanced in the detailed compilation and analysis of arrest, conviction and prison records, especially those from Eastern State Penitentiary. She has mined the tedious, but rich material found in the convict registers, warden’s journals and prison docket books of the most important sites of incarceration to draw a nuanced profile of black female criminality.” — Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Gender and History

“Kali N. Gross’s Colored Amazons . . . is a well-documented study that provides demographic data on the crimes, class, and geographic origins of Philadelphia’s black female population. But this study is also much more. It offers the reader a glimpse into the social milieu of the world in which these women lived, worked, and committed crimes, and it contextualizes it within the discourses of urban and penal reform. . . . Scholars interested in urban studies, criminal justice, African American studies, sociology, and women’s studies will find Colored Amazons essential reading.” — Lillian Serece Williams, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

“Readers will agree that this book is a valuable contribution to the dialectic surrounding history, politics, and culture. . . . This book will be of interest to persons seeking to understand the impact of the criminal justice system on female inmates, and offers potential remedies for the disproportionate rate of black female incarceration. . . . Kali Gross has presented a well-researched and carefully argued investigation of female criminality.” — Floris Barnett Cash, The Journal of African American History

“While few records survive from inmates themselves, the author effectively deconstructs criminal justice and media sources to recreate the larger context in which they struggled to survive and gain agency. . . . Well researched and written.” — J. Borchert, Choice

Available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Duke University Press.