Sussex County, Delaware

Genealogy Trails History Group

Genealogy and History
Volunteers Dedicated to Free Genealogy

The Notorious Patty Cannon

Johnson's Tavern
Johnson's Tavern

Martha "Patty" Cannon (circa 1760 - May 11, 1829) was a murderer and ruthless leader of a gang that dealt in illegal slave trade in the early 19th century. Patty Cannon with her son-in-law, Joseph Johnson and other gang members, kidnapped slaves and free blacks from Delaware, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland and transported and sold them to plantation owners located further south. She lived in Sussex County, Delaware but operated Johnson's Tavern which was located on the state line between Sussex County, Delaware and Caroline and Dorchester County, Maryland in Johnson's Cross Roads (now Reliance, Delaware).

There is no record of Patty Cannon ever being brought to trial for any crimes. Joseph Johnson was only brought to trial once for kidnapping a free black man and sentenced to a public whipping. In 1829 Patty Canon was arrested for murder after human remains were found on her farm. The remains were believed to be a wealthy slave trader that mysteriously disappeared. A slave owned by Patty led the investigators to other bodies buried on her farm. She died in the Georgetown, Delaware jail while awaiting trial, purportedly a suicide via poison. Joseph Johnson was never captured.


Near the peaceful little town of Reliance in the eastern part of Dorchester County, only a few yards distant from the Delaware line, stands a house around which in the early part of the nineteenth century, were enacted many deeds of blood. This was a place of terror to the negroes of the two states, for here were the headquarters of Patty Cannon's gang, and in those days, "her's was a name to conjur with." One had but to mention to a negro that Patty Cannon was coming and the darkey would turn as ashen a hue as his color would permit and fly for his life.

It was also noteworthy as much for the villany of Joe Johnson, Patty's son-in-law, as for Patty herself, and to this day the site of Joe Johnson's tavern is on the map as "Johnson's Cross Roads."

Rarely in modern times do we find a woman so void of all human emotions and sympathies as this degenerate creature who was at the head of as vile a gang of slave traders, cut throats and murderers as ever stretched a gallows rope.

It was about 1802 that Patty Hanley came to the Eastern Shore of Maryland from parts unknown and married a bright mechanic of good family, named Jesse Cannon. They had two children, one of whom married Joe Johnson, with whom she later made an alliance for the purpose of stealing and selling slaves.

Jesse Cannon died mysteriously and it was thought his wife made way with him, though there was no tangible evidence. Many years later, when the net of her own misdeeds was closing in about her, she admitted having given him poison.

Some say that Patty was a gypsy. She was more or less robust, had a wealth of black hair and her face, while showing the effects of her evil passions and dissipations, was more or less good to look upon.

The gypsy blood in her seemed to be dominant, for she coveted wealth with a passion that brooked no interference. A human life, if it stood between her and the realization of her desires, counted for naught. Many murders were laid at her door, blood shed by her own hand, while in her garden she had a small cemetery of her own in which she buried her victims. If any of the negro women hidden at the tavern had children which were too small to be marketable, they mysteriously disappeared. On one occasion when the crying of an infant annoyed her, flying into a violent passion, she seized the child and threw it into the fire.

It was her greed for gold that led to the alliance with her son-in-law, which for many years reaped a rich harvest. The spot selected for her house and that of Johnson could not have been better located for the purpose. About midway between Easton and Princess Anne, with Dover only a short distance to the east, they had a rich field for the plying of their nefarious traffic. At that time that section of the country was but sparsely settled and was surrounded on every hand by dense tracts of timber land. Located between the Chesapeake and the Delaware Bays, little arms and branches of which made up near the place, they had the double advantage of being able to work by water as well as by land.

Patty's house was erected squarely on the line between the two states, so that when the officers from one state came for her, she had but to go into an adjoining room to be out of their jurisdiction. The house built by Johnson, which he erected at the cross roads, was within calling distance of Patty's and only a few yards from the line.

This house was known far and wide as "Joe Johnson's Tavern." It was here that the miserable wretches were kept imprisoned in the attic until a favorable opportunity presented itself for their being spirited down South, or until a "nigger trader from Georgie" came for them.

The attic was specially constructed for this purpose, and many of the devices put there for the safe keeping of the prisoners remained for many years after the death of Patty and the escape of Johnson. It has been described to me by one who saw it, as being "sealed with two inch white oak plank, with ring bolts fastened securely into the ceiling and walls, to each of which a chain was attached. The space was divided into two rooms, the back room being without windows, while the door opening into it was double, with heavy iron fastenings. There was a sort of transom over the door, strongly protected by iron bars, through which came the only ventilation the room ever had."

While Johnson was the working head of the gang, it was Patty's fertile brain which devised the many subtle schemes by which they worked.

One of the plans which was successful for a long while was that Johnson would engage a number of free negroes as a crew for his boat, which was supposed to be employed in a legitimate traffic. When once he got them on board and below deck, the hatches were battened down and he then put back for home, turning the captives over to the tender mercies of Patty who arranged for their sale to the slave traders further South.

Woe to the man who went to the "Cross Roads'' to buy slaves and carried too much money. On one occasion, when an injudicious trader spoke of his "roll," he was told in a friendly way that the '' Tavern'' was not a safe place for a man with much money on his person and was cordially invited to stop at Patty Cannon's across the way. While at supper Mistress Patty excuses herself and goes into the garden to do some hoeing. Slipping up behind the guest, while he was still at the table, she shoots him dead and with the assistance of a negro in her employ, dismembered the body so as to get it into a chest which was buried in her private cemetery.

So wholesome was the fear in which she was held by this darkey, that for years he kept the secrets of the house and its many tragedies.

It was for this very murder that fourteen years later she was arrested and locked up in the Georgetown jail. Probably it would never have been discovered but for the fact that while having the field plowed one spring when the ground was soft, the horses broke through this shallow grave, disclosing its ghastly contents. This exposure, together with the betrayal of the negro who assisted, led to her undoing.

Another of the plans by which the negroes were entrapped was by means of several agents, many of them negroes themselves, who caused it to be known that their house was a refuge for runaway slaves and that assistance would be given them to escape North. When once a runaway took refuge there, he was detained long enough for word to reach Patty, when a raid would be made, and not only the fugitive, but the decoy as well, would be tied hand and foot and carried off, despite his loud protestations. The decoy was, of course, later released and returned to bait another trap. By this means suspicion was for a long time averted.

After a while, even this failed to bring results and more desperate means were employed. Not satisfied with capturing free slaves and fugitives on their way to a free state, they would steal negroes in bondage. The last raid of any consequence which was planned and executed, was into the very town of Dover itself, though on account of a warning given of their coming, it failed dismally.

One human trait which seemed to have remained in this woman, was that she loved with all the passion of her nature, the worst villain of the gang. Perhaps it was his consummate skill in the trade which called forth her admiration. But her love was never to be rewarded, for he received injuries in the Dover raid from which he died on the porch of the tavern even as the officers of Maryland were closing in about the house to arrest the mistress.

Johnson had received warning of the expected arrest and had made good his escape the night before, taking with him a large sum of money which Patty had obtained by murdering a slave trader whose gold had caught her avaricious eye. In vain did she beg Johnson to take her with him; cursing her for the selfish gratification of her own desires which had caused their downfall, he left her to her fate.

Thus she stood, on the porch of the old tavern, deserted by all those whom she had gathered round her, with the dead body of the only man she ever loved staring her in the face, when the officers approached her. She made no protest and went to the Georgetown jail, where she was placed in a cell and chained in much the same manner as she had treated her own captives.

Filled with remorse at the failure of her plans and her desertion by the members of her gang, she took poison and within a few days died as she had lived-miserably.

Many stories were told of her physical prowess. She could stand in a bushel measure and lift three hundred pounds of grain to her shoulder. In a hand to hand fight she was as good as two men. Woe to the darkey who happened to meet her alone on the county road. Many a time she had grappled with a strapping negro, tied him hand and foot and thrown him unaided into a wagon.

Dead men tell no tales, nor did the victims of Patty Cannon when once they got into her clutches. They were either sold South without having an opportunity to communicate with friends, or were added to those who lay in the garden back of the house. Only one negro who was captured ever escaped. He was confined in the attic prison with a chain and ball. Being alone, he managed to open the trap door and drop into the room below. The house being deserted at the time, he made good his escape to Seaford where the chain and ball were taken off by a Mr. Hazzard, whose son later wrote a history of Seaford in which he included the story of the negro's escape.

I have been told that some years ago, a young attorney of Baltimore was visiting near the old tavern and was dared to spend a night in it. The forfeit being posted, the young man went to the house, made himself a bed on the floor and went to sleep. He was awakened towards midnight by the sound of a chain dragging across the floor. Having an easy conscience, he struck a light and instituted a search which revealed the presence of a dog, which had broken loose from his kennel and had wandered into the house, dragging his chain after him. Being wide awake, the young man determined to find the mysterious chamber, the location of which so long defied detection, finally locating its entrance from a closet with a false door.

Meantime, several belated travelers, seeing lights in the old house, fled to Seaford, swearing that Patty Cannon had come back.

The house is not haunted, far from it. But has been remodeled and is now occupied by Mr. James M. Smith and family, to whom I am indebted for much of this narrative.

There has been so much said about Patty Cannon which could not be substantiated, that as a matter of curiosity I had the court records at Georgetown examined to see what indictments could be found against her. Mr. Ellwood Wright, the Deputy Clerk, examined the books as far back as 1750. Strange to say, in all the indictments against Patty and the members of her gang, the case of Joseph Johnson for kidnapping a free negro man in Delaware and taking him into Maryland is the only instance where there is any record of the parties ever being brought to trial.

While I have not been furnished with copies of all the indictments against the various members of the gang, I have one dated April 13th, 1829, charging Patty Cannon with the murder of three infants seven years prior to that time.

In another indictment of the same date she is charged with being an accessory with Johnson in the murder of a negro boy.

There are no records to show that Patty herself was ever brought to trial. That she was arrested and locked up is certain, and that she took poison before her trial is also substantiated. It is claimed that she is buried in a corner of the jail yard at Georgetown. The indictment in the kidnapping case in which Johnson was tried and punished, is as follows:

State vs.
Joseph Johnson
John Stevenson
Jessie Cannon
Jessie Cannon, Jr.
Martha Cannon
Mary Johnson

Indictment: Kidnapping
True Bill

November 12, 1821, the defendant, Joseph Johnson, pleaded "Not Guilty". "Guilty", saidy the Attorney General. November 14th, 1821, continued upon affidavit of defendant and now to wit: this 25th day of April 1822, Joseph Johnson was brought to the bar of the Court and Jury drawn, verdiect of the jury "Guilty," April 30th, 1822. Notice by council for defendant to show cause why the said verdict should not be set aside because there was reasonable grounds for the jury to entertain doubt of the guilt of the defendant.

"May 1st, 1822: Upon agreement, rule was discharged and now to wit: the third day of May 1822 the defendant was brought into court by the Sheriff of Sussex County, Delaware, being convicted of having feloniously kidnapped, taken and carried away from this State in the State of Maryland, a free negro man, named Thomas Spence.

"The sentence of the court is that Joseph Johnson shall be publicly whipped on his bare back with 39 lashes, well laid on, and shall stand one hour in the pillory with both ears nailed thereto, and at the expiration of the one house, shall have the soft part of each ear cut off and shall pay the cost of this prosecution and the above judgment to be executed on Tuesday, the fourth day of June next ensuirng, between the hours of 10:00 A.M. and 4 P.M."

An entry dated June 12th, 1822, reads as follows:
"On Tuesday, the fourst day of June, between the hours of 10:00 o'clock A.M. and 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon, the punishment upon Joseph Johnson was inflicted agreeable to the order of the Court, except the cutting off of the soft part of the ears, which was remitted by the Governor."
(Signed) William Ellegood, Sheriff.

The Martha Cannon named in the indictment, is no doubt Patty.

[Source: Tales of Old Maryland, John Henry Kelly Shannahan, 1907, Pages 65-80]

News Articles

Joseph Johnson's Sentence

Republican Compiler (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) February 18, 1824 Page 2

The Delaware Gazette states that the notorious Jos. Johnston, who was so long concerned in kidnapping negroes, and conveying them out of the state, was tried and convicted at the last session of the court of common pleas for the county of Sussex, and sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes on the bare back at the public whipping post, to stand in the pillory for an hour, to have his ears nailed thereto, and the soft part cut off.

Joseph Johnson Kidnaps Children in Philadelphia

The Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, January 30, 1828
It is, we believe, generally known that one of the high constables, Mr. Garrigues, of this city (Philadelphia) was dispatched, some time since, to Missisippi, to take charge of several black children who had been kidnapped from this city and "sold into slavery" in that state. We now learn that Mr. G. has returned with the three children for whom he was sent. He has also discovered in that State, twelve other children, abducted in a similar manner, whom he has caused to be placed in security until he can obtain proper vouchers and formal orders for their redemption. - U.S. Gaz.

Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, June 4, 1828
High Constable Garrigues, returned to this city on Tuesday after an absence of nearly three months on his second journey to Mississippi and Louisiana in pursuit of the colored children carried off from Philadelphia in the summer of 1825. Notwithstanding the indefatigable and praiseworthy exertions of this excellent officer, he has on this occasion only been enabled to procure the final discharge and safe return of two of these unfortunate beings - Clem Coxe and E. Laurence, and they too, we learn, after great trouble, risk and expense.
The boys were examined on Wednesday in the Police Office, and their story, as to the abduction from this city is substantially the same as that of all the others who have been returned and examined before the Mayor.

The examination results in the disclosure of the following facts: They were all stolen by Joseph Johnson, or his agents, gagged, tied and transported to his house on the line between Delaware and Maryland - treated like the meanest animals and subsequently sold by Johnson to traders in human flesh, who again disposed of them to planters in the Southern States. The strongest documentary evidence has since been furnished to the present holders of their identity and undoubted right to freedom with a hope and expectation that feelings of common justice and humanity would induce their liberation. Strictly legal proof, however is demanded. This consists in the evidence of white persons to be given in open Court in the State of Mississippi or Louisiana. In consequence of inability to procure such testimony, it is feared eight or ten of these poor victims are doomed to irremediable slavery. They are as notoriously entitled to freedom as any citizen of this Commonwealth. - Aurora.

Body Found in Patty Cannon's Farm

Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, April 29, 1829

Shocking Depravity

We have just received a letter from a friend in Sussex County, which furnishes a detail of a shocking course of murderous deeds which has been carried on near the Delaware and Maryland line, for some years past.

A person residing on a farm belonging to one Patty Cannon, having cleared off some brush from a low piece of ground, was engaged in ploughing it, when his horse sunk into a grave and upon removing the earth, a chest was found in which was discovered the bones of a human body. The news soon spread abroad and some of those who heard of the affair having recollected that an individual who was in the neighborhood some years ago, had suddenly disappeared in a mysterious manner, it was immediately suspected that he had been murdered and that the bones now discovered were his.

A suspicious individual, who had formerly been an inmate in the family of Patty Cannon, and who for some time past has been residing in Maryland, was soon apprehended in our State, and underwent an examination before a magistrate at Seaford, when he acknowledged that while he resided with Patty Cannon, she and the famous Jo. Johnson, and his brother Ebenezer, murdered the individual in question, and buried the body in the chest in the place where the late discovery had been made. He stated, moreover, that the same individuals had committed various other murders and accompanied the officers to the places where he said the bodies had been interred and upon removing the earth, human bodies were found buried in the manner he had described the bodies to have been deposited.

Patty Cannon has been apprehended and is now confined in jail at Georgetown, but Jo. Johnson is said to be at this time, residing in the State of Alabama and his brother in Mississippi. The individual whose bones have been discovered, is said to have stated, a few days before he was missed, that he had with him thirty-five thousand dollars, with which he designed to purchase negroes; and it is supposed that the murder was committed for the purpose of obtaining the money. - Delaware Gazette.

Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, April 29, 1829

From the Gazette and Watchman

The Murders in Sussex

We stated briefly in our paper of Friday last, some circumstances respecting a most diabolical course of conduct which, for some years past, has been carried on in Sussex county, in this state, the evidences of which have just been brought to light; and promised, in our next number to give further particulars. This promise we failed to perform; one reason for which was that a family affliction called our attention to the considerable of other things, and another was that as the Court was then about commencing its session, at which the examination into the circumstances was to be made, it would be better to omit saying anything further upon the subject until after the trail would be likely to be ended. This we presume is now the case and although we are ignorant of the result of the trial, we proceed to redeem our promise so far as we have it in our power.

From our correspondent's account we gather the following particulars.- About ten days previous to his writing, a tenant, who lives on the farm where Patty Cannon and her son-in-law, the celebrated Joseph Johnson, negro trader, lived for many years, in Northwest Fork Hundred, near the Maryland line, was ploughing in the field, in a place generally covered with water, and where a heap of brush has been laying for years, when his horse sunk in a grave and on digging, he found a blue painted chest, about three feet long, and in it were found the bones of a man. The news flew like wild fire, and people from many miles around visited the place; among whom it was universally agreed that a negro trader from Georgia, named Hell or Miller, or perhaps both, had been murdered, by Johnson and his gang, about 10 or 12 years ago, and that the bones now discovered were those of one of them; as the man or men had been missed about that time, and the horse on which one of them rode was found at Patty Cannon's, who laid claim to the animal, until a person from Maryland, who had lent the horse, came forward and claimed his property; and she alleged, at the time, that Bell or Miller had sailed a short time previous, with a cargo of negroes for the south.

Since that time he has not been heard of, and it is said that a few days before he was missed, he was heard to say that lie had with him fifteen thousand dollars, with which he purposed to purchase negroes The supposition now is that the know ledge of his having this money in his possession, formed the inducement to take his life, and that to conceal the body it had been deposited in die place where the bones have been found.

The excitement produced by this discovery, as may naturally be supposed, was very great in the neighborhood, and on the second inst., one of Johnson's gang, named Cyrus James, who has resided in Mary land, was caught in this state, and brought before a justice of the peace at Seaford, and on examination stated that Joseph Johnson, Ebenezer F. Johnson, and old Patty Cannon had shot the man while at supper in her house, and that he saw them all engaged in carrying him m the chest and burying him; and stated, moreover, that many others also had been killed, and that he could show where they had been buried.

The officers and citizens accordingly accompanied him to the places which he pointed out, and made the necessary search. In one place, in a garden, they dug and found the bones of a young child, the mother of which, he stated, was a negro woman belonging to Patty Cannon, which, being a mulatto, she had killed for the reason that she supposed its father to be one of her own family. Another place a few feet distant, was then pointed out, when upon digging a few feet, two oak boxes were found, each of which contained human bones. Those in one of them had been those of a person about seven years of age, which James said he saw Patty Cannon knock in the head with a billets, of wood, and the other contained those of one whom be said they considered bad property ; by which, it is supposed was meant, that he was free. As there was at the time much stir about the children, and there was no convenient opportunity to send them away, they were murdered to prevent discovery. On examining the scull bone of the largest child, it was discovered to have been broken as described by James.

This fellow, James, was raised by Patty Cannon, having been bound to her at the age of seven years, and is said to have done much mischief in his time for her and Johnson.

Another witness by the name of Butler, has already been secured; and it is thought that some others will be brought forward who are acquainted with the bloody deeds of Patty and Joe. This woman is now between 60 and 70 years of age, and looks more like a man than a woman; but old at she is, she is believed to be as heedless and heartless as the most abandoned wretch that breathes.

As stated by us on Friday last, Patty Cannon had been lodged in the jail at Georgetown; James and Butler were also placed there at the same time; and it is highly probable that ere this the trial has taken place, and the result of it will soon be known.

James stated that he had not shown all the places where murdered bodies had been buried, and at the time of writing, our correspondent informs, the people were still digging.

Joe Johnson, who it said to be residing, at this time, in Alabama, is stated to have been seen in the state in December or January last; and the probability it that his business here was to do something at his old business of kidnapping. He was convicted of this crime some years since at Georgetown, and suffered the punishment of the lash and the pillory on account of it. He is a man of some celebrity, having, for many years, carried on the traffic of stealing and telling negroes, in which he was aided and instructed by the old hag, Patty Cannon, whose daughter he married, after she had lost a former husband on the gallows.

He continued to reside near his tutoress until within a few years, when a reward of $500 was offered by Mr. Watson, mayor of Philadelphia, when having obtained information of the fact before any others in his neighborhood, he suddenly decamped, and has since been very cautious in suffering himself to be seen in that part of the country.

The former husband of Joe's wife was hung for the murder of a negro trader, the plan for which is said to have been arranged at her mother's house.

From the circumstances which have already taken place, it would appear probable that such developments may be expected to take place as will present the wretched actors in the scenes of blood, which have taken place on the border of our state in Sussex county, as successful rivals in depravity of the infamous Burke, whose bloody deeds and recent execution in Scotland, have occupied so large a portion of the public prints.

Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, June 3, 1829

From the Delaware Gazette

Patty Cannon

During our late visit into Sussex County, we heard an anecdote related of the old woman and others connected in the traffic of stealing and selling blacks, which is, perhaps, worth relating. Several black men were employed by the concern, in the business of inveigling Negroes into the meshes of their net, and among the rest was one who was exceedingly expert in the business. This individual upon one occasion, prevailed upon a man who was a slave to a person residing in Worcester county, Md. and had a free wife and seven male children, between the ages of 6 and 18 years to accompany him to Camden, in this State, with the assurance that he would be able to procure a pass from the members of the Friends Society in that place, with which he would be enabled to pass into the State of New Jersey and escape from the service of his master.

He accordingly conducted him to the house of Patty Cannon, where he was furnished with a document with a large seal to it and amused with the idea of being furnished with a conveyance to the place of his supposed destination. His conductor then left him and going immediately back to his wife and children and telling a fine tale of the favorable situation their husband and father had procured, induced them to follow him, who were also conveyed into the same trap, and the next morning after their arrival they were all shipped off - ever more to be hard of by their relations or friends. This account was furnished to our informer by another black who had been employed in the same business by the despicable concern.

Republican Compiler, Gettysburg, PA, June 3, 1829

Murders in Delaware

The Delaware Journal says: "At the Court of Quarterly Sessions recently sitting in Sussex county, the Grand Jury found three indictments against Patty Cannon for murder and one against each of the brothers, Joe Johnson and Ebenezer Johnson for the same crime. Patty Cannon recently apprehended in Delaware upon a charge of murdering some black persons, has (..?..ped) a trial by law, which awaited her in August next. She died in prison on the 11th ult.

Sussex County Home Page

Genealogy Trails

Copyright © Genealogy Trails