Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso, by Kali Nicole Gross

Hannah Mary Tabbs

What It’s About

The discovery of a headless, limbless corpse in 1887 Philadelphia sparks the arrest of two Black suspects, one a light skinned man and the other a dark skinned woman. Colorism, gender, stereotypes and politics all come into play as both fight for survival in a system rigged against them.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s a brilliant blend of true crime with history and sociology. The dissections of culture, identity and power dynamics are smart and fascinating, as well as extremely relevant to today. It breaks apart the myth of the post-war North as a racially integrated paradise and exposes the long history of racial bias in law enforcement. At the same time, the academia never gets in the way of the pace of the story. Kali Nicole Gross is a great writer, and this book, despite being meaty, will not take long to finish. I kept it on hand at all times and took every opportunity to read it, even if just a page at a time.

Hannah Mary Tabbs as a fascinating historical figure. She does things that most of us would consider unsavory, but considering the ways society was stacked against her, it is hard not to root for her regardless. I first learned about this book from the authors interview on Stuff You Missed in History Class, and she said one of her goals was to show that Black women did not have to be flawless champions of justice to be noteworthy or interesting. She definitely achieved that goal.

I also thought the author did a fantastic job drawing the line between evidence and speculation. I do love history with a narrative flair, but I can’t stand it when authors let that be license to state things that can’t possibly be known as fact. At the same time, I know too much hedging can result in dry prose. It’s a tricky balance to find, but this book absolutely found it.

In short, if you’re a fan of either gruesome crime or American history, this book will have something for you. If you like both, this book was made for you.

Content Warnings

Well, it explores a grisly murder and the impacts of racism on early criminal justice in America. So… there’s that.

Nothing beyond what you’d expect though. If you weren’t put off by the title, you probably won’t be put off by the content.

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