Hal Roth - March 2008

Old News from Delmarva:
The Arrest and Death of Patty Cannon
Hal Roth

    Most natives to Delmarva and newcomers with an interest in the region’s history have heard the story of Patty Cannon, alleged by some to have been “the wickedest woman ever to walk on American soil.” Unfortunately her biographers have been mostly writers of fiction, and the first booklet about her exploits – published in 1841 – contains outrageous fabrications that have been repeated hundred of times over the years, often with enhancement. We tend to be intrigued by our villains, and when the miscreant is female, we can never get enough of the details.
     During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Patty’s family lived on the Maryland-Delaware line at the present town of Reliance, formerly known as Wilson’s and then Johnson’s Crossroads. Her husband and son were involved in the slave trade. Surviving bills of sale suggest that at least part of their business was legitimate, but as the demand for slaves in the South increased, they began to purchase kidnapped free African Americans and sell them into slavery. Joe Johnson, the husband of Cannon’s daughter, became one of the most notorious kidnappers in the nation.
     Johnson and his brother, Ebenezer, sometimes sailed to Philadelphia to engage in their trade, causing that city’s mayor to eventually offer a reward for their arrest. Under expanding pressure to bring the Delmarva kidnappers to justice, Joe, Ebenezer and the Cannon children fled south in 1826, leaving Patty behind. Her husband, Jesse, had died about four years earlier.
     Patty then moved 200 yards across the state line from Delaware to Maryland. There she lived quietly in Johnson’s former home until April 1, 1829, when she was arrested for murder. In Georgetown, the Sussex County seat, one writer claims the town crier was the first to publicly announce the event while calling the hours: “Three o’clock and Patty Cannon taken!”
     It was April 10 before the Delaware Gazette briefly reported the incident, then followed up with details on April 17 that were reprinted across the nation.

    THE MURDERS IN SUSSEX: We stated briefly in our paper of Friday last some circumstances respecting a most diabolical course of conduct which, for some years past, has been carried on in Sussex county, in this State, the evidences of which have just been brought to light.
     From our correspondent’s account we gather the following particulars: About ten days previous to his writing, a tenant, who lives on the farm where Patty Cannon and her son-in-law, the celebrated Joseph Johnson, negro trader, lived for many years in North West Fork Hundred near the Maryland line, was ploughing in the field, in a place generally covered with water, and where a heap of brush had been laying for years, when his horse sunk in a grave, and on digging, he found a blue painted chest, about three feet long, and in it the bones of a man. The news flew like wild fire, and people from many miles around visited the place; among whom it was universally agreed that a negro trader from Georgia, named Bell or Miller, or perhaps both, had been murdered by Johnson and his gang about 10 or 12 years ago, and that the bones now discovered were those of one of them. The man or men had been missed about that time, and the horse on which one of them rode was found at Patty Cannon’s, who had laid claim to the animal until a person from Maryland, who had lent the horse, came forward and claimed his property, and she alleged at the time that Bell and Miller had sailed a short time previous with a cargo of negroes for the South.
Since that time he has not been heard of, and it is said that a few days before he was missed, he was heard to say that he had with him fifteen thousand dollars with which he purposed to purchase negroes. The supposition now is that the knowledge of his having this money in his possession formed the inducement to take his life, and that to conceal the body it had been deposited in the place where the bones had been found.
     The excitement produced by this discovery, as may naturally be supposed, was very great in the neighborhood, and on the 2d [sic] instant, one of Johnson’s gang named Cyrus James, who has resided in Maryland, was caught in this State and brought before a Justice of the Peace at Seaford, and on examination stated Joseph Johnson, Ebenezer F. Johnson and old Patty Cannon had shot the man while at supper in her house, and that he saw them all engaged in carrying him in the chest and burying him; and stated moreover that many others had also been killed, and that he could show where they had been buried. The officers and citizens accordingly accompanied him to the places, which he pointed out, and made the necessary search. In one place in a garden they dug and found the bones of a young child, the mother of which, he stated, was a negro woman belonging to Patty Cannon, which, being a mulatto, she had killed for the reason that she supposed its father to be one of her own family. Another place, a few feet distant, was then pointed out, when upon digging a few feet, two oak boxes were found, each of which contained human bones. Those in one of them had been of a person about seven years of age, which James said he saw Patty Cannon knock in the head with a billet of wood, and the other contained those of one whom he said they considered bad property; by which it is supposed was meant that he was free. As there was at the time much stir about the children, and there was no convenient opportunity to send them away, they were murdered to prevent discovery. On examining the skull bone of the largest child, it was discovered to have been broken as described by James.
This fellow James was raised by Patty Cannon, having been bound to her at the age of seven years, and is said to have done much mischief in his time for her and Johnson.
     Another witness by the name of Butler has already been secured, and it is thought that some others will be brought forward who are acquainted with the bloody deeds of Patty and Joe. This woman is now between 60 and 70 years of age and looks more like a man than a woman; but old as she is, she is believed to be as heedless and heartless as the most abandoned wretch that breathes.
     As stated by us on Friday last, Patty Cannon had been lodged in the jail at Georgetown. James and Butler were also placed there at the same time; and it is highly probable that ere this the trial has taken place, and the result of it will soon be known.
James stated that he had not shown all the places where murdered bodies had been buried, and at the time of writing our correspondent informs us the people were still digging.
     Joe Johnson, who is said to be residing at this time in Alabama, is stated to have been seen in this State in Dec. or Jan. last; and the probability is that his business here was to do something at his old business of kidnapping. He was convicted of this crime some years since at Georgetown and suffered the punishment of the lash and the pillory on account of it. He is a man of some celebrity, having for many years carried on the traffic of stealing and selling negroes, in which he was aided and instructed by the old hag, Patty Cannon, whose daughter he married after she had lost a former husband on the gallows. He continued to reside near his tutoress until within a few years, when a reward of $500 was offered by Mr. Watson, Mayor of Philadelphia, when having obtained information of the fact before any others in his neighborhood, he suddenly decamped and has since been very cautious in suffering himself to be seen in that part of the country.
The former husband of Joe’s wife was hung for the murder of a negro trader, the plan for which is said to have been arranged at her mother’s house.
From the circumstances which have already taken place, it would appear probable that such developments may be expected to take place as will present the wretched actors in the scenes of blood, which have taken place on the border of our State in Sussex county, as successful rivals in depravity of the infamous Burke, whose bloody deeds and recent execution in Scotland have occupied so large a portion of the public prints.

William Burke was an Irish criminal who moved to Scotland, where he suffocated at least fifteen travelers and sold their corpses to an anatomist. He was hanged on January 28, 1829, two months before Patty’s arrest.
The “correspondent’s account” mentioned in the article may have been an unsigned letter discovered in 1927 by historian H. C. Conrad, which has been preserved in the Delaware Archives. The letter begins: “Much excitement now prevails in this county in consequence of the discovery of the bodies of several persons, interred upon the premises of the celebrated Patty Cannon, who lives upon the line of the state and whose house has been for a long time the resort of all the kidnapping and negro traders in this part of the Peninsula.”
Several papers reported as fact the erroneous supposition made in the Delaware Gazette, that Patty’s trial had already taken place.
While records of Patty’s arrest seem to have vanished, her indictment survives in the Delaware Archives.

Be it remembered that at Court of General Sessions of the Peace and Goal Delivery of the State of Delaware held at George Town in and for the County of Sussex on the 13th day of April, 1829.
Patty Cannon, late of North West Fork Hundred, widow, not having the fear of God before her eyes and being moved and seduced by the Devil, on the 26th day of April, 1822, with force and arms in and upon a certain infant female child to the aforesaid unknown then and there lately born and alive in the Peace of God and of the State of Delaware then and there being feloniously, unlawfully and of malice aforethought did make an assault, and that the said Patty Cannon with both her hands about the neck of the said infant and – did choke and strangle, of which said choking and strangling the said female child to the jury aforesaid unknown so being alive [sic], then and there instantly died. Patty Cannon did kill and murder against the peace and dignity of the state…[and] did cast and throw the infant child on the ground and cover over with earth.

Some historians have compared Niles Weekly Register to Time, Newsweek and the New York Times all rolled into one. In its day it was a highly regarded source of news. On May 23, 1829, publisher Niles brought the name of Patty Cannon to national attention when he reprinted the following brief report from the Delaware Journal.

The Delaware Journal says: At the Court of Quarterly Sessions recently setting in Sussex County, the grand jury found three indictments against Patty Cannon for murder, and one against each of the brothers, Joe Johnson and Ebenezer Johnson, [to be tried] at The Court of Oyer and Terminer in October. The others reside out of state – where is not exactly known, but we take it for granted that the proper steps will be taken to discover and bring them to justice.
Patty Cannon died in jail on the 11th instant.

Such an austere announcement, presented almost as an afterthought: “Patty Cannon died in jail on the 11th instant.”
Levi Sullivan, a resident of Broad Creek Hundred in Sussex County, kept a private diary from 1818 to 1844. On its pages we find this notation, nearly as concise as the one in Niles Register: “May 11th 1829 Patty Cannon deceased in Georgetown Jail said to have committed murder.” And that was all the news would have to offer about the demise of Patty Cannon until years later.
While Delmarva folklore contains several suggested scenarios to explain Patty’s death (and one claim that she didn’t die in 1829 but was aided in escaping to Canada), popular tradition insists that she took her own life by ingesting poison; but is that a reasonable and supportable belief? Had she committed suicide, would such a dramatic event not have been newsworthy? There is no mention of the cause of Patty’s death in any court record or newspaper of the day.
The first suggestion of self destruction that I have found appears in a letter written in 1837 by John Clayton – eight years after Patty’s demise: “She was arrested & put in goal in Sussex, but upon her trial this demon took arsenic and died by her own hand.”
John Middleton Clayton was a Delaware attorney, member of the Delaware House of Representatives, Delaware Secretary of State, several times United States Senator and also United States Secretary of State under President Taylor. In several letters to a journalist friend, written years after the events occurred, he reported a variety of details about Patty Cannon and her family, many of which were exaggerated or untrue.
Then, in 1841, under the title “Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon, The Female Murderer,” that friend anonymously published what historian John Munroe once referred to as “a penny dreadful.” The twenty-three page Gothic horror tale – a genre popular at the time – is an outrageous fabrication about the life of Patty Cannon, but its details have found their way into hundreds of articles in the ensuing years and continue to provide the basis for most of what people “know” about the much vilified woman. The pamphlet repeats the statement in Clayton’s letter that Patty committed suicide and offers macabre details. There are no known contemporary sources to support such a claim.
Patty was at least in her sixties when she died, well past the average life expectancy for the first third of the nineteenth century. What reason would authorities have had to conceal the cause of her death? Would it not have made better press and would the public not have been wildly interested had this “demon” dramatically taken her own life, as Clayton suggested?
For the past ten years I have been attempting to uncover the truth about the life and death of Patty Cannon. I suppose it should be no surprise to me that most people are quite content with the gruesome legend that continues to grow. Remember the indictment against Patty for participating in three murders? In 1997 a journalist reported that she had killed twenty individuals by her own hand and assisted in dispatching at least twenty others. Shortly afterward another writer upped the total of her personal murders to thirty. By the year 2100 she may well be credited with annihilating the entire population of North West Fork Hundred.

You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com