Throughout early 1800s Delaware and Maryland, Patty Cannon and her murderous gang kidnapped as many as 3,000 Black Americans to sell into bondage in the South.
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For his earnings, Patty Cannon assassinated a slave trader named Ridgell. Patty Cannon terrorized Black Americans in the early 19th century as a slave dealer and killer. Cannon and her gang, which included members of her own family, committed unspeakable crimes, including the auction, capture, and assassination of freed slaves. Patty Cannon eventually died in prison while awaiting trial for her crimes. Although seldom mentioned, her reputation is the stuff of American infamy.
Who was Cannon's Patty?
About Cannon's early life, little is known. Records say that either Martha or Lucretia Patricia Hanly was born in Cannon around 1760. Cannon remained secretive about her background throughout her life. Some accounts claim that she was originally born in Canada and moved at the age of 16 to Delaware. She married Jesse Cannon, a local farmer. They had two children and lived near the present-day Maryland town of Reliance, close to the Delaware border. Under suspicious circumstances, Jesse Cannon died and it was later rumored that he had been poisoned to death by Patty. Cannon was reportedly employed as a barmaid and later as a prostitute, and she was also hoping to open a brothel of her own. This effort was not fruitful for Cannon, who was known for her unpleasant attitude. By the age of 24, Cannon was having trouble attracting johns because of her sour nature. She opened a tavern with her hopes of being a madam dashed, which would later become a central venue for her illegal activities.
Cannon's daughter married a man named Henry Brereton, who was adding a new form of crime to the Cannon family.
The capture of both free black people and slaves to sell to new slave masters was a frequent occurrence in the 19th century. Brereton was a blacksmith who was active in the illicit trade of slaves. Some reports say that he introduced the Cannon clan to the illegal slave trading activity, while other accounts claim that Cannon herself heard from customers at her tavern about the illegal slave trade. In an era when most of these fields were dominated by men, the illicit slave trade permitted women to take charge of their criminal enterprises and make their mark. "The illegal slave trade, according to historian Richard Bell, gave women the chance to "leverage family relationships on this Reverse Underground Railroad with male conductors and station agents to secure their passage through an otherwise treacherous and distinctly homo-social environment.
Brereton was convicted in 1811 and began serving a jail term for slave kidnapping. But he escaped from jail in Georgetown, Delaware, the same year. Cannon, Griffith, and Brereton conspired to ambush the carriage of a patron at Cannon's bar, a slave merchant known only as Ridgell, after his escape. Ridgell was ambushed by Cannon and her cohorts, full of booze supplied by the store. Ridgell died of a gunshot wound from the battle later. Brereton was captured for the murder and hanged around noon on April 13, 1813, along with another associate named Joseph Griffith. Cannon's daughter remarried after Brereton's death, this time to a man named Joe Johnson, who would become Cannon's number one accomplice.
The Illegal Slave Trade
For several years, with Joe Johnson, Cannon's gang continued its activities. Various accounts of the horrors they inflicted have been documented throughout history. The illicit slave trade was a booming part of the criminal underworld in the United States when slavery was legal. It included the abduction of freed slaves, free African Americans, and fugitive slaves in free border states, now known as The Reverse Underground Railroad. As part of the trade, men, women, and children have all been abducted. They were then shipped to Southern slave-holding states and sold at slave auctions and to plantation owners. The illicit trade in slaves dates back to the 1780s and only stopped in 1865 after the Civil War. Hot spots for kidnappers were towns such as New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Louisville. The proximity to rivers made these cities an ideal location through the waterways for the illicit slave trade.
All of the significant populations of free African Americans and former slaves were in the Maryland and Delaware regions as well as Pennsylvania. This population increase took advantage of Patty Cannon and her gang and started their kidnapping ring. Fuel was also added to the fire by the proximity to the southern states and the Mason-Dixon Line that helped the Cannon gang to commit its crimes.
A poster in Boston warns of kidnappings happening in the city.
Along with the abduction of freed former slaves and African Americans, existing slaves in various states were often taken from one plantation to another and sold. Several techniques were used by these illicit slave dealers to trap their victims. Direct threats of violence or physical injury have also been used. But bribery was used by some kidnappers and they offered money, alcohol, or the promise of work. Children were particularly vulnerable, and they would be tricked with candy by kidnappers. It is possible to sell slaves for up to $200 or $300 each, which would be several thousand dollars in today's currency. The U.S. In 1808, Congress prohibited slaves from being imported. The number of slaves in the country was to be limited by Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution. But instead, it accidentally contributed to the slave trade underground. Along with being responsible for the deaths of an undisclosed number of slaves, before stealing their money and horses, Cannon, Johnson, and other gang members were also suspected to have murdered many wealthy guests at her tavern, mostly slave traders themselves.
If they spoke to strangers while being transported, the Cannon gang would shackle prisoners together in a chain gang and intimidate them. Reports indicate that, similar to the attics of horrors created by Delphine LaLaurie, Cannon's tavern contained secret rooms designed specially for holding captives. Whenever it seemed that local police could be following up their trail, Cannon and her gang also quickly slipped across state lines. Their crimes went on for 20 years or so. As some accounts of the gang vary, much written about the Cannon gang is believed to be exaggerated. Some say that the gang had between 50 and 60 members who were responsible for more than 3,000 abductions, 30 murders, and even hidden treasure. In 1822, some members of the Cannon gang, including Joe Johnson, were eventually caught and tried for their crimes. The only person taken to court was Johnson, where he was charged with abduction. As punishment, 39 lashes were given to him and placed in the pillory, or "the stocks."
After his punishment, Johnson and his brother, Ebenezer, who was also a gang member, fled to Alabama or Mississippi. A tenant farmer working on the farmland of Cannon found a blue chest loaded with human bones in 1829, assumed to be the remains of a slave trader who had vanished in 1820. A crucial witness against the Cannon gang was captured and challenged after this discovery. A mixed-race slave who had been bought by Cannon when he was 7 years old, Cyrus James was also used as a decoy to attract others to be kidnapped. It was his testimony that eventually landed Cannon in prison.
Cyrus James disclosed that on her house, Patty Cannon had murdered several children.
Suicide In Jail
In 1829, James, who was wanted for his participation in the gang by police, was arrested in Delaware. He turned on Patty Cannon there and admitted his involvement. James informed authorities that several bodies had been found on Cannon's property and that she had killed a child. Cyrus remembered that the baby was wounded and weeping. According to James, in her apron, Cannon took "a Black child not yet dead, but it never came back." James took authorities to the property of Cannon. They discovered the bodies of three children there.
In April 1829, Cannon was detained and accused of four murder counts. A few weeks later, on May 11, 1829, about three weeks before her scheduled hanging, Cannon was found dead in her cell on suspicion of suicide by poison. At the time of her death, it is assumed she was 70 years old. She was buried outside the Delaware courthouse in Sussex County. In 1907, her remains were relocated. An employee of the courthouse took her skull and later it became a family heirloom. A skull believed to be Cannon's was donated to the Dover Library in 1961, but it is now on a long-term loan to the Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institute. Today, Patty Cannon is only one example of the many horrors that originated in America from the slave trade. Centuries later, her story remains disturbing.
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