Patty Cannon and her son-in-law, Joe Johnson, are the two names usually associated with the gang, which is often referred to as the Cannon-Johnson Gang. In the course of my research for my current work in progress, WHEN THE LAST MOON RISES, I learned that kidnapping was a Cannon family business and that Joe’s brother, Ebenezer, was an active member as well as some thirty to fifty other men. These included both white and black men, who were used to trick free blacks into boarding ships in Baltimore and Philadelphia, believing they were being hired for wages. Once on board, they were then taken captive. Any free black, slave, or fugitive slave who crossed paths with Patty or her gang on a dark, quiet road were also in danger of being kidnapped and sold south.
The gang operated from a house in Reliance, Md., about five miles west of Seaford, where the Cannons operated a ferry across the Nanticoke River. (It is today known as Woodland Ferry.) Because the house was located near the convergence of Sussex County in Delaware and Caroline and Dorchester counties in Maryland, Patty moved from county to county and state to state to escape the law. Her gang was so infamous they became known as the Reverse Underground Railroad.
Patty’s husband, Jesse Cannon, and their son-in-law, Joe Johnson, were both arrested at various points and ordered to be tied to the pillory and given thirty-nine lashes. The sentence for kidnapping also included having the soft part of the ears nailed to the pillory, then cut off. But in most cases, this part of the sentencing was pardoned by the judge.
Many legends exist surrounding Patty Cannon, but hard facts are more difficult to find. Every account of her life has some variations, but they all center around the same theme: kidnapping and murder.
In April of 1829, a tenant farmer on Patty’s property was ploughing in a field, in a place generally covered with water and where a heap of brush had been lying, when his horse sunk in the mud. While digging the horse out, he found a blue painted chest, about three feet long, and in it the bones of a man. News spread among the community and it was presumed that they belonged to a slave trader from Georgia who had passed through a decade earlier and afterward went missing. It was believed that he had mentioned to Patty that he was in possession of a large sum of money, and was murdered by her to obtain it.
A black member of the gang, Cyrus James, was caught and turn’s state’s evidence, confessing that he had seen the Johnson brothers and Patty shoot this man while eating supper in her house, then force the body into the chest and bury it. He admitted that many others had been killed by Patty and that he could show them where the evidence was buried.
According to the Delaware State Journal, “The officers and citizens accordingly accompanied him to the places which he pointed out, and made 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 billet of wood, and the other contained those of one whom he 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 age of seven years, and is said to have done much mischief in his time for her and Johnson.”
She was also said to have been involved in the murder for which her daughter’s first husband, Henry Bruinton, was hanged, though she was not prosecuted. As the story goes: “Two traders, one of whom is named Ridgell, with a sum of money, came to Patty's one evening to purchase negroes; she artfully detained them by the kindest treatment, entertaining them with apple toddy and other gentle mixtures, while she sent out Bruinton and two men of the name of Griffin, to fall a tree across the Laurel road, to which town the travelers were destined.
“When they were gone, Patty, dressed in men's clothes and armed with a musket, started by a short cut through the forest, to join the murderers. When the traders came to the tree their horses stopped, and all four of the murderers, who were lying in ambush, fired at once. Ridgell was shot through the body; but he had energy enough, for the moment, to defend his life, and being armed with pistols, he and his companion fired into the cover where the murderers were lying, and drove them from the field. Mr. Ridgell was carried by his friend to Laurel, where he died that night. Governor Haslett offered a reward for the murders, and they were all arrested. One of the Griffins turned state's evidence, and convicted his brother and Bruinton, who were hung. Patty, the fiend in human shape, escaped on account of her sex, a nolle prosequi [unwilling to pursue] having been entered.”
Cannon was arrested in April 1829 by the Dorchester County sheriff at the tavern where he found 21 people in chains ready for transport to the South. Cannon was handed over to the Sussex County sheriff and transported to Seaford by a mounted posse where she was taken to Magistrate Dr. John Gibbons from Lewes. She was then taken to the Georgetown jail to stand trial.
It is believed that Joe Johnson had already escaped south, taken a false name, and may even have taken the office of Judge of Probate in a Southwestern State. I have found no information regarding the fate of his brother, Ebenezer, and it is assumed that he too evaded capture. Her husband Jesse Cannon, is said in some accounts to have died by her hand after three years of marriage, although he was still alive in 1821 when he was indicted for kidnapping.
Patty Cannon 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: and 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.”
According to a contemporary newspaper account: "This woman is now between 60 and 70 years of age, and looks more like a man than a woman, but old as she is, she is believed to be as heedless and heartless as the most abandoned wretch that breathes."
Patty Cannon confirmed the awful rumors about her and confessed to killing 11 people, helping to murder a dozen others, and to kidnapping and selling blacks into slavery.
On May 11, she was found dead in her cell. Speculation is that she committed suicide by taking poison smuggled into the prison, thus avoiding a public execution.
My novel’s title is taken from the statement: “When the last moon rises over the wicked pursuits of Patty Cannon and the Johnson brothers, it will be a blessed day indeed.”