Hidden Histories

An Interesting 'Jumping Rope Rhyme' as a Clue to a Pennsylvania Murder

Tuesday, 12/28/10
For centuries, children have utilized various rhymes in playing games, most of which many individuals believe to be farsical in origin or sentences simply designed to facilitate rhythm. Though this may be true in part, like other bits of folklore passed down through 'oral tradition,' an historical 'kernel of truth' often lies at the very foundation of a tale, or in this case, that of a 'jumping rope rhyme.'

Mr. James Smart of Philadelphia often heard his grandmother, Elizabeth Goldsmith Hartley, born in Philadelphia in 1875, repeat the following 'jumping rope rhyme,' which she and other young girls used to recite in their game:

                      "Gaine's Ghost sat on a Post;
                        His Feet were full of Blisters.
                        He made three Grabs at Mary Tabbs
                        And the Wind blew through his Whiskers."

Mr. Smart and I attempted for a number of years to find any 'historical'' validity behind this curious rhyme. Eventually he was successful, since published newspapers, such as the Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia, for the month of February, 1887, relates all the gruesome details connected with the murder of a Mr.WAITE or WAKEFIELD GAINES, an African-American, whose "headless, legless and armless body" was found "wrapped in coarse brown paper and marked, "Handle with Care," near 'Mann's Millpond,' at Eddington, located near the boundary lines of Bristol and Bensalem Townships, in nearby Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Eventually, MARY ANN TABBS, a Black woman of Philadelphia, who lived on Richard Street was arrested, a young girl who had repeatedly been seen with Gaines, a waiter by profession, who resided on Schell Street in the city. On one occasion the young woman, with whom the papers described as being "very intimate"with Gaines for some time, but jealous to the extreme, had inflicted a "big cut across his cheek" and was heard cursing him, saying how she "would kill him yet!"

By February 23rd, Miss Tabbs had confessed to the murder, after a number of witnesses had observed her and her peculiar baggage, as she rode on the train from Philadelphia to Eddington. However, she related how Gaines and a Mr. George Wilson, alias George Wallace, had gotten into a fight at her residence, during which Wilson struck Gaines with a "chair stand," by repeated blows, resulting in the latter's death. The body was then dismembered with a cleaver in the cellar, and later distributed 'in pieces,' so Miss Tabbs could handle and discard more easily, the trunk of the corpse.

Wilson, a native of Connecticut, was only nineteen years of age at the time of the murder. Though Miss Tabbs disposed of the 'trunk,' Wilson or Wallace had taken Gaine's "two arms, the two legs and the head" of Gaine's body and "threw them in the Schuylkill River," at the western end of the Callowhill street bridge in Philadelphia.

Though the affidavits or testimony of Tabbs and Wilson would vary, their guilt was established beyond any doubt. The point of this short sketch is to demonstrate the fact, that even something so innocent as a 'jumping rope rhyme,' may at times include historical tidbits, by which history may be re-constructed, confirmed, or verified.

Thus, in doing historical research, be it family, local or national in scope, one should never discount any clue or source as unreliable or of insignificant value, since it has been demonstrated on far too many occasions, that such meagre evidence often may lead one to the proverbial 'pot of gold' for an in-depth and thorough historical reconstruction.