The skull of Martha "Patty" Cannon, perhaps one of Delaware's most infamous characters, will get a forensic examination at the Smithsonian Instutute as part of a study on the lives of early Chesapeake residents. The study also may solve a few of the mysteries surrounding Cannon, whose skull has been kept at the Dover Public Library since 1961.


Martha “Patty” Cannon, one of Delaware’s most notorious women, is about to get an autopsy of sorts, more than 180 years after her death.

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Cannon, whose homestead on the southern Maryland/Delaware line served as a base from which she allegedly ran a gang that kidnapped free blacks in the early 1820s and sold them into slavery in the South. She never was charged for these crimes but instead was arrested in 1829 for the murder of four people, including a slave trader. She died in a Georgetown prison, supposedly a suicide, at age 70 while awaiting trial, and was buried in the adjoining graveyard.

For years what is thought to be her skull lay in a red hatbox in the Dover Public Library, most recently in the office of Library Director Margery Cyr.

In a journey Cannon herself probably never would have made, the relic was taken to Washington, D.C., June 22, where it is about to undergo some very modern scientific testing at the Smithsonian Institute.

A study of history

Dr. Chuck Fithian, curator of archaeology for the state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said Dr. Douglas Owsley, chief of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian, plans to examine and preserve the skull as part of a larger study of life in the Chesapeake from colonial times to the 19th century.

Owsley, along with fellow forensic anthropologist Karin Bruwelheide, is curator of the Smithsonian’s “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake,” exhibit, now at the National Museum of Natural History.

“The city library had the skull for a number of years and it had just sat there,” Fithian said. “It’s been attributed to [Cannon], and there’s no reason to question that, so we’re trying to use modern technology to look at it and try to figure it out.”

The skull came to Dover after Cannon’s remains were moved around 1907. James Marsh, then a Sussex deputy sheriff, obtained it and gave it to a relative, Charles Joseph, who hung it in his barn and later stored it in his home. Joseph’s son, Alfred, who moved to Dover, inherited it in 1946 and in 1961 loaned it to the Dover library.

A fearsome woman

Descriptions of Cannon, all written many years after her death, paint her as a rather fearsome person. She was “massive of bosom, massive elsewhere,” according to a 1907 newspaper article, an “Amazonian Paul Bunyan” who personally hogtied some of her kidnap victims.

“She was more or less robust, had a wealth of black hair, and her face, while showing the effects of her evil passions and dissipations, was more or less good to look upon,” the article said.

Cannon apparently got away with many of her alleged kidnappings because her farm and tavern were on the Delaware-Maryland border, allowing her to slip across the frontier if the local sheriff got too curious. At the time, little concern was shown if blacks disappeared from the community, and although rumors were rife about her activities, little was done.

As for what what’s left of Cannon, Owsley said the skull is showing its age. The lower jaw is missing and some of the facial bones have separated from the cranium, which itself is starting to split along natural growth lines.

And while he’s interested in Cannon’s notoriety, he’s more fascinated by the fact the relic has a known history he can use to further his study of early Chesapeake life.

“We’re stepping back, tracking our ancestors, and seeing what their bones tell us about their lifestyles,” Owsley said. “We’re sweeping broadly across Maryland, Virginia and Delaware to study what life was like in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.”

“My focus is not really on Patty Cannon, it’s at looking at her as an individual in a specific time.”

Forensic examination of the skull will include CT scans, bone density measurements, a dental examination of the remaining teeth and tests to determine concentrations of elements such as arsenic, lead and mercury.

When the work is done, at some still to be determined point in the future, the skull will be returned to Dover where it most probably again will take up residence in Director Cyr’s office.

Cyr, who learned of the skull’s existence when she moved to Dover in 2008, said watching over the relic has become an interesting part of her job.

“Patty Cannon was not a nice person in life, but she’s been quiet and respectful in my office,” she said.

Email Jeff Brown at jeff.brown@doverpost.com.