This article was originally published by The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), and is reprinted here with permission.
This month I interviewed Kali Nicole Gross about her new book, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso (Oxford University Press, 2016). Dr. Gross is Professor of African American Studies at Wesleyan 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, and the newly released Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America. Dr. Gross’s writing frequently explores how historical legacies of race, gender, and justice shape mass incarceration today. Dr. Gross 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, EbonyTruthout, New Black Man (In Exile), The American Prospect, and Jet.
Ashley Farmer (AF): This book tells the fascinating story of Hannah Mary Tabbs, a married, working-class, black woman who was suspected of committing a gruesome murder in Philadelphia in 1887. What led you to write about Tabbs and this case?
Kali Nicole Gross (KNG): Hannah Mary Tabbs’s involvement in the murder and dismemberment fascinated me. I confess that I was initially drawn in by the more salacious details—the love triangle, adultery, sex, violence, murder—but the more I read about the case, the more intrigued I became. I was especially curious about how she navigated society and the criminal justice system as an everyday black woman who clearly had passions that were beyond customary notions of respectability and mainstream social mores.
AF: In the Prologue, you mention that you found yourself “yearning for histories that permit black women to be fully visible, fully legible, fully human, and thus vulnerable, damaged, and flawed.” How do you see Tabbs’s story reflecting the spectrum of black women’s experiences?
KNG: Hannah Mary Tabbs existed at a key crossroads; she danced along the axes of the mundane and the extraordinary. She was a married black woman who worked as a domestic like the vast majority of black women in Philadelphia in 1887. She had migrated from Maryland to the city, and this, too, was quite common, as the two largest groups of black migrants in the city hailed from Maryland and Virginia. She also lived in the Seventh Ward, which housed the largest concentration of blacks in Philadelphia. That she simultaneously negotiated some kind of extramarital sexual arrangement with her husband, that she relied so heavily on violence to create personal space, and that she, at least, participated in a murder and dismemberment make her stand out from the rest.
Hannah Mary Tabbs’s life supports a more in-depth look at the complexities and the range of stressors that impact everyday black women’s lives. While we know that the overwhelming majority of black women did not transgress social boundaries in the ways that Hannah Mary Tabbs did, her existence, nonetheless, maps the extremities. Tabbs’s life experiences also gesture toward some of the reasons why.
I have always struggled with the tension between black women’s history of rape, brutality, and marginalization and the scholarly emphasis on triumph, achievement, and respectability. It isn’t that I don’t think these histories matter—they absolutely do and reflect our people’s survival for sure—but the relative one-sidedness often eclipses the human costs of trauma. I have always found it supremely unfair, and unrealistic, for black folks to have suffered and endured as much as we have without also having the space to be harmed by it lest we get depicted as congenitally pathological; somehow black folk are to have emerged from these atrocities fully whole and unscathed. For me, there is an erasure of our humanity in that—and Tabbs represents a departure from black women having to be clean, shiny, and whole. Perhaps it’s ironic, but I see her life as a testament to black womanhood in real flesh-and-blood terms—a living, breathing human with desires, rage, passions, yearning and, quite likely, a host of unresolved issues.
AF: The book tells the riveting story of how Tabbs, and her fellow murder suspect George Wilson, navigated Philadelphia, the murder charge, and trial. However, it is also a story about race, class, and gender in the post-Reconstruction era. How do you see this case, and Tabbs’ role in it, reshaping our understandings of the late 19th century?
KNG: Thanks for the kind words about the narrative; it means so much to me. And thanks also for this question. My hope is that this case will spark more interest in inconvenient histories about black women and black people, particularly because this case also brings the full legacy of racist police practices into high relief. During the investigation and trial we see evidence of racial profiling, police brutality, and coerced confessions—things that we are still battling today. This aspect of the work helps diagram the historical estrangement between black communities and law enforcement.
AF: In Chapter 5 you document Tabbs’s and Wilson’s trial. You show how the courtroom functioned as a performance space and that their freedom hinged on how well the “defendants executed … mainstream notions of race, gender and sexuality.” Could you briefly describe Tabbs’s performance in the courtroom and what it tells us about how she navigated the world she lived in?
KNG: One of the things that became apparent during the trial is how well Hannah Mary Tabbs understood the intersectional dynamics of race, power, and gender. She positioned herself as the “good black” in the situation by demurring to white authority and by playing on mainstream nostalgia for the good old days when blacks knew their place; she used these kinds of tactics, too, when seeking employment. Despite having lived in Philadelphia for nearly a decade, when seeking jobs she led employers to believe that she was newly arrived from Virginia, the seat of the Confederacy. She spoke with a thick southern accent and “yes, ma’am”ed and “no, ma’am”ed white folks. She contrasted herself with Wilson, who was the embodiment of “miscegenation” and white fears of black “passing” and racial “infiltration.”
AF: In the Epilogue, you state that this is a story written “with and against the archive.” Can you talk about the rewards and challenges of writing this story and this type of history more broadly?
KNG: This book was difficult to write. There were points, such as searching for background on the purposely elusive Hannah Mary Tabbs in Virginia, when I found myself on wild goose chases with this work. But I also wrestled with the cruelty of the archive. I found it sort of unjust that the victim’s murderers would be better served by history because of their crimes against him; many surviving papers and court records covered the case and Hannah Mary Tabbs’s and George Wilson’s roles in it, but precious few sources discussed the victim’s life in any substantial detail. I was able to locate his family and some background information, but it was difficult, and I’m not terribly satisfied with that part of the narrative. I would, of course, have loved to have had more information about Hannah Mary Tabbs’s early life, too. The needle-in-the-haystack searches for these black folks in the story starkly contrasted with the ready availability of materials on white officers, judges, and the coroners. And when doing research, the challenges of what sources to search, and where, and for how long always exist. I agonized often about these issues, especially as new historical materials are constantly being made available online. So I guess it’s for all of these reasons that I borrowed from Saidiya Hartman’s pivotal work, “Venus in Two Acts,” which is in part, about struggles with the archive.
AF: Your book has been out interacting with the world over the last several months, receiving rave reviews! What are you most proud of about your book?
KNG: So far, I’ve been really pleased by the reception. I am especially proud the book is reaching lay readers as well as scholars and students and that it is helping to expand how we look at, explore, and write black histories about black women. I also think it manages to be engaging, disturbing, and provocative without sacrificing attention to the complexities of individual figures in the book.