Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Wickedest Woman in America Part l

One of America’s first serial killers was a woman. Born in 1760, little is known about Patty Cannon before she moved to Sussex County near what was Johnson’s Corners in 1800--today it is Reliance, Delaware. 

She initially lived on a farm with her husband and daughter located near the Delaware-Maryland border. It was her husband, Jesse Johnson who first got her involved in the kidnapping of black slaves.

The kidnapping of slaves became a lucrative business after the U.S. Congress passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from other countries in 1807. A captured runaway slave now brought the hunter a $1,000 reward. 

Patty Cannon found she liked this business. She headed a gang of white criminals and black men who were used as “decoys.” She continued in this trade even after Jesse died around 1826.

Some accounts state she poisoned Jesse. Regardless, after his death, she let the farm out to sharecroppers and moved across the road to live with her daughter and her husband, Joe Johnson. 

Joe ran a tavern and was also involved in the family gang. Cannon’s business thrived, but she and her group became more and more greedy.

They tricked many escaped slaves by pretending to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. When supplies ran short, they even kidnapped free blacks who lived in the area. 

Her gang also kidnapped slaves owned by others and sold them back into slavery in the South for profit. *

According to the abolitionist journal, the African Observer The Cannon gang captives were hidden in the home’s basement or in concealed rooms off the attic. 

They were then covered in wagons and taken to Johnson’s Ferry--today it is known as Woodland’s Ferry.

A schooner then transported them down the Nanticoke River to the Chesapeake Bay. There they were taken to the Georgia Slave Markets. 

One black victim that was able to escape and return north to Delaware described his treatment while being held captive by the Cannon gang:

“Joe Johnson kept all his captives in leg irons. He also severely whipped captives that insisted they were free.” He stated he overheard Patty Cannon state to Joe, “it did her good to see him beat the boys.” The term “boy” was used to degrade any black male regardless of their age.

Several members of the Cannon gang were initially indicted in 1822. But for some unknown reason only Joe Johnson was sentenced. He was tied to the pillory ** and received 39 lashes.

In 1829, a tenant farmer working Patty’s farm was plowing a field when he and his plow sank into the ground. A grave was discovered. When the authorities were called out, they discovered more graves on the property. 

The bodies of two children, an infant, and an adult male were unearthed. The adult had been a slave trader that Patty murdered for his money.

Another was that of a seven-year-old black male who had been beaten to death. He had been purchased by Cannon and grown up as part of the household. He actually participated in many of the crimes. 

A witness testified he had seen Patty carry this injured child out in her apron, but he had not returned with her.

The authorities now wanted Patty Cannon. For months, she was able to elude them by moving back and forth across the Delaware-Maryland border. She was finally captured and taken to a jail in Delaware.

Several details after this are lost to history. Cannon was between sixty and seventy years old at the time of her capture. It is known she died in her Georgetown cell, but it is not known for sure how. 

Most speculate she committed suicide after she was tried and sentenced to hang.

Cannon's skull
Cannon was initially buried near the jail, but in the 20th century, this land became a parking lot, so her body was exhumed and reburied in the new prison’s potter’s field. 

That is her body was--her skull was sold to a private owner who then sold it again, etc. Today her head is kept in a box in the basement of the Dover library. Patrons can request to see it.

Patty Cannon’s ghost does not reside in this library, but the “Patty Cannon House” is considered to be very haunted. 

This is not surprising because the home’s attic still has the straw beds and shackles that were used to chain many of the Cannon gang’s victims. The basement even has the ladder that leads to a hidden room behind one of the closets.

Witnesses have stated as they passed by this house at night they saw ghostly figures at the doors and windows of the home when it was unoccupied. 

One couple that stayed at the home briefly slept in the bedroom that is directly below the attic door. They heard many noises that they could not explain.

For generations, this house has been considered so creepy that the local residents warn their children, “Be home before dark or Patty Cannon will get you.”

Make sure and read Part ll of this post entitled Jack Purnell’s Lantern. Purnell, a free black man, was a member of the Cannon gang. His ghost has been seen along the Nanticoke River. 

This first-person account is one of the most interesting ghost encounters I have read.

* Many feel the locals in Sussex County turned a blind eye to Cannon’s activities because with the War of 1812 tough economic times followed.

**  A pillory is also known as “stocks” was used as a public humiliation punishment where prisoners were placed in a wooden frame that held their hands and head.

No comments: