Early 19th-century kidnapper and murderer

Patty Cannon’s name is synonymous with evil on Delmarva, but there’s a new generation of Delawareans, Marylanders and Virginians that have yet to learn of her crimes against humanity. The tradition of telling her horrifying story continues, lest we forget.

Patty Cannon, Sussex Countian

Patty Cannon was born around 1760. Her exact birth date is unknown, as is her birthplace. She married Jesse (sometimes written as “Jessie”) Cannon. Some say he was a mechanic and a respectable man of good moral standing. Others say he, like his wife, was deep into the kidnapping and sale of free African Americans. He and Patty had two children before he died mysteriously. It’s likely she poisoned him.

How did Patty come to live in Sussex County?

One story tells of Patty’s father, an Englishman in Montreal. Patty’s mother married her off to Cannon, who had been visiting Montreal and returned to Delaware with his new wife. Another story says Patty met her husband while working as a waitress in Buffalo, N.Y. Yet another indicates she was born the black sheep of a good Sussex family and lived here all her life.

Regardless, the earliest verifiable incidents in Patty’s life took place in and around Sussex County. She lived on a farm at Johnson’s Crossroads, an area now known as Reliance, in the northwest part of the county. Johnson’s Crossroads was about four miles from Seaford and just a few yards from the Maryland border. Just on the other side of the border was Johnson’s Tavern, owned by her son-in-law, Joseph “Joe” Johnson. The tavern was on the boundary line of Maryland’s Caroline and Dorchester counties.

Patty’s day and age

By 1808, Congress had banned the slave trade and importing slaves without abolishing slavery itself. People of unsavory character, like Patty Cannon, took advantage of that.

The anti-slavery movement began in the late 18th century when religious groups like Quakers and certain Methodists adopted abolitionist views, but in Delaware, abolitionists’ success was concentrated in the northern part of the state.

Patty, along with her son-in-law and their gang, not only favored slavery but had no moral scruples about kidnapping free-born or freed African Americans and selling them to southerners in a practice known as the “Reverse Underground Railroad.” Occasionally, the gang stole from local slave owners, but that was much riskier.

The attic of Cannon’s house was a virtual dungeon, made of heavy oak with iron chains bolted into the wall. Kidnapped African Americans languished there until Patty could arrange for them to be sent south. Patty is thought to have also kept victims on remote, overgrown islands in the Nanticoke River.

In Patty’s day, people traveled mainly by horseback or on waterways. The Cannon-Johnson gang’s home base was in close proximity to the Nanticoke, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. South of Reliance, the Nanticoke runs through Woodland, home of the historic and still-operating Woodland Ferry. In Patty’s day, it was known as Cannon’s Ferry, after the family that first operated it. The Cannon-Johnson gang often used the Nanticoke to transport their victims to southern slave dealers.

Patty’s neighbors, though the nearest was quite a distance away, and the local authorities were not naïve. They knew for some time that the Cannon-Johnson gang was kidnapping and selling African Americans. However, the neighbors were either content to turn a blind eye or just too scared to cross Patty, and the authorities’ hands were tied by jurisdiction. The location of Johnson’s Crossroads meant Patty was almost always within walking distance of another state or county.

Evil deeds

Patty Cannon was cunning, vengeful, deceitful, shrewd, manipulative and ruthless. She was a robust woman of considerable height and weight, called by one biographer an “Amazonian Paul Bunyan.” By most accounts, Patty was attractive, made less so only by the malevolence that showed in her face. Her feminine wiles were just one of the many assets she drew upon to commit her crimes.

Her gang kidnapped free African Americans from not only Delmarva, but from the Baltimore and Philadelphia areas. Patty usually devised the plan, from flat out attacking traveling parties to forcing her own enslaved African Americans to lure in victims, while Joe did the physical work.

However, even without Joe, Patty wasn’t one to be trifled with. She was said to have been of great strength and quite a wrestler. Some stories credited her with subduing and hogtying the largest of African American men with ease.

Her malice extended beyond African Americans, however. Patty’s motivator was greed. She would kill a man of any age or race if it meant a payday.

According to some researchers, a southern slave trader named Bell once visited Johnson’s Tavern and made the mistake of indicating to Patty that he had a large amount of money with him. Patty served him supper in front of an open window and shot him through it while he ate.

Several stories say that Patty enslaved a light-skinned African American, Cyrus James, when he was just a boy. He grew up doing her bidding, sometimes even acting as a decoy to lure free African Americans for Patty. James, around April 1829, would finally lead to Patty’s undoing.

Patty’s undoing

One spring day, a farmer was plowing one of Patty’s fields on the Sussex side of Johnson’s Crossroads when his horse began to sink in a soft spot in the soil. Thinking he might find some treasure there, the farmer started to dig and found a blue trunk. Inside the trunk was no treasure, but a human skeleton.

Word traveled fast and much public interest developed. James took the opportunity to tell police the bones were that of the rich southern slave dealer, Bell, that Patty had killed years earlier. He also told them that he knew of other bodies, and led them to their remains.

Patty realized police were closing in on her and moved to the tavern, in Maryland, where she could not be arrested for crimes committed in Delaware. However, a savvy, good-looking Dorchester County sheriff lured her over the state line, where the Sussex sheriff promptly cuffed her. She was taken to jail in Georgetown.

The indictment of Patty Cannon, Joe Johnson and several others is the only surviving official document related to the gang. It is at the Delaware Public Archives in Dover, and one would be hard-pressed to find a modern crime with such horrifying details.

Patty stood charged with four murders, though she’s believed to have committed many more. Two of her victims were children - one a mere infant.

“Patty Cannon…on the 26th day of April 1822, with force and arms in and upon a certain infant female child to the aforesaid unknown then there lately born and alive … with both her hands about the neck of the said infant … did choke and strangle. Patty Cannon did kill and murder … and cast and throw the infant child on the ground and cover over with earth,” stated the indictment.

She was also charged with killing a 7-year-old African American boy by bludgeoning him with a large piece of wood, with killing an adult male in the same manner and with Bell's murder.

The most popular illustration of Patty features her throwing a child into a fireplace. Some accounts of Patty’s life state that she often had trouble figuring out what to do with the children of the African Americans she kidnapped, and that on one occasion, she tossed a crying child into the fire to be rid of it.

Patty Cannon would never see justice served. She committed suicide while awaiting trial in the Georgetown jail, likely by poison.

The whereabouts of her remains are unknown. It’s presumed that Patty was buried at the jail graveyard, then at the corner of Market and Race streets in Georgetown, where the courthouse and courthouse parking lot are now. Most believe that when the area was renovated, her remains were among those moved to Sussex County Potter’s Field, adjacent to the Sussex Correctional Institution.

A skull, purportedly Patty's, came in possession of the Dover Public Library years ago and later sent to the Smithsonian for analysis. However, that skull has never been indisputably proven to have belonged to Patty.

Fact and fiction

Though there are many written accounts of Patty’s life, most are questionable, particularly a small book or pamphlet entitled “Narrative and confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon.” It is the most salacious and the only one that uses the name “Lucretia.”

Michael Morgan’s “Delmarva’s Patty Cannon: Devil on the Nanticoke” and Hal Roth’s “The Monster’s Handsome Face: Patty Cannon in Fiction and Fact” both work to separate the myths from the truth and are the most factual accounts.

“Patty Cannon, Woman of Mystery,” by Ted Giles, is also accurate with ample context concerning antebellum Delmarva.

In the end, there are many things that are simply unknown. History didn’t leave definitive records of where Patty was born or how she came to live in Sussex County, or where she was buried and if her remains were ever moved.

Only her legend is intact today.