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 Delmarva 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 and Dorchester County in 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.
The US Congress had 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.
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 Cannon 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 southern 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.
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.
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.