For all its pride and contemporary virtues, the Eastern Shore was once home to a notorious and sadistic murderer. What follows is the grisly tale of Delmarva’s darkest chapter
Nestled along the serpentine banks of the Nanticoke River, Seaford, Delaware, has been ranked among the best small towns in America. Its 7,000 residents enjoy shopping, parks, restaurants, first-rate medical care and easy access to the ocean. It’s a quiet place, a place where kids may ride their bikes in safety, skip stones on the river and join Little League, a place where couples of all ages may stroll hand-in-hand along pristine sidewalks and window shop among quaint storefronts. One of the main attractions in this idyllic town is the Seaford Museum. Formerly a U.S. Post Office, its red-brick walls on High St. house a trove of authentic artifacts and exhibits dating back some 10,000 years, celebrating the community’s rich and proud history. There is one exhibit, however, that inspires anything but pride.
Ensconced between the tools of the Nanticoke Indians and the tribute to Harriet Tubman is the acknowledgment of the darkest chapter in the region’s history. That’s where the exhibit of Patty Cannon is.
“Martha ‘Patty’ Cannon is regarded as arguably the most notorious female criminal in U.S. history,” said Jim Blackwell, curator of the Seaford Museum. “She is credited as the mastermind of a vicious band of as many as 60 thieves, kidnappers and murderers who for three decades wreaked havoc on free blacks and others during a campaign of terror along the Atlantic Seaboard.”
There were many circumstances that conspired to facilitate Patty’s blood-soaked rampage. “The U.S. Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808,” said Blackwell, “which because of the rise in the cotton trade, made the premium value of slaves skyrocket” to more than $1,000 in the South at a time when an acre of land could be purchased for $1.00.
“As a result of the manumissions of the Revolutionary War,” Blackwell continued, “there were many free blacks in the Maryland–Delaware area, though both were still slave states then. Additionally, a longstanding border dispute between the Calvert family of Maryland and the Penn family, which owned Pennsylvania and Delaware, created a de facto no-man’s land in which people like Patty Cannon could operate with virtual impunity.” The effort to officially delineate the borders of the two territories was complicated even further by the War of 1812, which not only subverted the resolution of the land dispute but also redirected the attention and resources of local law enforcement.
For all of her evildoing, Patty Cannon was by any measure a remarkable woman. Referred to as “fearsome” in a 1907 newspaper article, Patty was “massive of bosom, massive elsewhere… an Amazonian Paul Bunyan” who could not only out-wrestle virtually any man — and delighted in doing so — but also personally hogtied many of her kidnap victims. She was tall and flirty, with considerable wit and charm, brandishing locks of long, black hair that cascaded around a handsome face.
She no doubt brought all of these seductions to bear upon a Carolina slave trader named Ridgell, who arrived at Patty’s house with a traveling companion in the hopes of acquiring some new human chattel. He had money to spend, and Patty said she had a slave to sell but that the slave wasn’t currently on the premises. After some wine, apple toddies and pleasant conversation, Ridgell and his companion excused themselves to leave. Patty, however, had other plans.
As soon as the pair boarded their carriage and departed, Patty changed into men’s clothing. She rounded up her son-in-law, Harry Brereton, and brothers John and Jessie Griffith, who mounted horses and galloped a dusky trail to cut off Ridgell before he reached Laurel. They crossed the Nanticoke River in Seaford and headed south until they reached the road from Cannon’s Ferry to Laurel. Confident they were ahead of their quarry, they blocked the road with brush from the forest and readied their muskets for an ambush. When the carriage slowed at the roadblock, Patty and her gang opened fire. One of the lead balls ripped a hole through the torso of Ridgell, who staggered from the carriage, firing his pistol in the darkness with wild futility. Bleeding profusely, Ridgell staggered back to his carriage and smashed through the roadblock, beating a hasty retreat with his uninjured companion to Laurel, where he died about an hour later. But the failed ambush would prove costly for Patty, who wasn’t prosecuted (likely because the surviving witness couldn’t identify the disguised Patty in the cloak of night) but lost Brereton and John Griffith to the hangman’s gallows after Jesse Griffith turned state’s evidence against them. Not one to repeat mistakes, Patty Cannon would be vigilant about not leaving witnesses to her future crimes.
This was the case when another slave trader came to Patty a few years after the War of 1812 had ended. Armed with $15,000, this man, like Ridgell before him, was ready to buy slaves. As they were eating supper, she nonchalantly approached him from behind and drove a knife deep into his back. As the lifeless victim lay slumped over the table, other travelers arrived to enjoy Patty’s hospitality. She quickly threw the corpse onto the table and wrapped it, along with the dishes, in a tablecloth and dumped the entire load in a blue box so that she may entertain her guests properly. Later, the body would be buried on the property in a shallow grave, beneath a pile of rubbish.
“Patty’s house was set up to facilitate her illegal activity,” Blackwell explained. “It was situated on the border of Delaware and Maryland, in what is now Reliance but was then called Johnson’s Crossing, only a few hundred yards from the dividing line between Dorchester and Caroline counties. The house had two unconnected rooms on the second floor, each with a separate staircase and a ready supply of shackles that often held kidnap victims for months at a time.” It stood just a short distance from Johnson’s Tavern, which would form the basis of what would become Patty’s most unholy alliance.
By all accounts, Joe Johnson was one tough customer. Regarded as mean and fearless, Johnson stood a solid six feet tall and was described as “the best-built man I ever saw” by Dagsboro native John Middleton Clayton, an attorney who would go on to become a U.S. senator as well as the 18th U.S. secretary of state. According to historical accounts, Johnson was so fierce that even the officers of law enforcement were afraid to confront him. There can be no doubt that a partnership between Johnson and someone as formidable in her own right as Patty Cannon would only galvanize and extend their reign of tyranny.
Despite several close calls and brushes with the law, the Cannon-Johnson gang grew even more brazen, expanding their kidnapping territory all the way to Baltimore and Philadelphia. Not only were the two successful partners in crime, Johnson had become Patty’s son-in-law when he married her daughter, Mary, after Harry Brereton was hanged for the murder of Ridgell the slave trader. The gang’s spate of activity did not go unnoticed, however. On July 14, 1821, Deputy Sheriffs Tindal and Johnson formed a posse to arrest Joe Johnson on the basis of two old but open indictments for “kidnapping free Negroes.”
At 10:00 that morning, the posse surrounded the house of Jesse Cannon, Patty’s husband, at whose house Johnson was staying. Demands for surrender were answered by Johnson, who threatened to shoot anyone attempting to enter the house or arrest him. He reconsidered his stance, however, when he saw that the posse had blocked all avenues of escape. After a brief negotiation, Johnson surrendered. Though Johnson and his wife, Patty and Jesse Cannon, Jesse Cannon Jr. (Patty and Jesse’s son) and a man named John Stevenson were all arrested and charged with kidnapping, only Johnson stood trial. He was convicted on one of the indictments and sentenced to receive 39 lashes (the same number the Bible permitted to be used against recalcitrant slaves; more than that was considered gratuitous) in addition to having his ears nailed to a pillory, where he was to remain for an hour before having the soft part of his ears cut off. On June 4, 1822, multiple newspapers reported that the sentence against Joe Johnson had been successfully carried out, except for the excision of his ears, which, while not at all an unusual sentence during Colonial times, had nonetheless been remitted by the governor. “There is scholarship to suggest there was politics afoot in the suspension of that last part of the sentence,” offered Blackwell, “as that was the punishment that would have left permanent evidence of the crimes for which Johnson had been convicted.”
Somehow, Johnson’s punishment failed to persuade either him or Patty to renounce their ways. Instead, Patty became even more savage, abducting not only individuals but mothers with infants and small children. She did this not because the practice would fetch her extra revenue; on the contrary, young children were not valuable on the slave market. They were comparatively fragile and required years of investment by the slave owner before they could function as productive units of labor. Patty understood this all too well, of course, so she found the children to be a nuisance. This was profoundly demonstrated when one captive baby in particular wouldn’t stop crying, prompting Patty to silence it once and for all by bashing in its skull.
There was another occasion on which a light-skinned baby was born to an African-American woman. Believing that one of her relatives had fathered the child, she summarily killed that child, too. But Patty picked on more than just infants. One of her gang members, Cyrus James, saw her beat a 7-year-old so mercilessly with a large stick, the boy ultimately died from his wounds. The two infants and the older child were buried in a field near Patty’s house.
With Joe Johnson’s own wounds having healed, he and Patty turned their attention to the nation’s largest city, Philadelphia, where there existed a bountiful supply of free blacks for the picking. With the willing aid of a “light-skinned man” named John Purnell, the gang would trick young males — many of them chimney sweeps, whose job would call them away from their homes for days at a time — to board Johnson’s sloop, where they would be imprisoned and ultimately delivered to a waiting plantation owner in the South who was in need of a fresh crop of slaves. For a while, business was good for the Cannon-Johnson gang, but once again, their greed and indifference to human suffering would bring them unwanted attention.
Thanks to some white men of conscience strewn between Pennsylvania and Mississippi, the long arm of the law began to close in on Patty and her gang. These included men like John Hamilton and John Henderson of Mississippi, who drafted a letter to Mayor Joseph Watson of Philadelphia, informing him in great detail what they’d learned and witnessed regarding free blacks being shipped to the South by Joe Johnson and his brother, Ebenezer. “Watson immediately turned the letter over to the newspapers,” said Blackwell, “which brought the story to the attention of Delaware Attorney General James Rogers.”
Rogers had been following the exploits of the Johnson brothers for years and knew about Joe’s conviction and flogging in 1822. He wrote to Watson immediately, stating that “Joseph is perhaps the most celebrated kidnapper and Negro stealer in the country” and that no means should be excluded that may bring the Johnson brothers, especially Joe, to justice. In response, the mayor brought in an intrepid constable named Samuel Garrigues, who was tasked with investigating the Philadelphia kidnappings. With the full cooperation of Mississippi Attorney General Richard Stockton, Garrigues was able to rescue the kidnap victims from Mississippi and transport them back to their homes in Pennsylvania. At one point, Stockton had written to Mayor Watson, stating: “It is the subject of deep regret to me that proper measures were not taken to ascertain the cause of death of one of the unfortunate youths, at the time the rest were stopped. There is no doubt upon my mind, but that he was cruelly and barbarously murdered.”
Meanwhile, Watson had set his sights — and Garrigues — on finding Purnell, who they speculated would be the weak link in the chain that kept the Cannon-Johnson gang together. They were right. It took Garrigues and the other authorities only a short time to hunt down Purnell, who had been hiding out in Boston. Back in Philadelphia, he was convicted of two counts of kidnapping in 1827 and sentenced to serve 42 years in prison and pay a $4,000 fine.
Though Purnell did not implicate any other gang members, the Johnson brothers weren’t taking any chances and fled the state of Delaware. They were never seen or heard from again.
“By 1829, Patty was nearly 70 years old and, for all intents and purposes, had retired from her life of crime,” Blackwell said. “She was already financially secure from many years of criminal activity, but she received additional revenue from renting a portion of her property to a farmer.”
In April of ’29, the winter thaw had ended, and it was time to plant. Her tenant farmer decided to clear a low-lying spot that had been years overgrown with brush. Once cleared, he began to plow the area when he noticed his horse was sinking up to its haunches in a dip in the terrain. Having freed his animal from the mire, he started to dig through the loose dirt, unearthing a three-foot-long blue chest in the process. Within the box lay a collection of human bones that practically filled it.
News of the farmer’s discovery spread quickly through the territory, attracting people from miles away to see the grisly contents of the blue box buried at Patty Cannon’s house. Some of them recalled a time 10 or 12 years earlier when a Georgian slave trader with lots of money to spend came to town but never returned home. That Patty was later found to have had the man’s horse would only fuel speculation that they had a murderess in their midst.
With the help of Cyrus James — who shared what he knew of the man’s death at the hands of Patty and the Johnson brothers with authorities — the near-rabid crowd tore through Patty’s land as if they were bloodhounds on a scent. Under a garden they found the bones of a young child whose slave mother, James said, had borne a light-skinned child whom Patty killed because she thought it had been fathered by one of Patty’s relatives. More bones were found in a spot a few feet away, some from a child about seven years old and others belonging to a younger child. James went on to explain that some children were hard to keep quiet, and without the ability to send them away, she would kill them rather than risk having her activities exposed.
Clearly the worst account of Patty’s brutality surfaced years later. It was claimed that when Patty was enraged by a screaming 5-year-old, she first pummeled the child, and after that failed to silence him, tore off his clothes and burned him to death by holding his face to a fire raging in the fireplace. This account was not among those reported by James, however, and has never been substantiated.
On April 13, 1829, Attorney General James Rogers indicted Patty Cannon on four counts of what were likely the most heinous and provable crimes she’d committed. According to one source, they included the murders of three children on April 26, 1822, describing how two of the innocents were strangled to death, while the third was ostensibly buried alive.
The trial of the century that was scheduled to take place at the Georgetown courthouse was anticipated by the populace like no other before it — or since. But it was not to be. Patty Cannon was poisoned and died in her cell on May 11, 1829. Some say it was suicide; others claim she was murdered. Either way, she and the Johnson brothers were tried in absentia, found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Establishing the grim statistics of Patty Cannon’s crimes has proved enigmatic at best. Some estimates claim 20 to 30 people were murdered during her career, with some 3,000 to 10,000 kidnapped. What remains of Patty’s horrific legacy currently resides at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., where her skull is on indefinite loan.
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