Patty and her coal-black hair had been known as something of a beauty in Sussex County, Delaware…Georgetown, to be precise. Like many woman at the time, when she reached a certain age she married. But Patty would not fade into her marriage to local farmer Jesse Cannon as many others did, instead she would make her way into history for, it turns out, her coal-black hair also matched her heart.
Like many people operating on the other side of the law there is quite a bit of conjecture and ghoulish rumor about Patty. What is known is that around 1826, Patty’s husband Jesse died. To support herself, Patty opened a tavern with her son-in-law Joe Johnson. Joe and his father Ebenezer had been well-known in the area as fugitive slave kidnappers.
Living on the border of Delaware and Maryland allowed kidnappers to easily evade local sheriffs; which was not that difficult considering the little concern shown for black Americans who disappeared from town.
Patty may have helped run the gang of men who kidnapped free blacks in the early 1820’s and sold them into slavery in the South, if she wasn’t running the gang she was certainly at least an active participant. But it was not this crime that would be the downfall of Patty Cannon.
In 1822, Joe, Patty and the gang were accused of kidnapping free black Americans and selling them to slave traders in the South. Joe was convicted and lashed 39 times for his crime, then locked in the pillory with his ears nailed to the stocks (read more about the crazy punishments in this blog post). Joe was also sentenced to have the “soft part” of his ears cut off but the governor apparently canceled that part of the punishment. Charges against Patty were dropped.
After his release, Joe returned to running his business with Patty: Johnson’s Tavern. Neighbors once again began to report unusual noises at night and wagons coming and going at all hours.
In 1829 a farmer working in his orchard near the tavern noticed a depression in the ground covered with brush. Rumors that Patty and Joe robbed wealthy travelers enticed the man to poke around. It didn’t take long for him to discover a buried wooden box, but instead of gold coins, he found only putrefied human remains.
After calling for help, a small group of townspeople dug up the surrounding area and discovered at least four more sets of bones. Nearing hysteria the mob broke into the home to search the premises. Amongst them was Cyrus James who had lived in the home as Patty’s slave and had been taught how to capture fugitive slaves. He led them to a trapdoor in the ceiling to the attic and where other bodies were buried.
In the attic they found a cell with iron and wooden planks. Concluding that the rumors were all true about selling people into slavery and robbing travelers, the party marched on to arrest Joe Johnson and Patty Cannon themselves.
Joe Johnson made an extremely quick escape out of town when he heard of the mob’s intentions and was never seen again. Patty Cannon was apprehended.
Under arrest, Patty admitted to having personally killed several people and helping in the murders of a dozen others. It was believed that the gang had sold hundreds of free black Americans into slavery, but it was the body of a white slave trader and the bodies of several children that finally put her behind bars.
Patty was transferred to a jail to await her trial but almost a month later, before any trial had been mounted, she was found dead in her cell of an apparent suicide.
For years Patty’s skull was kept in a red hatbox in the Dover Public Library (in Delaware), usually in the Library Director’s office. In 1907 Patty’s remains were moved from the jail yard cemetery to make way for a new parking lot. Sussex deputy sheriff, James Marsh, somehow privately obtained the skull. It passed through family and friends until it was loaned to the Dover library in 1961.
In 2010 the skull was long-term loaned to the Smithsonian Institute for study 180 years after her death.
p.s. If you’re unfamiliar with the Madame LaLaurie mentioned in this blog post’s title you can read more about her here.