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A True Tale of Adultery, Murder, and Dismemberment in Black Women's History

Kali Nicole Gross

Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History, Rutgers University

The torso discovered on the bank of a pond just outside of Philadelphia was headless and limbless.  The head had been severed at the fourth vertebra, one arm had been chopped off at the joint, the other cut crudely through the shoulder; the midsection had been sawed midway so that the distended bowels protruded.  Blood leaked from the exposed orifices and the trunk had been wrapped in heavy brown paper marked, “Handle with care.”

While the sex of the victim was readily discernable, his race was not.  Some believed it to be the body part of a “Chinamen,” others a “Spaniard or an Italian”; the ambiguity around whether the torso might belong to a white man would spur a feverish hunt for whomever might be responsible.  Without the use of well-placed surveillance cameras, CSI teams, fingerprint or DNA evidence, investigators zeroed in on two suspects: a 37-year-old black Maryland migrant named Hannah Mary Tabbs and an 18-year-old “mulatto” named George Wilson.

Revolving around a volatile love triangle in 1887, the torso case took center stage in newspapers across the nation and cast a rare light onto the inner lives of everyday black men and women.  It also showed how they understood and experienced the criminal justice system.  The investigation and trial—and its fairly shocking outcome—rendered taboo subjects such as intraracial violence, adultery, and illicit sex popular press topics for mainstream consumption.  Newspapers across the country covered the story—leaving behind a rich narrative of the intricacies of the case; often with lurid titles proclaiming shocking revelations.

The woman at the heart of the matter, Hannah Mary Tabbs, proved to be as fascinating as she was elusive.  Whereas Tabbs appeared to follow the expected social mores of her day—chastity and morality—her actions, those made public during the investigation, showed that instead she operated under a different set of values entirely, as she used brutality and intimidation to control those around her, in her home and in her neighborhood.  Her relationships with the victim, members of her family, and those in her community had been marked by violence—violence often initiated by Tabbs herself.  

Yet despite her substantial record of bad acts in the black community, she had no prior arrest record and a solid history of steady employment in white homes.  These factors suggest that Tabbs knew how to control herself in the white world.  It also shows that she was well aware of the consequences that would follow if she breeched expected social mores there; at the same time, her cognizance also reveals her understating of the black community’s inability to access protection or justice in the same way.  

Violence and racial profiling were considered routine parts of policing in the late nineteenth century.  In cities like Philadelphia, an urban center that witnessed the increased migration of newly freed southern blacks as well as ongoing European immigration, officers routinely stopped and detained people they believed did not belong—whether that meant in the city itself or in certain neighborhoods.  African Americans, southern migrants in particular, were vulnerable to these unlawful searches and were targeted not only for being in the wrong place but also if they were traveling with goods that officers did not believe that they owned.  

This is an era where confessions were beaten out of suspects, male and female, and for black female suspects, threats of sexual violence loomed.  In the case of a black woman accused of murdering a white man in the early twentieth century, masked detectives interrogated the woman, and she testified that while their faces were covered, she could still see their eyes—eyes that were looking her all over.  In the torso case, Tabbs herself bore signs of having been abused while in custody: a black eye she had at the time she was first apprehended was more pronounced following her arrest; some of her clothes were torn; and she had been moved from her cell in the middle of the night.  After that night, Tabbs made a “confession” in which she implicated George Wilson; he, too, claimed to have been victimized while in police custody.

Yet while most African Americans sought to avoid police altogether, the torso case marks an apparent shift from this practice, as a bevy of everyday black women and men cooperated with police and offered testimony against a woman whom they feared.  Characterizing Hannah Mary Tabbs as the quintessential neighborhood menace, the accounts contained surprising revelations about extramarital sex and violence.  Tabbs seemed to wield violence not only to terrorize those in her community but also to safeguard her own more illicit pursuits, namely an intimate relationship with the victim.  That she used her ability to intimidate and cajole to grant herself greater autonomy—particularly when it came to sexual pleasure—complicates matters.  Much of the post-emancipation period finds black women closeting their sexuality in an effort to stave off violent assaults, but that Tabbs used her fearsome tactics, in part, for sexual pursuits offers a rare vantage for reconsidering black female sexuality.

Without question, Hannah Mary Tabbs is a polarizing figure, and her role in the torso case as well as the story itself is hauntingly fraught, but it also points to layered intersections of race, gender, and sexuality as well as violence and policing that hold important truths about the past and the present.

Kali Nicole Gross is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University. Her research concentrates on black women’s experiences in the United States criminal justice system between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is author of the award-winning book, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910 (Duke University Press, 2006), and Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America (Oxford University Press, 2016). The latter recently won the 2017 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction. Dr. Gross’s writing frequently explores how historical legacies of race, gender, and justice shape mass incarceration today. She has been featured on C-SPAN2’s Book TV, NPR, and a number of radio and television programs internationally and domestically. Her short essays and opinion pieces have been featured in BBC News, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Root, Warscapes, Ebony, Truthout, New Black Man (In Exile), The American Prospect, and Jet.

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