Martha "Patty" Cannon (circa 1760 – May 11, 1829) was the leader of a gang in the early 19th century that kidnapped slaves and free blacks from the Delmarva Peninsula and transported and sold them to plantation owners located further south. Later accounts of her life refer to her as Lucretia P. Cannon, although there is no evidence to indicate she used the Lucretia name in her lifetime. She was indicted for four murders in 1829 and died in prison while awaiting trial, purportedly a suicide via poison.
Cannon was married to local farmer Jesse Cannon, who died around 1826. She lived near the town of Reliance, Maryland (then called Johnson's Corners), on the border at the convergence of Caroline County and Dorchester County, Maryland, and Sussex County, Delaware.
Cannon and her husband had at least one daughter, who twice married men engaged in the criminal slave-stealing trade. Their daughter's first husband was Henry Brereton, a blacksmith who kidnapped black people for sale. Brereton had gone to prison in 1811 for kidnapping, but escaped from the Georgetown, Delaware jail. Brereton was captured, convicted of murder, and hanged with one of his criminal associates, Joseph Griffith.
At some point after this, Cannon's daughter married Joe Johnson, who became Cannon's most notorious partner in crime. Their band included white criminals, black men used as decoys, and Cannon's own husband before his death. In addition, a relative of Cannon's daughter's first husband, a Robert Brereton, continued to be involved with the gang as late as at least 1826.
Political and economic context
The U.S. Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808. At that point, because of the restriction of supply, the cash value of slaves shot upwards, hitting over $1,000 in the South and creating a strong incentive for kidnappers. Many free blacks lived in Cannon's neighborhood near the Maryland-Delaware border, and were convenient targets for her kidnapping forays. Kidnapping enslaved blacks was riskier, as their white owners would protest; likewise the murder of white slave traders was taken seriously. However, the kidnapping of free blacks left their land and other property behind, and failed to outrage the white community the way the theft of white-owned slaves did, or the murder of whites.
A novel written about Cannon sixty years after she was most active, The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times of 1884, theorizes that the political and economic situation created by the War of 1812 made Cannon's crimes possible. It also may explain why whites failed to come to the aid of their free black neighbors. The war in this passage is the British–American War of 1812, which lasted until 1815. "Tories" was slang for the British, who tried to recruit slave blacks to their army by promising freedom. The Chesapeake Bay locations referenced are Tangier Island of Virginia, Cambridge, Maryland and Georgetown, Delaware.
In them days they didn't kidnap much; it was jest a-beginnin'. The war of '12 busted everything on the bay, burned half a dozen towns, kept the white men layin' out an' watchin', and made loafers of half of 'em, an' brought bad volunteers an' militia yer to trifle with the porer gals, an' some of them strangers stuck yer after the war was done. I don't know whar ole Ebenezer come from; some says this, an' some that. All we know is, that he an' the Hanlen gals, one of 'em Patty Cannon, was the head devils in an' after the war....
The British begun to run the black people off in the war. The black people wanted to go to 'em. The British filled the islands in Tangier yer with nigger camps; they was a goin' to take this whole peninsuly, an' collect an' drill a nigger army on it to put down Amerikey. When the war was done, the British sailed away from Chesapeake Bay with thousands of them colored folks, an' then the people yer begun to hate the free niggers....
They hated free niggers as if they was all Tories an' didn't love Amerikey. So, seein' the free niggers hadn't no friends, these Johnsons an' Patty Cannon begun to steal 'em, by smoke! There was only a million niggers in the whole country; Louisiana was a-roarin' for 'em; every nigger was wuth twenty horses or thirty yokes of oxen, or two good farms around yer, an' these kidnappers made money like smoke, bought the lawyers, went into polytics, an' got sech a high hand that they tried a murderin' of the nigger traders from Georgey an' down thar, comin' yer full of gold to buy free people. That give 'em a back-set, an' they hung some of Patty's band — some at Georgetown, some at Cambridge.
— excerpt from Chapter XXIV of The Entailed Hat by George Alfred Townsend, 1884
Accounts of the crimes
Victim accounts printed in the abolitionist journal the African Observer state that captives were chained and hidden in the basement, the attic, and secret rooms in the house. Captives were taken in covered wagons to Cannon's Ferry (now Woodland Ferry). At the ferry, they would sometimes meet a schooner traveling down the Nanticoke River to the Chesapeake Bay and on to Georgia slave markets.
The gang's activities continued for many years. Local law enforcement officials were reluctant to halt the illegal operations, given the lack of concern that most people in authority felt for blacks in those days, and may have been afraid of the gang's reputation for violence. When Patty Cannon learned the police were coming, she would slip across state lines away from local police forces.
According to depositions from victims who fought their way back to the north, Joe Johnson kept the captives in leg irons. He also "severely whipped" captives who insisted they were free. His wife, Patty's daughter, was overheard saying that it "did [her] good to see him beat the boys." ("Boy" was a degrading reference to a black man of any age; Mrs. Johnson was not referring to male children.)
A 25-year-old free black woman named Lydia Smith testified that she was kept in Cannon's home before being moved to Johnson's tavern. There, she was held for five months until she was shipped south with a large lot people being sold into slavery.
The gang was initially indicted in May 1822. Joe Johnson was sentenced to the pillory and 39 lashes; records show the sentence was carried out. Cannon and several other gang members, though charged with Johnson, apparently did not go to trial nor receive sentences.
In 1829, however, bodies were discovered on the farm property Cannon owned in Delaware by a tenant farmer doing plowing there. In April, 1829, she was indicted on four counts of murder by a grand jury of 24 white males:
- an infant female on April 26, 1822
- a male child on April 26, 1822
- an adult male on October 1, 1820
- a "Negro boy" on June 1, 1824
The indictments were signed by the Attorney General of Delaware, James Rogers. Witness Cyrus James stated he saw her take an injured "black child not yet dead out in her apron, but that it never returned." James had been purchased by Cannon when he was only seven years old, and had grown up in her household and participated in her crimes.
Cannon died in her cell on May 11, 1829, at an age estimated to be between sixty and seventy years old. Sources differ on whether she was convicted and sentenced to hang before her death in the cell, and on whether she committed suicide or died of natural causes. The Entailed Hat attributes her death to self-administered poison.
Her body was initially buried in the jail's graveyard. When that land became a parking lot in the 20th century, her skeleton, along with those of two other women, was exhumed and reburied in a potter's field near the new prison. However, her skull was separated from the rest of her remains and put on display in various venues, and loaned to the Dover Public Library in 1961.
According to folklore, Cannon was a large, unruly woman with enormous strength and a ruthless streak. Cannon has had mythic prominence since her death, beginning with the publication of a "female fiend" pamphlet in 1841 and followed by numerous works which combine fact and fiction, sometimes carefully distinguished and sometimes loosely mixed. It is difficult to extract the facts except in those cases where authors were meticulous about noting their sources or flagging their departures from fact into thriller.
- Cannon was the subject of a "female fiend" pamphlet in 1841 titled Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon, published anonymously in New York. This pamphlet inspired many others, changing the main character's name and altering the litany of her crimes. These pamphlets were a subgenre of sensational literature which resembled a combination of modern pulp magazines and true crime books, and were contemporary with the British penny dreadfuls. Significant factual liberties were taken even with pamphlets purporting to be true. In this case, Cannon was apparently renamed to taint her by association with Lucretia Borgia, a notorious poisoner.
- Cannon's story was popularized (and, to an unknown extent, fictionalized) by a novel, The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times by George Alfred Townsend, which was published in 1884. Hardback editions were published in at least 1890, 1912, 1955 and 1969. A paperback was issued in March 2007.
- James McBride uses Patty Cannon as a villain in his 2008 novel, Song Yet Sung.
- Various modern collections of ghost stories include information on Patty Cannon.
- In  Monica S. Baker's 2010 middle grade novel, Freestyle, Patty Cannon stalks 21st century Mitchell Burke in his dreams.
- There is an historical marker placed at the "Patty Cannon House." Research by a PBS history series proved the marker was placed on land Joe Johnson bought in 1821 for $150, and that Patty Cannon bought from him in 1826 — but that her actual home was several hundred yards away. Her house, built sometime in the 18th century, was torn down in 1948.
- Cannon was the basis of the slave-stealing Patty Ridenour character in a sixth-season episode of Homicide: Life on the Street entitled "Sins of the Father," which originally aired on January 9, 1998.
- A 2009 novel by Clive Cussler and Grant Blackwood entitled Spartan Gold is based in part upon Cannon and a modern day search for valuable stolen artifacts which she may have left behind.
- Giles, Ted. Patty Cannon: Woman of Mystery. Easton, MD: Easton Publishing Company, 1965.
- Cannon House PDF transcript of the Season 1, Episode 4 segment on History Detectives, broadcast by PBS. Accessed online August 29, 2007.
- Shields, J. "The infamous Patty Cannon in history and legend." Dover, DE : Bibliotheca Literaria Press, 1990.
- Frank, William P. Interview with genealogist George Valentine Massey, published in the Wilmington News of Delaware, September 2, 1960, quoted in Patty Cannon: Woman of Mystery, by Ted Giles, 1965.
- The Domestic Slave Trade of the United States Winfield Hazlitt Collins, 1904, pp. 90-92. Accessed August 29, 2007.
- Babylon: Sin City, U.S.A., (Part) I Part of the Red, White, Blue and Brimstone online exhibit sponsored by the University of Virginia, 1999-present. Accessed September 25, 2007.
- Homicide: Life On The Street, "Sins of the Father" episode details at the Internet Movie Database. Accessed August 29, 2007.
- Patty Cannon, website with photo of Patty Cannon House historical marker.
- History Detectives: Cannon House website containing transcript, photo, and evidence used in Season 1, Episode 4 of History Detectives television show
- The Entailed Hat: Or, Patty Cannon's Times, entire text of book at Project Gutenberg
- Selections from The Entailed Hat at McDaniel