UT professor tackles sordid tale of 1880s dismemberment

Updated Feb 20, 2016

University of Texas professor Kali Nicole Gross has a homicidal maniac as her muse — and that led her to write “Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America.”

Gross, a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, came across the story of Tabbs while writing her 2006 book, “Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910,” which reconstructs black women’s crimes and how they were covered in the press. The book also explores how the ambitions and frustrations of marginalized women played into the commission of these crimes.

“As soon as I read about the Tabbs case, I knew it deserved its own monograph,” she says. “I had a little bit about it in my first book, but I always knew this story deserved its own book. I was enthralled the minute I laid eyes on some of the newspaper coverage.”

As Gross puts it, Tabbs “was very good at being very bad.”

Gross says she didn’t set out to focus on crime when she was going to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. The native New Yorker says she “was going to look into black women’s entrepreneurship, black women with hair salons and other businesses. … But I had a passion for social justice and didn’t want to be removed from social concerns. So some friends and I volunteered to teach a four-hour seminar once a week at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy, three hours outside Philadelphia.”

“That was the first time I had ever been to a lockdown facility,” she says, “and I was astonished at how many black women were there, and also the institution itself looked really old. At first I was shocked that incarceration was a problem for black women. I thought it only affected black men. … That began me on the course of looking at black women’s history in the criminal justice system.”

The Tabbs case

Gross says that Tabbs is unlike any other woman she has encountered in history. “I was mesmerized by the entire ordeal because it is a different kind of story about a black woman and her relationships with not just black men but also with her world — a world in which she navigated the difficulties of moving between the black and white communities,” Gross writes in her prologue. Tabbs “appeared to adhere to mainstream notions of respectability but instead employed deceit, cunning, and cold-blooded ruthlessness to control those around her, both in her home and in her neighborhood.”

The Tabbs case began in February 1887, when a carpenter in a small village in Bucks County found a brown paper package near a pond. It contained a “headless, limbless torso of a man.” The carpenter alerted police, and a newspaper frenzy ensued.

The victim turned out to be Wakefield Gaines of Philadelphia. Authorities eventually linked him to Tabbs, who was seen carrying a large brown paper package while taking a train from Philadelphia to Bucks County shortly before the torso was discovered. In the past, Tabbs had also worked at the same Bucks County estate where Gaines had worked.

Gross lets the story unfold as it did in 1887, with various clues leading police to arrest Tabbs, who was married to a black Civil War veteran, John Tabbs. As readers will eventually find out, Hannah Tabbs was apparently having an affair with Gaines, who would come to visit her while her husband was at work. But she would come to distrust Gaines, in part because he was already married, and in part because she suspected him of having sexual relations with other women, too.

At first, she denied having anything to do with the death of Gaines but eventually made a statement that she and Gaines were at her home the morning of Feb. 16 when a man named George Wilson knocked. Wilson apparently knew the whereabouts of Hannah Tabbs’ niece, who had left the Tabbs home several months before without explanation. According to the statement by Tabbs, Wilson and Gaines fought, with Wilson hitting Gaines on the head with a chair. Then Wilson took the body of Gaines to the cellar, undressed him and chopped him up with a cleaver, Tabbs said. While Wilson disposed of the head, arms and legs, she said, she took the torso to Buck’s County.

Tabbs’ statement obviously raised questions, especially about her relationship with the two men and why she acted the way she did when she realized Gaines had been chopped up. Soon, Wilson was in custody, and he was the primary suspect in the dismemberment, in part because few people “could believe that a woman, even a black woman, could commit such a brutal act.”

But authorities would soon discover through interviews with Tabbs’ neighbors that she was not the demure lady she pretended to be when dealing with white people.

“Tabbs gets away with a lot of crimes in the (black) community because the people were disassociated from ethical justice and policing,” Gross says. “She knows she can’t act that way among whites, and she knows there will be consequences. … But among blacks, it was practical to be a tough customer in a period when black women were powerless and didn’t have protection. … And you start to realize that having a reputation of being someone not to mess with makes a whole lot of sense.”

Wilson would eventually make a statement to police, too, and admitted fighting with Gaines after a dispute over the whereabouts of Tabbs’ niece. But he said Tabbs cut up the body and gave him some packages containing the head, arms and legs to throw into a nearby river, and that he hadn’t seen Tabbs since, until meeting her at the police station Feb. 23.

When Tabbs and Wilson were put on trial, Tabbs always looked down and was deferential, while Wilson, who was considered to be a bit slow, seemed to revel in the attention.

Gross says she thinks the white citizens of Philadelphia were scared of Wilson, who was of mixed race but could pass for white. “He definitely became the sum of all fears,” she says. “When you have someone who could potentially pass, he’s the embodiment of the fears of miscegenation.”

And Tabbs “plays into the biases of the times,” Gross says. “She spoke with a Southern accent. She could visibly be identified as black. She wouldn’t look them in the eyes. … She wasn’t uppity, right? And that became the death knell for Wilson. She knew how to behave in front of white people. Wilson was completely outmatched.”

After the jury found Wilson guilty, and after a round of legal maneuverings, Wilson eventually agreed to plead guilty to murder in the second degree, and he was sentenced to 12 years of solitary confinement. Tabbs pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact, and the judge recommended leniency. She received a sentence of two years in prison.

Wilson served a total of nine years and three months before being released in 1896, while Tabbs served one year and one month. She then went to Maryland and lived, in part, on a widow’s pension, because her husband had died while she was incarcerated.

Getting the facts

“One of the challenges in writing the book was trying to find details that would sustain a richer study of everyday black people who weren’t in a position to leave behind rich memoirs,” Gross says. That was particularly true of Hannah Mary Tabbs, who used various aliases and lied about where she was born.

So Gross turned to all sorts of documents, including prison records, “but those are deeply flawed and from a small segment of the population, written predominantly from the standpoint of white administrators. … And that’s true of newspaper coverage as well. But because of the sheer volume of coverage, we had enough kernels and clues to track down, and once I found out that John Tabbs had served in the Civil War and that Hannah had filed for a widow’s pension and received it, that document was like the Rosetta Stone.”

The document was found in the National Archives in Washington. Apparently, when Tabbs applied for the pension, there was a mixup about whether John Tabbs served on land or sea. “So the investigators did interviews with people who had to come in and sign an affidavit that she was married to John Tabbs.”

The file also contained a copy of their marriage certificate, Gross says. “It was the first time I had a chance to work with a document that was so rich in information and helped me piece together the story.”

In the end, Gross says she believes that Tabbs killed Gaines during a violent argument and that she either coerced or duped Wilson to be her accomplice in the dismemberment and disposal of the body.

Still, Gross acknowledges that parts of Tabbs’ life will remain a mystery. She also acknowledges that some people have questioned why she would focus on such a sordid story, especially one about black women and crime. “What could this possibly add?” Gross says she was asked, after she wrote “Colored Amazons.”

“The concern is not without merit,” she says. “Writing a book like this might be interpreted the wrong way, especially because of the stereotypes of black people being criminal. … But you can’t address the issue today if you don’t have any context or history. And clearly, from what I saw in Muncy, this has been going on a long time. I’m hoping to learn more about these women, just because we need to know.

“Similarly with Tabbs, they asked, ‘What are you wanting people to take away from this?’”

“The answer changes every day,” Gross says with a laugh. “For me, part of the attraction was I want to move away from this idea that black women and people need to be ‘clean’ in order for their humanity to be respected. I don’t think you have to be ‘clean’ to merit historical study or exploration.”

Gross also thinks that some of Tabbs’ behaviors “are indicative of eyes that have seen too much, that she had some really horrible experiences in order to countenance these kinds of activities and behaviors.” In this regard, Gross explores the possibility that Tabbs was originally from a notoriously brutal slave plantation in Anne Arundel County in Maryland.

“I’m trying to find ways to give black people the depth, the space, to be flawed, to be damaged and angry,” Gross says, “and at the same time allow them to be visible as sentient beings. Everybody doesn’t have to be W.E.B. DuBois. We can’t all be Harriet Tubman, as much as we wish we were.”

Gross says she’s not casting aspersions at other types of history. “But we also need to know about other experiences, and … we are starting to have more conversations about black women and sexuality outside of rape and abuse.”

That’s especially true for Tabbs, who had a rather remarkable agreement with her husband, especially during the 1890s, to have an extramarital affair with Gaines. “With Tabbs, you have someone who engaged in a variety of escapades sexually,” Gross says.

And all of this fits in with Gross’ next big project: “A Black Woman’s History of the United States,” co-written with Daina Ramey Berry, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas. Gross says the book, which will be published by Beacon Press, will be “more of a survey, with a look at the role of criminal justice.”

“I’m looking forward to learning as well,” she says, “and I’ll let that guide the writing. I’ve just finished reading the books that exist out there. And now we need to figure out where we can fill in the details, and where we’ll find that, so that we can write a history that’s more representative of everyday people.”

In other words, probably less about maniacs.