Episode 42 - Reverse Underground Railroad

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We don’t know much about the early life of Patty Cannon. Some believe that she was born Lucretia Patricia Hanly or Martha Patricia Hanly around 1760, but she went by Patty. There are differing accounts of her parents and where Patty was born as well. Some accounts say that her father was from a royal English family, but was cast out because he was a scoundrel and he made his way to North America. Other accounts say Patty belonged to a family of gypsies in Canada and then she made her way into the United States, working as a prostitute in her early twenties with hopes of owning her own brothel one day. Whatever happened in her early life, we do know that she eventually ended up in Sussex County, Delaware and married Jesse Cannon, who had some farmland in Johnson’s Crossroads, which was just a few yards from the Delaware/Maryland border. They had a daughter they named Mary Cannon and a son they named Jesse Connor Jr.

Patty was a big lady, in both height and weight. One source that I read described Patty as an “Amazonian Paul Bunyan.” She was also very strong and attractive, and would entertain travelers passing through their town.

By the time the American Revolution came around, British slave importers had brought around three millions captured Africans to the Americas to be used as slaves. After the revolutionary war was over, many Northern states passed legislation that abolished slavery in their states since slavery was not crucial for their economies. The South, however, ran their economy on the ability of having slave labor. When new states were added to the union, there was often a lot of debate and tension on if the state would be a free state or a slave state. In 1807, congress passed a law to abolish the African slave trade that would go into effect in 1808. This law did not abolish slavery, but meant that new slaves could not be brought into American from Africa.

Even though trading slaves was not illegal and children born to enslaved parents were automatically enslaved themselves, many plantations still wanted to grow their slave populations and the price of slaves skyrocketed to an average price of $300 per slave (around $7,000 today) at a time when you could buy an acre of land for $1. Slave traders would roam the country looking for slaves to buy that they could then sell to plantations at an increased price.

In 1811, a man named Ridgell and his travelling companion were travelling through Johnson’s Crossing and stopped in at Patty’s home. She offered them strong hot toddy’s and listened to the stories of their travels. Ridgell mentioned to Patty that he was a slave trader and was carrying cash to buy any slaves that he came across. Patty then mentioned that she had a slave to sell, unfortunately he was not there at the moment, so before leaving, Ridgell said that he would return to buy Patty’s slave and him and his friend took off down the road in their carriage.

As soon as Ridgell left, Patty went to go get her son-in-law, Harry Brereton, and two local brothers, John and Jesse Griffith, that were known troublemakers. The men and Patty dressed in dark coats, tall hats, and grabbed their muskets. They jumped on their horses and started to make their way through the nearby forest to cut off Ridgell’s carriage and rob him of all his cash. Patty and her men knew that Ridgell would have to cross the river at Cannon’s Ferry and it would take awhile for the ferryman to be called over and then make their way across the river. Patty’s gang would cross the river at a closer point and then waited by the road for the carriage. When Ridgell’s carriage was in view, Patty and the men opened fire on it. Ridgell was hit by a musket ball that went through his stomach. He fired back with his pistol into the dark and then got back in the carriage and left. Ridgell and his friend made it to the next town over named Laurel, but Ridgell died of his wounds about an hour later.

Ridgell’s friend told authorities about their stop at Patty’s and then the ambush that took part soon after. Sussex county authorities caught Jesse Griffith and it didn’t take much for him to spill all the details of the attempted heist and the participants, except that he left out Patty’s name, or he mentioned her but authorities chose not to arrest her. Jesse’s brother John and Patty’s son in law Harry were soon arrested, tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death by hanging.

If anything, Patty grew braver after the encounter and when another slave trader showed up at her house a few years later bragging about how he had $15,000 in cash on him to buy slaves, Patty found that an opportunity too good to pass up. While the slave trader was eating a meal that Patty had prepared, Patty walked up behind him and stabbed him in the back. As soon as the slave trader slumped over the table, Patty heard more travelers outside of her door ready to come in and visit. So she got the slave trader onto the table and wrapped him and all of the dishes on the table up in the tablecloth and shoved it all into a big box. She then let the other travelers in to eat and drink with her. Once they left, she got a couple of other local brothers named the Johnson brothers to dump the slave trader’s body into a shallow grave.

One of the brothers, Joe Johnson, was a big man over six feet tall, very intimidating, and owned a tavern across the street from Patty’s house that straddled the Delaware/Maryland border. Joe married Patty’s daughter Mary and after the marriage invited Patty to join in his business. While Patty had a pretty penny from killing the slave trader, a much more lucrative and self-sustaining business was the business of kidnapping freed black Americans and selling them to the slave traders that came through. Would collect freed black men and women from both Delaware and Maryland and then keep them shackled in the attic of the tavern. When they tavern’s attic was filled with black women and men, they were put on a boat that went down the Nanticoke River and across the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis. They were then taken to Washington D.C. where they were shackled in another tavern attic until they were purchased.

Delaware was a free state and many escaped slaves felt safe once they crossed over the Mason Dixon line into Delaware, but Maryland was a slave state, which meant if Patty or Joe ever got into trouble with Delaware authorities for kidnapping or slave trading, all they would have to do is step back into Maryland. Johnson’s Crossing was also along one of the Underground Railroad routes, which meant there was a lot of escaped slaves making their way towards Northern states, which meant that much bigger of a population for Joe and Patty to prey on.

Patty soon became part of what is known as the Reverse Underground Railroad and grew her gang to start kidnapping further and further away from Johnson’s Crossing, even as far as Philadelphia, and then bringing them back to the tavern to await the next shipment of kidnapped slaves. Desperate to not be sold into slavery, either again or for the first time, these people tried as hard as they could to escape. One young African American man cut his throat before Patty’s gang could even get him out of Philadelphia.

Another woman tried escaping the tavern in Washington D.C. by jumping out of the attic window and fell three stories into the street. She broke her back and both arms between the elbows and wrists. Her moans woke up Washington D.C. mayor James H. Blake who was also a doctor. He set the bones in her arms and when she was stable, he returned her to the tavern. She became the tavern-keepers slave since no traders wanted a slave with a broken back, but they took her two children and sold them in the Carolinas. News of her fall reached an abolitionist named Jesse Torrey who was able to get into the tavern attic and interview the men and women being held there.

However, that was all that he could do since neither he nor the kidnapped people have evidence that they had ever been free. Instead, Jesse traveled to the surrounding area where he gathered information on Patty’s gang. He then returned to Washington with his evidence and appealed to a court to free the people being held in the tavern attic.

In 1816, a member of Patsy’s gang hired a free black American named Abram Luomony to work on the crew of his small ship. When the ship got close to a bridge, Joe Johnson jumped from the bridge onto the ship, tackled Luomony and tied him up with help from the rest of ship’s crew. Luomony was taken to Patty’s attic, where he stayed there shackled for three days. After the third day, Luomony was able to slip out of his shackles and escape. He found shelter with a couple of Delaware abolitionists who sent word of his experience to authorities in Philadelphia.

Around the same time, another man kidnapped by Patty ended up being sold to his previous owner. Because of this, the man was able to sue for his freedom, and his story helped authorities continue to build their case against Patty and her gang. In 1819, a free black women from Philadelphia named Sarah Hagerman was kidnapped by Patty’s gang. Word of her abduction and her abductors made their way to Willis, a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and Hatfield Wright, one of Patty’s neighbors who was also an abolitionist. Willis and Wright concocted a plan to try to find Sarah Hagerman in Patty’s house. They hired a man to pretend to be looking to buy a slave, who was led by Patty into her attic to take a look at the slaves. The man was able to pick Hagerman out of the group of slaves and let Willis and Wright know. They contacted the sheriff who was able to get a warrant to search Patty’s house.

The sheriff and his posse went into Patty’s house and found five young black women shackled in the attic. However, none of the women were Sarah Hagerman and the sheriff was forced to leave empty handed.

Patty began to kidnap not only men and women, but mothers with babies and small children. Small children were not valuable on the slave market since a slave owner would have to invest several years into the child before seeing any return of productive labor. Patty saw no reason to keep the children. On several occasions, Patty would bash in a babies head if it’s crying annoyed her and when one of the kidnapped women gave birth to a light-skinned baby while in Patty’s custody, Patty assumed that it was either her husband’s or son’s baby, so she killed it right then and there. In another incident, a five year old was screaming so Patty beat him, but no matter how hard she hit him, he kept screaming. Patty then tore the clothes off the child and held him in her fireplace until he burned to death. Patty buried the children’s bodies in one of the farm fields behind her home.

Several years later, in 1821 a posse arrested Joe Johnson, Patty and Jesse Cannon, and Jesse Cannon Jr on two bills of indictment found against him several years past, for kidnapping free blacks. Despite having all of the gang leaders arrested, Joe Johnson was the only one prosecuted and the rest were let go. Joe Johnson was convicted on one of the bills of indictment for kidnapping and was sentenced to endure 39 lashes, have his ears nailed to the pillory for an hour, and then have the soft part of his ears cut off. Joe had the 39 lashes and had his ears nailed to the pillory, but the governor remitted the part of the sentence of getting the soft part of his ears cut off.

The flogging did not deter Joe or Patty from continuing their kidnapping schemes, and three years after his sentence was carried out, a large number of free young black people began to disappear from Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs, including a large number of black chimney sweeps. In 1825, twenty black chimney sweeps were missing from Philadelphia and the surrounding area and people began to get very suspicious that something sinister was happening.

In 1826, Patty’s husband Jesse died, and rumors began to swirl that Patty had poisoned him, but no authorities attempted to arrest her for murder. By this time, Patty was in her 60’s and was starting to ease into retirement. She had made a lot of money from both the kidnappings and robbing various slave traders and was now renting her land to a tenant farmer, which was generating plenty of income for her to live the rest of her days off of. The kidnappings began to drop off and Patty began to relax.

In April 1829, Patty’s tenant farmer was plowing a field next to her house when he decided to clean up an area that was covered in brush so he could expand the area that he could plant crops. Once he got the brush cleaned up, he started to plow the area. His horse that was pulling the plow began to sink into the dirt. So the farmer got his horse out of the soft soil and started digging to see why the dirt was so loose and soft. After a few minutes, the farmer unearthed a large box that was filled with human bones. The farmer got out of there as fast as he could to tell everybody in town about the bones. Soon, a large group was in Patty’s field looking at the box of bones and then everybody started saying “Hey, do you remember that slave trader that showed up around a decade ago with a ton of money and then nobody ever heard from him after he showed up here?”

When authorities heard about the bones, they decided to ask Cyrus James, Patty’s slave that she had since he was seven years old and had help her lure in freed blacks to be kidnapped. James quickly started telling authorities about how Patty killed the slave trader and that she had murdered several others and he could show them where all of the bodies were buried. James led authorities and a large crowd equipped with shovels through Patty’s fields and pointed out all the burial places that James could remember, and bones of both adults and children were dug up all over her property.

With James’ testimony and the bones found, authorities finally had enough evidence to arrest patty Cannon. Patty was taken to the jail in Georgetown while people continued to dig through her fields looking for more bones. Patty knew that she was going to be arrested by Delaware police, since that’s the state that her house and property was in, and she ran over to the Maryland side of the tavern. However, a Delaware sheriff who was said to be handsome and a smooth talker was able to get Patty to cross over the state line and promptly arrested her. Patty was indicted on three counts of murder. However, the trial never happened because Patty was found dead in her cell with no apparent cause, but there is speculation that she was able to get a hold of some arsenic and would have rather poisoned herself than go through with the trial, where she would’ve more than likely been found guilty and hanged in the town square.

Patty was buried in the jail graveyard. Many years later, the graveyard was dug up so that it could paved and turned into the courthouse parking lot. Patty’s remains were dumped into a Sussex County Potter’s Field, except for her skull which was kept by the Dover Public Library.


“Congress Abolishes the African Slave Trade” article

“Delmarva’s Patty Cannon: The Devil on the Nanticoke” by Michael Morgan

“Delaware’s Patty Cannon and Her Evil Ways” by Shannon Marvel McNaught

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