A sordid murder reveals beliefs about race, sex, and justice in post–Civil War Philadelphia.
Historian Gross (African and African Diaspora Studies/Univ. of Texas; Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910, 2006) 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. The discovery of a dismembered torso in a pond near Philadelphia set off an investigation that eventually led to Hannah Mary Tabbs, a 32-year-old married black woman, and 18-year-old George Wilson, “somewhat simple, or ‘weak-minded,’ ” whom Tabbs blamed for the killing and dismemberment. Unfortunately for Wilson, he was of mixed race, light-skinned enough to be taken for white. “Whereas crime reports typically invoked whiteness to indicate innocence,” writes the author, “with victims often described as lighter than assailants, for Wilson it stirred doubt and an undercurrent of hostility.” Mixed-race individuals “upended notions of whiteness as distinct and supreme” and incited whites’ fears that blacks could circulate undetected or even that whites could mysteriously and horrifyingly turn black. Gross focuses intensely on Tabbs, a woman with a history of violence. Yet because of “her browner skin, pronounced southern drawl, and deferential manner in court,” she seemed less threatening than Wilson. The author argues that Tabbs “understood that northern whites wanted to be reassured about the boundaries of whiteness and black subordination to it” and “manipulated the criminal justice system exceedingly well.” Gross’ insistence that Tabbs “possessed extraordinary physical and intellectual abilities” and “critical skills,” however, is not completely persuasive. Just as likely, she was a sociopath—duplicitous, brutal, and incapable of empathy.
Although the author’s meticulous reconstruction of the case sometimes leads to repetition, she succeeds in conveying the unsettled world in which it occurred.