The Legend of Patty Cannon

Patty Cannon's skull - currently held at the Dover Public Library.
delmarvanow - By Michael Morgan - In a scene worthy of a Hollywood horror picture, an unsuspecting tenant farmer in southwestern Sussex County was calmly plowing a field when the earth opened up and swallowed his horse. Fortunately, the animal sank only belly deep, and after some work, the farmer was able to extricate the animal from the mysterious hole. Intrigued by the sudden appearance of the ragged hollow, the farmer cleared away the loose dirt and discovered a blue chest. After the odd box was brought to the surface and pried open, the farmer looked upon the jumbled bones of a dead man.

The farm was owned by Patty Cannon, who had long been suspected of a number of unsavory activities, and news of the grizzly discovery spread quickly. A horde of neighbors descended on the farm, and after uncovering several other skeletons, the mob broke into Cannon's house, where they discovered a hidden trapdoor in the ceiling of a closet. The frenzied searchers climbed through the secret door of the garret, where they discovered a windowless room constructed of heavy planks and equipped with leg irons. Here, the throng believed, was the answer to the mysterious disappearances of travelers that had plagued Sussex County for years.

During the first quarter of the 19th century, Cannon, who lived south of Seaford, had several brushes with the law, but she was always able to avoid serious consequences. In 1813, a warrant was issued for her arrest for trespassing and assault, but the charges were dropped. In 1816, her husband, Jesse, was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 39 lashes and a stay in the pillory. For years, there had been rumors about Cannon, but it was not until the crude graves and home were searched that the dark secrets of her shadowy life were exposed to the bright light of justice. After her arrest, she was hustled off to the Georgetown jail; Cannon hardly looked like a serial killer. According to a contemporary newspaper account: "This woman is now between 60 and 70 years of age, and looks more like a man than a women, but old as she is, she is believed to be as heedless and heartless as the most abandoned wretch that breathes."

Cannon confirmed the lurid rumors about her and confessed to killing 11 people, helping to murder a dozen others, and kidnapping blacks who were sold to slave catchers as runaway slaves. Within weeks, she was catapulted from being a cantankerous old woman who haunted the back trails of southern Delaware to becoming a nationally-known symbol of ruthless depravity. While awaiting trial, she was found dead in her cell. The wicked fiend had apparently cheated the hangman's noose by taking poison.

The infamy of Cannon grew after her death, and by the middle of the 20th century, some writers turned her into an attractive, but hard-hearted woman. In the 1950s, William Hartley published a sensational account of her crimes that included drawings that modeled her after Hollywood starlets. More accurate was the image of the drawing on the cover of "The Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon," which was published just a dozen years after her death. The illustration depicted a shapely woman standing with her upper body tilted provocatively to one side. With her back to the viewer and her face toward a blazing fireplace, her right hand kept her long hair in place. As she stood in her "come hither" pose, the woman's left hand was demurely tossing a small child into the roaring fireplace. Such wanton depravity sent chills down the spines of Sussex County residents for generations, and for many years, parents told children, "Be home before dark or Patty Cannon will get you!"

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THE PATTY CANNON HOUSE

Patty Cannon and her husband Joe Johnson ran a slave sale trade. No one really knows where Patty Cannon came from, although some believe Canada, but all historians agree that she began her life of crime in the early 1800's as the leader of a gang that was organized to kidnap free blacks and sell them into black market slavery. When they brought them back to the house they would hide them in the basement, hidden rooms in the house and in the attic. They would take the slaves in covered wagons to Johnson's Ferry (now Woodland's Ferry). At the ferry they would sometimes meet a schooner which would take them down the Nanticoke River to the Chesapeake Bay and onto Georgia slave markets. This went on for many years with no one willing to turn them in to the police.

When they were caught in May, 1822 it took some coordination. It seems that when Patty Cannon knew the police were coming she would slip across state lines and away from that police force. Upon capture Joe Johnson was sentenced to 39 lashes which was carried out. Patty Cannon was charged with murder which she confessed to and while she was in her cell in Georgetown, Delaware she killed herself. What did Patty Cannon have to do with Maryland history?

When my husband and I were building a house we wanted to sell our trailer to get the money for building materials. When we had sold the trailer a friend called and told us that the bank was looking for someone to housesit the Patty Cannon house. A friend asked if we were interested and would we be scared because of all the ghost stories that were linked to this house.

We moved in December to discover that in the attic there was a straw mattress and chains. When the last owners were there they had decorated the house to give the feeling of the time when Patty Cannon lived there. We searched the house for hidden rooms and at one point crawled underneath the house where supposedly there was a basement. There were signs of what could have been a ladder leading to a hidden room in one of the closets. But our strangest sight was the two mannequins standing in the sliding glass doors. These mannequins were colored with black and wore clothing that had been torn and ripped so that they looked like slaves. When you drove past the house you would look into the sliding glass doors and think that there were two people staring at you. We heard sounds that could not be explained easily and sleeping under the door to the attic was eerie. The students I teach do not believe that I could live in this house and want to know what the sounds were and if there was a basement.

Since we lived there we have moved to a new house which is near what was an old hotel. In the basement of the Waterview Hotel is a bar and behind the bar is an opening that leads out into the Nanticoke River and to an island that no longer exists. Supposedly Patty Cannon used this tunnel to transport slaves to a ship that met them on the island. The Woodland Ferry is also on the Nanticoke River outside of Seaford, Delaware. Try to locate the Nanticoke River and Seaford, Delaware. - www.globalclassroom.org

NOTE: Thanks to the PBS television show "History Detectives", the current Patty Cannon house was not actually her house. The structure on the site was built after her death...Lon

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TYLER'S ENCOUNTER

castleofspirits - Jack Purnell was an associate of Patty Cannon's and was also a free slave at the time. Purnell was responsible for kidnapping dozens of other "Free Slaves" and selling them to plantations in the south, as well as to Patty Cannon to help work her criminal web. Rumor has it that he would kidnap a slave or two and would row his boat out into the Nanticoke river and shackle these free slaves to a few trees on a tiny Island in the middle of one of the many backwater lagoons. This Island was far from regular river travel at the time and was well concealed by bushes, and protected by underwater hazards such as sunken logs. Purnell would then return to town to sell his new captures, and after a day or so would return to the Island with a potential buyer to make the "sale".

One especially hot summer Purnell returned to the Island after two days of absence only to find that two out of the three slaves he had shackled there had died from heat exhaustion, and the third slave, (barely alive at this point) was dangling by his wrists from his chains. Purnell pulled out his lantern as night was encroaching on him, and began the task of removing the dead slaves from their shackles and after a few minutes of checking for other boats in the area, he dumped the bodies into the lagoon (the tiny Island was too full of roots from its dozen or so trees to dig graves). This is where the legend of Shackle Island ends, no one knows exactly where the Island is but, many locals including myself have claimed to have found it. It is no longer an island however as a hundred and eighty-six years of changing environments and seasons have reshaped the outline and path of the river, this shallow lagoon is now a mini swamp, and the Island is just a tiny hill with 3 large trees dominating the top of it.

It was a cold gray day in November and a buddy of mine and I went hunting and camping in the large woods that envelops the river down by a park, and boat dock named Phillip's Landing. After walking most of the day looking for terrain features that would be suitable for hunting deer, we decided it would be best to establish a "camp" and get a small fire going to cook dinner on, and dry out our wet socks, since the days are much shorter than in the summer.

While my friend pitched the tent, and began digging the fire pit I began to look for stones for a "draft wall" to put around the fire pit, and then finally to find some dry firewood. I must have walked further than I thought because suddenly I was lost and darkness was setting in. I began to scan for smoke in the sky or even the faint flicker of fire reflecting off the snow at the bases of the trees. There was no snow on the wet ground under my feet, so I could not retrace my steps back to camp.

My hunting partner had not been able to get a fire started as darkness settled in and he feared suffering the same fate as myself should he venture out for wood also. Luckily we had some 2-way radios, and after 10 minutes of discussing coordinates based on our individual compasses and maps we decided I was only about 30 yards from the river, and if I could find it and follow it back south a ways, I would be within 10 yards of the camp, and my buddy could use his whistle, or flashlight to signal me.

We kept up our communications as I began my trek to the river, when all of the sudden there in my path loomed a fairly large (15 foot) rotten boat. The boat was partially buried in the muddy ground, and was covered with moss, and small patches of snow clung to the moss here and there. An old oar broken in half, dangled over the edge of the boat, paddle half buried in the ground, and the handle buried in the mud in the bottom of the boat looked as if someone rowed this boat inland about 20 yards from the river. "There's a boat in the middle of the woods here," I said into the radio as I passed by it along the river. All I heard in return was static, no one answered my radio calls for the next ten minutes. I wondered if his radio had malfunctioned, or if he maybe had set out on his own to find me. Suddenly I heard a crackle on the radio and stopped to try and get the signal, but to no avail. Wait! Light! My mind raced, finally warm food and a nice warm tent, the only problem was the light was a little northwest of me and looked like it was from one of our coleman lanterns. He did try to find me I said to myself as I hollered to him and ran toward the lantern light. As I did my radio began screeching static at me, so I turned it down a little and as I neared closer to the light, I came across the boat again. Wow, I said you are out here a ways too, huh? And with that the light went out. Looking around I found myself on the side of a mossy hill, and decided to walk to the top to get a better view, maybe my buddy was just on the other side trying to relight the lantern. At the top of the hill stood three massive Cypress trees, and protruding out of one was what looked like an open wrist shackle and two links of chain, (the rest had been grown over by the tree) Suddenly I saw the light again at the boat, and I ran towards it as fast as I could, but as I neared the rotten hulk I saw the light move to the river's edge, and then out on the river itself.

By then I was spooked pretty bad, and suddenly my radio came to life, "Tyler!, where are you? I just saw your flashlight, about 10 minutes ago, and then you took off hollering in the other direction. Whats going on?" My blood ran cold and I raced through the brush and trees along the river south to camp, all the while that light followed me from out in the river.

After I got back and told him about what happened we packed up and left that camp at first light. Never to return there again.

I learned the Patty Cannon, and Jack Purnell History from my local library, and after reading about "Shackle Island" I was convinced I had been there, and that I would never go back. - Tyler from Delaware
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