True crime is as popular as ever in our present moment. Both television and podcast series have gained critical praise and large audiences by exploring largely unknown individual crimes in depth and using them to consider broader questions surrounding the justice system, guilt and innocence, class and racial inequality, and evidence. Rarely do we get to think historically about these broader topics through the lens of individual, especially unknown, cases in light of the challenges posed by researching historical crimes. Kali Nicole Gross
, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University New Brunswick, has done incredible research to do just that in her new book, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America
(Oxford University Press, Hardcover 2016, Paperback 2018). The book won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Nonfiction.
The book tells the story of the discovery of a torso, the investigation of the murder, and the life of the accused---Hannah Mary Tabbs. The body was discovered in 1887 and drew an unusual amount of attention in the segregated areas in and around Philadelphia, especially given the victim and accused were black. In this episode of the podcast, Gross discusses why the case caught the eye of the public and investigators at the time. She also explains some of the broader context and insights of the case. Finally, she talks about her research process. We don't give away the resolution of the case in our conversation, but will introduce you to Hannah Mary Tabbs and the world of post-Reconstruction Philadelphia in which she lived.
Christine Lamberson is an Assistant Professor of History at Angelo State University. Her research and teaching focuses on 20th century U.S. political and cultural history. She's currently working on a book manuscript about the role of violence in shaping U.S. political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.