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 the Delmarva Peninsula 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 the wife of local farmer Jesse Cannon
and was widowed at some point in 1826 or before. She lived near the
town of Reliance, Maryland, U.S., then called Johnson's Corners, on
the border at the convergence of Caroline County and Dorchester
County, 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.
The daughter's own name is unknown, but her 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, now a
widow, 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.
Political and economic context
The U.S. Congress 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.
A novel written about Cannon sixty years after she
was most active, The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times of
1884, theorizes that the political and economic situation created by
the War of 1812 made Cannon's crimes possible. It also may explain why
whites failed to come to the aid of their free black neighbors. The
war in this passage is the British–American War of 1812, which lasted
until 1815. "Tories" was slang for the British, who tried to recruit
slave blacks to their army by promising freedom. The Chesapeake Bay
locations referenced are Tangier Island of Virginia, Cambridge,
Maryland and Georgetown, Delaware.
In them days they didn’t kidnap much; it was jest a-beginnin’. The
war of ’12 busted everything on the bay, burned half a dozen towns,
kept the white men layin’ out an’ watchin’, and made loafers of half
of ’em, an’ brought bad volunteers an’ militia yer to trifle with
the porer gals, an’ some of them strangers stuck yer after the war
was done. I don’t know whar ole Ebenezer come from; some says this,
an’ some that. All we know is, that he an’ the Hanlen gals, one of
’em Patty Cannon, was the head devils in an’ after the war....
The British begun to run the black people off in the war. The
black people wanted to go to ’em. The British filled the islands in
Tangier yer with nigger camps; they was a goin’ to take this whole
peninsuly, an’ collect an’ drill a nigger army on it to put down
Amerikey. When the war was done, the British sailed away from
Chesapeake Bay with thousands of them colored folks, an’ then the
people yer begun to hate the free niggers....
They hated free niggers as if they was all Tories an’ didn’t
love Amerikey. So, seein’ the free niggers hadn’t no friends, these
Johnsons an’ Patty Cannon begun to steal ’em, by smoke! There was
only a million niggers in the whole country; Louisiana was a-roarin’
for ’em; every nigger was wuth twenty horses or thirty yokes of
oxen, or two good farms around yer, an’ these kidnappers made money
like smoke, bought the lawyers, went into polytics, an’ got sech a
high hand that they tried a murderin’ of the nigger traders from
Georgey an’ down thar, comin’ yer full of gold to buy free people.
That give ’em a back-set, an’ they hung some of Patty’s band — some
at Georgetown, some at Cambridge.
— excerpt from Chapter XXIV of The Entailed Hat by
George Alfred Townsend, 1884
Accounts of the crimes
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 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 Georgia 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
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; Mrs. Johnson was not referring to male
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
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
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. The Entailed Hat attributes her death to
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.
Cannon was the subject of a "female fiend"
pamphlet in 1841 titled Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P.
Cannon, published anonymously in New York. This pamphlet
inspired many others, changing the main character's name and
altering the litany of her crimes. These pamphlets were a subgenre
of sensational literature which resembled a combination of modern
pulp magazines and true crime books, and were contemporary with the
British penny dreadfuls. Significant factual liberties were taken
even with pamphlets purporting to be true. In this case, Cannon was
apparently renamed to taint her by association with Lucretia Borgia,
a notorious poisoner.
Cannon's story was popularized (and, to an
unknown extent, fictionalized) by a novel, The Entailed Hat, Or,
Patty Cannon's Times by George Alfred Townsend, which was
published in 1884. Hardback editions were published in at least
1890, 1912, 1955 and 1969. A paperback was issued in March 2007.
There is an historical marker placed at the
"Patty Cannon House." Research by a PBS history series proved the
marker was placed on land Joe Johnson bought in 1821 for $150, and
that Patty Cannon bought from him in 1826 — but that her actual home
was several hundred yards away. Her house, built sometime in the
18th century, was torn down in 1948.
Narratives & Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon
Narrative and confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon, who was tried,
convicted, and sentenced to be hung at Georgetown, Del., with two of
her accomplices: containing an account of some of the most horrible
and shocking murders ever committed by one of the female sex
The Murders of Lucretia Cannon is a
sensationalist and unreliable account. Cannon’s first name was Patty,
but the press nicknamed her Lucretia after Lucretia Borgia, the
Renaissance aristocrat who murdered her victims with poison. At 16,
“Lucretia” married Alonzo Cannon, who died suspiciously of “failing
health” three years after entering into the marriage. Widowed, she set
up a tavern in Maryland, and headed up a gang which captured free
blacks and fugitive slaves and sold them into slavery. She was alleged
to have beaten a crying infant and then burned it alive; murdered
tavern patrons for their money (one man was stabbed and stuffed into a
trunk which her accomplices disposed of); killed a slaver by crushing
his head in order to steal his two slaves. Cannon's career came to an
end when neighbors used a search warrant to enter her house and
discovered twenty-one black captives and many skeletons in the
backyard. At trial, Cannon was sentenced to death. To avoid hanging,
she took poison which killed her, but first led her to break down and
confess to killing eleven people, acting as an accessory to twelve
other deaths, poisoning her husband, and killing her three-day-old.
Smithsonian scientist to examine kidnapper Patty
Sussex woman’s skull had resided in Dover’s public
library since 1961
By Jeff Brown - DoverPost.com
August 24, 2010
Dover, Del. — Martha “Patty” Cannon, one of Delaware’s most notorious
women, is about to get an autopsy of sorts, more than 180 years after
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Cannon, whose
homestead on the southern Maryland/Delaware line served as a base from
which she allegedly ran a gang that kidnapped free blacks in the early
1820s and sold them into slavery in the South. She never was charged
for these crimes but instead was arrested in 1829 for the murder of
four people, including a slave trader. She died in a Georgetown
prison, supposedly a suicide, at age 70 while awaiting trial, and was
buried in the adjoining graveyard.
For years what is thought to be her skull lay in a
red hatbox in the Dover Public Library, most recently in the office of
Library Director Margery Cyr.
In a journey Cannon herself probably never would
have made, the relic was taken to Washington, D.C., June 22, where it
is about to undergo some very modern scientific testing at the
A study of history
Dr. Chuck Fithian, curator of archaeology for the
state Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, said Dr. Douglas
Owsley, chief of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the
Smithsonian, plans to examine and preserve the skull as part of a
larger study of life in the Chesapeake from colonial times to the 19th
Owsley, along with fellow forensic anthropologist
Karin Bruwelheide, is curator of the Smithsonian’s “Written in Bone:
Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake,” exhibit, now at the
National Museum of Natural History.
“The city library had the skull for a number of
years and it had just sat there,” Fithian said. “It’s been attributed
to [Cannon], and there’s no reason to question that, so we’re trying
to use modern technology to look at it and try to figure it out.”
The skull came to Dover after Cannon’s remains were
moved around 1907. James Marsh, then a Sussex deputy sheriff, obtained
it and gave it to a relative, Charles Joseph, who hung it in his barn
and later stored it in his home. Joseph’s son, Alfred, who moved to
Dover, inherited it in 1946 and in 1961 loaned it to the Dover
A fearsome woman
Descriptions of Cannon, all written many years
after her death, paint her as a rather fearsome person. She was
“massive of bosom, massive elsewhere,” according to a 1907 newspaper
article, an “Amazonian Paul Bunyan” who personally hogtied some of her
“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 article said.
Cannon apparently got away with many of her alleged
kidnappings because her farm and tavern were on the Delaware-Maryland
border, allowing her to slip across the frontier if the local sheriff
got too curious. At the time, little concern was shown if blacks
disappeared from the community, and although rumors were rife about
her activities, little was done.
As for what what’s left of Cannon, Owsley said the
skull is showing its age. The lower jaw is missing and some of the
facial bones have separated from the cranium, which itself is starting
to split along natural growth lines.
And while he’s interested in Cannon’s notoriety,
he’s more fascinated by the fact the relic has a known history he can
use to further his study of early Chesapeake life.
“We’re stepping back, tracking our ancestors, and
seeing what their bones tell us about their lifestyles,” Owsley said.
“We’re sweeping broadly across Maryland, Virginia and Delaware to
study what life was like in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.”
“My focus is not really on Patty Cannon, it’s at
looking at her as an individual in a specific time.”
Forensic examination of the skull will include CT
scans, bone density measurements, a dental examination of the
remaining teeth and tests to determine concentrations of elements such
as arsenic, lead and mercury.
When the work is done, at some still to be
determined point in the future, the skull will be returned to Dover
where it most probably again will take up residence in Director Cyr’s
Cyr, who learned of the skull’s existence when she
moved to Dover in 2008, said watching over the relic has become an
interesting part of her job.
“Patty Cannon was not a nice person in life, but
she’s been quiet and respectful in my office,” she said.
The Death of Patty Cannon
As Patty Cannon came out of the tavern the
cross-roads were full of people, taking their last look at the spot
where she had triumphed for nearly twenty years.
None thought to look at Van Dorn, nor ask what had
become of him, and his friend Sorden removed his body, unseen, to a
spot in the pine woods, where his unmarked grave was dug, and standing
round it were three mourners only, and Sorden said the final words
with homely tears:
"I loved him as I never loved A male."
The Maryland constable marched Patty Cannon down to
the little bridge of planks where ran the ditch nearly on the State
line, and tradition still believes the figment that Joe Johnson at
that moment was hiding beneath it.
There, driven across the boundary like some
borderer's cow, the queen of the kidnappers was seized by the Delaware
constable, and placed in a small country gig-wagon, and, followed by a
large mounted posse, the road was taken to the little hamlet of
Seaford, five miles distant.
She watched the small funereal cedars and
monumental poplar-trees rise strangled from the underbrush, the
dark-brown streams flowing into inky mill-ponds, the close, small
pines, scarcely large enough to moan, but trying to do so in a baby
tone, and her eyes turned to the sand, where she was soon to be. Not
agony nor repentance nor any hope of escape fluttered her cold heart,
but only a feeling of being ungratefully deserted by her friends, and
ill-treated by her equals and neighbors, who had so seldom warned or
avoided her; no preacher had come to tell her the naked gospel, and
some had bowed to her respectfully, and even begged her oats, and made
subscriptions from her ill-gotten silver.
Seaford was a sandy place upon a bluff of the
Nanticoke, and, as the procession came in, a party of surveyors,
working for Meshach Milburn's railroad, paused to jeer the old
kidnapper. She had grown suddenly old, and never raised her voice,
that had always been so forward, to make a reply.
The magistrate, Dr. John Gibbons, had been an
educated young Irishman who landed from a ship at Lewes, and, marrying
a lady in Maryland, near Patty Cannon's, became the legal spirit of
the little town. His office, a mere cabin, on a corner by his house,
being too small for the purpose, the examination was adjourned to the
tavern, at the foot of the hill, near where a mill-pond brook dug its
way to the Nanticoke. Around the tavern some box-bush walks were made
in the sand, and willow-trees bordered the cold river-side, and, at
pauses in the hearing, wild-fowl were heard to play and pipe in the
The evidence of Cy James and other cowardly
companions in her sins was quickly given, and the procession started
through the woods and sands to Georgetown, twelve miles to the
eastward, where Patty Cannon was received by all the town, waiting up
for her, and the jail immediately closed her in.
"I didn't ezackly make out what that cymlin-headed
feller did it fur," Jimmy Phœbus remarked, in the hold of an old
oyster pungy, where he found himself with his mulatto friend and Aunt
Hominy and the children, "but the file he fetched me has done its work
at last. Yer, Whatcoat," addressing his male fellow-prisoner, "take
this knife the same feller slipped me, an' cut these cords." Standing
up free again, Mr. Phœbus further remarked,
"Whatcoat, thar's two of us yer. By smoke! thar's
The docile colored man opened his eyes.
"Him!" exclaimed the sailor, indicating the
feather-bed in the hold, with its stiff, invisible contents; "Joe'll
chuck him overboard down yer about deep water somewhere. Now, for a
little hokey-pokey; I think I'll git in thar myself, an' let Joe sell
t'other feller fur a nigger."
Phœbus's power over his fellow-prisoners—little
children and idiotic Hominy included—was now perfect, and he began to
explore the rotten old hold, which contained oyster-rakes, fish-lines,
and the usual utensils of a dredging-vessel, and soon discovered that
there could be made a clear passage to crawl through her from
forecastle to-cabin by removing a few boards.
"Yer, Hominy," he said, "get to work with your
needle, old gal; I'm goin' to take you home."
With a good start, and a fair wind and slack tide,
Johnson was off Vienna at eight o'clock.
"Ten mile to go, an' they can't catch me with a
racehorse," he said, "after I pass Chicacomico wharf, an' git abaft
the marshes. I'm boozy fur sleep. Thar's two in this crew I don't
know, and I must be helmsman. Bingavast! I'll make my nigger work his
He walked to the hatchway over the hold, and,
sliding it back, dropped in, and, with a few expert blows of the
professional smithy, set Whatcoat free, merely glancing where Phœbus
lay upon his face, snoring hard.
"Cool cucumber of a bloke," Johnson said, "he'll be
too much fur me in a trade; I'll have to stifle him!" Then, ordering
the mulatto man astern, Johnson gave him the tiller, and sat near,
nodding, till the second wharf on the starboard was passed.
"Now Gabriel can't overhaul me," Johnson exclaimed;
"thar's no more road on the Dorchester side, an' the Somerset roads is
all gashed by creeks an' barred by farm-gates. I'll sink that dab an'
He called two deck hands, and lifted the body out
of the hold. Phœbus still placidly slept upon his face, and Johnson
looked at him with peculiar envy after a hurried glance at the dead.
Some ropes being put around the bed, and drag-irons attached to them,
the whole weight was unceremoniously thrown overboard at the point of
Hungry Neck, and the dealer remarked, apologetically:
"There goes a great hypocrite, gentlemen; he wasn't
above piracy, ef he could git another man to fly the black flag for
him. I reckon he'll be 'conservative' enough after this. And now I'll
snooze. Steer her for Ragged Point, yonder, Whatcoat, an' when you git
thar wake me. It's clear broad inlet all the way; an' remember,
nigger, I sleep and shoot, on hair triggers!"
With his pistols in his hand, Johnson lay down in
the cabin a few feet from the helmsman, and tried to see and sleep at
once. He had been without rest for many nights, and sleep soon bound
him in its own clevis and manacles.
When he awoke, so deep had been his slumber that he
could not recall for a moment where he was. The tiller was unmanned,
the stars shone in the cabin hatchway, a cold bilge-water draft blew
through the old hulk, and, as he dragged himself up the steps, he saw
tall woods near by, and heard the voice of solemn pines.
The vessel was aground; wild geese were making
jubilant shrieks as they cut the water with their fleecy wings, like
cameo engraving; the outlaw gazed and gazed, and finally muttered:
"Deil's Island, or I'm a billy noodle! I run from
it the last time I was yer, an' my blood runs cold to be yer agin; my
daddy got his curse from this camp-meetin'."
Taking speed from his apprehensions, Johnson slid
back the hatchway and leaped into the hold, starlight and moonlight
following him, and nothing did they reveal there except one man,
peacefully sleeping upon his face, as Phœbus had last been seen.
The kidnapper shook his captive, but he did not
awaken. He turned the man over, and there met his eyes the cold blue
stare and Roman nose and bleeding lips of Allan McLane, apparently
returned from the bottom of the river.
With a shriek, the outlaw bounded upon the deck and
ran to the bow of the pungy.
"Help me!" came a faint cry from the forecastle,
and, peeping in, Joe Johnson recognized one of his own familiars he
had shipped at Cannon's Ferry, gagged, like his companion, and tied
fast. The man had just been able to articulate.
"Now, spiflicate me!" spoke the skipper, relieving
the man, "the ruffian cly you! who did this?"
"The white nigger did it all, Joe. He crawled
through the stays to the cabin, and got your pistols, first;
leastways, we found him an' the yaller feller at the helm on top of
us, coming up the fo'castle, and next t'other two men jined 'em. They
said ole Samson had give 'em the wink. We two was tied and throwed in
yer, an' ef you had awaked, thar was a man to stab you to the heart,
sot over you."
"The portmanteau?" cried Johnson.
"That's gone, I reckon. They sowed you up a feather
an' oyster-shell man on a plank to heave overboard; that's what they
said. They steered for Deil's Island, an' sot the Island Parson yer to
watch that you don't git the pungy off, an' I reckon they're half-way
to Princess Anne."
Joe Johnson heard no more. He released his
creatures from their bonds, took the dead body in the pungy's canoe,
and gave the command:
"Row fur the open bay! We'll strike St. Mary's
County or Virginny. Bingavast! Hike! Never agin will I put foot on
this Eastern Shore."
At Georgetown Jimmy Phœbus, Samson, and Levin
Dennis met again, and Levin told the mystery of his father's
"Never tell your mother, Levin, that Captain Dennis
died in that Pangymonum; it would break her heart, and she never would
trust man agin."
"Jimmy," spoke up Samson, "let her understand that
he got wrecked on the Ida. It looks a little bad, but the
slave-trade sounds better than kidnappin'."
"They say that Allan McLane owned that slave
vessel," Phœbus put in; "but he didn't live to know his loss. He'll
meet his heathens at the Judgment Seat."
"Who has fed mother?" Levin asked. "Hulda can't
"I kin, Levin," Samson Hat said, bashfully. "It was
me. Good ole Meshach Milburn, that everybody's down on, pitied that
pore woman, an' made me set things she needed in her window. He said
if I ever told it he'd discharge me."
"Dog my skin!" Jimmy Phœbus observed, "the next man
that calls 'steeple top' after ole Meshach I'll mash flat! But, come,
my son, I've buried at Broad Creek your wife's family relics. We'll
hire a wagon, and drive to ole Broad Creek 'piscopal church on the
way, and there I'll have you married to Huldy."
The sword-hilt and coins were disinterred, and in
that ancient edifice of hard pine, where the worship of her English
race had long been celebrated, the naval officer's daughter became the
wife of the son of his voluptuous and perverted friend. As Jimmy
Phœbus kissed them he said:
"Levin, when your mother says 'Yes,' all four of us
will settle in the West. Illinois has become a free state, after a
hard fight, and I reckon that'll suit us."
For a while Patty Cannon, by her affability and
sorrow, had easy times in jail, and was allowed to eat with the
jailer's family; but, as the examination proceeded before the grand
jury, and her menials hastened to throw their responsibility in so
many crimes upon her alone, an outer opinion demanded that she be
treated more harshly, and some of the irons she had manacled upon her
captives were riveted upon her own ankles. Very soon dropsy began to
appear in her legs and feet, and, after it became evident to her that
neither money nor friends were forthcoming in her defence, she fell
into a passive despair.
The frequent conferences between Jimmy Phœbus and
Cy James led to the belief that not only had Hulda recovered portions
of her father's money and valuables, hidden in the beehives and
flower-pots old Patty had so assiduously attended, but that Phœbus had
seized upon property indicated by the informer, and was to have
whatever remained of it after procuring the latter's release.
This result was hastened by Patty Cannon's death,
which happened, to the great relief of many respectably considered
people in that region, who had feared from the first that she would
make a minute confession, implicating everybody who had dealt with her
Among these was Judge Custis, who opened his
skeleton-in-the-closet to John M. Clayton one spring-like day. Clayton
had quietly prodded on the conviction of Patty Cannon, but the
jealousy of the slaveholding interest made him wary of any open
appearance against her.
They were sitting in the little parlor of the
Methodist parsonage, a small frame house with a conical-roofed portico
and big end-chimney, a little off from the public square, whither they
had gone to send the pastor to wait on the aged Chancellor, who had
been taken ill in the court-room, and lay in the hotel.
"Clayton," said Judge Custis, in a low tone of
voice, "what this woman may do or tell, you would not think concerned
me, but I will show you how deep her influence has reached, as well as
explain to you why I would not pursue my own servants to her den. In
this I humiliate myself before you, as I must do, if I am to become
"You had been trading with Patty Cannon; I guessed
"Such was the case. When I was a collegian at Yale,
returning home one holiday, I fell in love with a beautiful quadroon,
the property of my uncle, in Northampton County. She was an elegant
woman, with a good education, and had been my playmate. I was ardent
and good-looking, and easily found lodgment in her heart; but the
conquest of her charms was long, and agonizing with sincere esteem.
You must believe me when I declare that I fell dangerously ill because
I was refused by her, and, making a confidant of my doctor, he told
the girl that she must choose between my death and her surrender.
Pity, then, prevailed, even over religion. I was happy in every point
but one—the injury concealment worked upon her self-respect; for,
Clayton, my mistress was my own cousin."
"I never desired to marry, although no children had
been born in my patriarchal relation; but, in the course of years, my
uncle became pressed for debts, and he appealed to me to save my
beautiful handmaiden from sale, he being in full sympathy with my
relation to her, because she was his daughter."
"The case was urgent. I possessed some negroes, the
legacy of my mother. To sell them publicly would be a stigma both upon
my humanity and my credit. I adopted the cowardly device of letting a
kidnapper slip them away, and take a large commission for his trouble.
I saved my lady, but at the expense of a secret."
"And that secret Joe Johnson depended on, Custis,
when he was suddenly driven into your house, and found your old
servant already demoralized by the announcement of your son-in-law?"
"The scoundrel pressed his advantage; and he saw,
besides, my daughter—not Vesta, but her half-sister, Virgie—and,
between his persecution of her and my brother-in-law's vindictiveness,
poor Virgie was literally run to the ground and into it; she is in her
Judge Custis broke into a long fit of sobbing, and
who had noticed his dejected mien since their separation, passed an
arm around him, saying:
"Never mind, now! Never mind, old friend! Johnson
is fled; McLane, they whisper, has never been seen since he entered
Johnson's tavern. His will was found there, and your daughter gets her
mother's property and servants back."
"I must finish my story," Judge Custis said,
stanching his tears. "By the decline of every family with natural
feelings and refinement, under what Mr. Pinkney termed 'the
contaminating curse of reluctant bondsmen,' we, also, became poor. To
save others, it was necessary that I must marry, and get money by my
own prostitution. My God, how we are repaid! A bride was found for me
in Baltimore, the sister of Allan McLane, and a beauty.
"I began my married life with the best intentions;
my poor mistress herself advised me to turn to my wife, and become a
true man. She told me so with her heart breaking. In heaven, where she
dwells with my poor child, she hears me now, and knows I speak the
Judge Custis broke down again, and leaned his
convulsed head on Clayton's tender breast, whose own widower's grief
gushed forth responsively.
"Children were born in Teackle Hall; my servitude
was becoming adjusted to me, when Allan McLane, in his love of
vindictiveness and of low, formal respectability, conceived that my
poor quadroon required some chastisement for having been his sister's
rival, and he set a trap to buy her. I was forced to have her bought,
to protect her, and to bring her to my care again, and thus our
passion was revived, and, giving birth to Virgie, she died. Reared
together, and unconscious of their kindred, those daughters loved each
other as dearly as when, in heaven, they shall hide in the radiance of
each other, and cover my sins with their angelic wings."
"Rise up, old friend!" cried Clayton; "your
transgressions are, at least, washed out in sincere tears. Hear the
birds all around us loving and condoning, and filling the air with
praise. Come out!"
As they stepped upon Georgetown Square they saw
John Randel, Jr., leading a party of surveyors to locate the
opposition railroad to Meshach Milburn's. These and many others were
pressing towards the whipping-post and pillory, in the rear of the
court-house, where stood, exposed by the sheriff, the cleanly mulatto
woman who had entertained Virgie in Snow Hill the first night of her
"This free woman, Priscilla Hudson," cried the
sheriff, "is to stand one hour in the pillory for the crime of lending
her pass to a slave. Thirty lashes she was sentenced to, the Governor
has graciously taken off. She is to be sold, out of the state, at the
end of one hour, for the term of her natural life, to the highest
The poor woman stood there, bare armed and bare
almost to the bosom, delicate and lovely to see, and the mother of
free children, her clothing having been partly removed before the
pardon of the stripes was announced to her.
Her head and arms were thrust through the holes in
one leaf of the pillory, and thus, thrown forward, her modesty was
exposed to the wanton gaze of the crowd, while, on the other side of
the same elevated platform, pilloried in like manner, was a female
chicken-thief, impudent, indifferent, and chewing tobacco, and
spitting it out upon the pillory floor.
As Clayton and Custis saw this scene on their way
to the tavern, an egg, thrown from a window of the debtor's jail,
whether meant for Mrs. Hudson or not, struck her in the face, and its
corrupt contents streamed down her white and shivering breast.
"Shame! shame!" cried the people, as they saw the
woman cry, and, gazing up to the jail window, another female face
appearing there, turned their cries to curses:
"Hang her! hang her!"
For the last time in life Patty Cannon's bold and
comely face swelled again with passionate blood to the roots of the
glossy black hair, and the few who saw her rich, dark eyes, inflamed
with anger, say their pupils were dilated like the wild-cat's. She was
gone in a moment, and the sheriff had wiped Mrs. Hudson's face and
breast with a handkerchief passed up by a colored woman.
Two men were now actively going around the crowd,
hat in hand, soliciting contributions to buy the woman, the first a
blind man, whose eyes were bandaged, and a white man led him, calling
"The abolitionists have raised three hundred
dollars to buy this woman's freedom. We want a hundred more, as some
mean people may bid her up high. This man, her husband, stole her
pass, to slip a friend away. We couldn't git the evidence in, but it's
God's truth, gentlemen! The woman's nursed my wife, an' done a heap of
good; and she come here, of her own free will, out of Maryland, to
nurse the Chancellor."
Little money was raised in that crowd, since there
was little to give, and, addressing the two distinguished strangers,
Sorden, the crier, exclaimed:
"What, gentlemen, will you let the Hunn brothers
and Tommy Garrett and the Motts give three hundred dollars for a woman
they never saw, and we, who see her always doing good, give nothing?"
"Pity! pity!" sobbed the blind man. "I'm burned so
bad nobody will buy me, but I stole her pass to help a slave
off that I fell in love with."
Judge Custis left Clayton's side, and waited till
the hour in the pillory was done, and, after a fierce contest, saw
Sorden come off victorious at the sale, though it took every dollar
the Judge could raise in Georgetown on his private credit.
"What is the name of the girl you gave her pass
to?" asked the Judge of the blind mulatto.
"My heart told me so," exclaimed the Judge. "Your
crime has been punished enough. I will send you to your wife."
John Randel, Jr., observed, that evening:
"Devil Jim Clark has taken example from Patty
Cannon, and squared the circle."
"Not dead?" asked Clayton.
"Yes, dead and buried. He was cleaning up his
contract on the canal, and mistook the white Irish laborers there for
kidnapped niggers. They set on him, and beat him and scared him
together, so that he never recovered. They say he was 'converted' on
his death-bed; or, as the saying is, 'he died triumphantly;' but the
darkeys report that the devil came straight down with a chariot and
drove him off."
"That fellow, Whitecar, I'm reserving," said
Clayton, "to punish when I can use him to sustain an argument in favor
of admitting negro testimony in kidnapping cases. Without that
admission, these kidnappers cannot be convicted: even Patty Cannon
here may escape us, though she has killed white men."
Sorden spoke up, he being of the party:
"A disease called leprosy has broke out in ole
Derrick Molleston's cabin; Sam Ogg has got it, too, and they say he
fetched it up from the breakwater. Nobody will go near them. Black
Dave is dead; he said he killed a man at Prencess Anne: the young wife
of Levin Dennis, who turns out to be a lady, stayed and prayed with
him to the last, and he went off humble and happy. But, my skin!
another kidnapper has rented Johnson's tavern a'ready."
"The railroad will clear all these evils out,"
exclaimed Randel. "I've put it into poetry," and he began to recite:
"To dark Naswaddox
The murderer from the main,
And with the otter laid his head
Amid the swamp and cane:
'Here nothing can pursue my ear,
From travelled paths astray;
I shall forget, from year to year,
The world beyond the bay!'
"The hunted man one morning heard
A whistle near and strong,
And in the night a fiery light
The thickets flashed among:
The demon of the engine rushed
Along on blazing beams—
The hound the murderer had flushed,
The outlaw's path was Steam's!"
The cry of hate from the crowd around the
whipping-post, as it awoke Patty Cannon's last anger, also determined
her last crime.
Fear was relative in her: she had neither the fear
of men nor of shame, and only of death as it involved a hereafter.
Whether that hereafter was a latent conviction in her mind, or the
vivid admonition of guilt and dead men's eyes peering over her dreams
and into the silent, lonely watches of haunted midnights, who shall
tell? There is no analysis of a native and ancient depravity: it was
sown in the marrow, it strengthens in the bone, and, with a cunning,
daring self-assertion, gambles upon the faith of living and of dying
not. Its very fears push it onward in crime, and make it cruelly
tantalize its own fate, as cowards lean over graveyard walls, and
shout, with an inner trembling, "Come forth—I dare you!"
So had this woman, conscious of her deserts,
bullied eternal justice through its long postponements, never
doubting, while ever vexing, the Spirit of God, until the number of
her crimes crowded the tablet of her memory, and out of the hideous
gulf of her past life gazed faces without names and deeds without
memoranda; a procession the longer that strangers were in it, and,
shrinking from her, yet pressing on, exclaimed her name or only
shrieked "'Tis she!" as if her name was nothing to her curse.
Sleeping in her chains, there were children's eyes
watching her from far-off corners, as if to say, "Give us the whole
life we would have lived but for you!"
As her swollen limbs festered to the irons, there
were babies' cries floating in the air, that seemed to draw near her
breasts, as if for food, and suddenly convulse there in screams of
pain, and move away with the sounds of suffocation she had heard as
All night there were callers on her, and whom they
were no one could tell; but the jailer's family saw her lips moving
and her eyes consult the air, as if she was faintly trying bravado
upon certain business-speaking ghosts who had come with bills long
overdue and demanded payment, and went out only to come again and
Some of these mystic visitors she would jeer at and
defy, and stamp her feet, as if they had no rights in equity against
her soul, having been on vicious errands when they met their ends, and
bankrupts in the court of pity; but suddenly a helpless something
would appear, and paralyze her with its little wail, like a babeless
mother or a motherless babe, and, with her forehead wet with sweat of
agony, she would affect to chuckle, and would whisper, "Nothin' but
niggers! nothin' more!"
Day brought her some relief, but also other cares,
and of these the chief was the care of money. She had been a
spendthrift all her life, and robbed mankind of life and liberty to
enjoy the selfish dissipation of spending their blood-money; and what
had she bought with it? Nothing, nothing. To spend it, only, she had
wrecked her sex and her soul; to spend it for such trifles as children
want—candy and common ornaments, a dance and a treat, a gift for some
boor or forester or even negro she was misleading, or to establish a
silly reputation for generosity: generous at the expense of human
happiness, and of robbing people of liberty and life, merely for
Now she had none to appease the all-devouring
greeds of habit intensified by real necessity: no money to buy
dainties or even liquor; no money to spend upon the jailer's family
and keep the reputation of kindness alive; no money for decent apparel
to appear in court; none to corrupt the law or to hire witnesses and
The two demons she had created alternately seized
the day and the night: the demon of money plagued her all day, the
demon of murder pursued her all night.
Every morning she had insatiate wants; all night
she had remorseless visitors; and, close before, the gallows filled
the view, with the Devil tying the noose.
That Devil she plainly saw, so busy on the gallows,
fitting his ropes and shrouds and long death-caps, and he evaded her,
as if he had no commerce with her now.
He was a cool and wistful man, perfectly happy in
the prospect of getting her, and not anxious about it, so sure was he
of her soon and complete possession.
He was always out in the jail-yard when she looked
there, fixing his ropes, sliding the nooses, examining the gallows,
like a conscientious carpenter; and in his complacent smile was an
awful terror that froze her dumb: he seemed so impersonal, so joyous,
so industrious, as if he had waited for her like a long creditor, and
compounded the interest on her sins till the infernal sum made him a
millionaire in torments.
A Devil it was, real as a man—a slavemaster to
whose quiet love of cruelty eternal death was not enough; a man whose
unscarred age, old as the rising sun, still came and went in immortal
youthfulness and satisfaction, but for the nonce forgetting other
debtors in the grip he had on her, as his majestic expiation for his
He looked like a storekeeper, a man of accounts, a
cosmopolitan kidnapper, who knew a good article and had it now. She
was so terrified that she wanted to cry to him, and see if he would
not remit that business method and become more human, and sauce her
But no; the longer she watched, the less he looked
towards her, though she knew his smile meant no one else. To hang upon
his cord was very little; to go with him after it was stretched, down
the burning grates of hell, and see him all so cool and busy in her
misery, was the gnawing vulture at her heart.
In vain she tried to throw responsibility for her
sins upon a vague, false parentage and fatherhood, and say that she
was bred to robbery and vice; a something in her heart responded: "No,
you had beauty and health and chaste lovers whom you rejected or
tempted, and a mind that was ever clear and knew right from wrong.
Conscience never gave you up, though drenched in innocent blood. The
often-murdered monitor revived and cried aloud like the striking of a
clock, but never was obeyed!"
Thus haunted, deserted, peeped in upon from the
hereafter, racked with vain needs, her outlets closed to every escape
or subterfuge, revenge itself dead, and disease assisting conscience
to banish sleep, the wretched woman crawled to her window one day and
saw the helpless effigy of her sex exposed there for doing an act of
humanity; and instantly an instinct she immediately obeyed exacted
from her one last familiar, heartless deed, to show the crowd that
even she, Patty Cannon the murderess, had "no respect for a nigger."
That doctrine long survived her, though she found
it old when she came among them.
She aimed an egg at the breast of her sex, and,
with a barefaced grin, she saw it strike and burst. The next moment
the crowd had recognized and defied her.
In the exasperation of their shout, and of being no
longer praised even for insulting a negro, a convulsion of desperate
rage overcame the murderess.
Too helpless to retort in any other way, yet in
uncontrollable recklessness, she exclaimed, "They never shall see me
hang, then!" and swallowed the arsenic she had concealed in her bosom.
That night she died in awful torments.
The venerable Chancellor, lying in the hotel near
the whipping-post corner, watched by the released Mrs. Hudson, who
must to-morrow depart from the state forever, heard that night voices
on the square, saying:
"Patty Cannon's dead. They say she's took poison."
A mighty pain seized the Chancellor's heart, and
the loud groans he made called a stranger into the room.
"Is that dreadful woman dead?" sighed the
"Yes; she will never plague Delaware again,
"God be thanked!" the old man groaned. "Justice and
murder are kin no more."
They said he died that instant of heart disease.
"The Entailed Hat" by George Alfred Townsend