Ordinary Yet Infamous: Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso

Ordinary Yet Infamous: Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso

Not Even Past: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner

Kali Nicole Gross, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies
University of Texas, Austin

Adapted from Kali Nicole Gross’s new book: Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Rogues’ Gallery Books (1887) Courtesy of the Philadelphia City Archives.

The discovery of a headless, limbless, racially ambiguous human torso near a pond outside of Philadelphia in 1887, horrified area residents and confounded local authorities. From what they could tell, a brutal homicide had taken place. At a minimum, the victim had been viciously dismembered. Based on the circumstances, it also seemed like the kind of case to go unsolved. Yet in an era lacking sophisticated forensic methods, the investigators from Bucks County and those from Philadelphia managed to identify two suspects: Hannah Mary Tabbs, a black southern migrant, and George Wilson, a young mulatto that Tabbs implicated shortly after her arrest. The ensuing trial would last months, itself something of a record given that most criminal hearings wrapped up in a week or so. The crime and its adjudication also took center stage in presses from Pennsylvania to Illinois to Missouri

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