Patty Cannon got the bad end coming to her, the stories say: She died in jail after poisoning herself to avoid getting hanged.
She also got a housing development named after her.
Nestled along the Nanticoke River near Woodland Ferry, west of Laurel and Seaford, is a quiet community that bears the name “Patty Cannon Estates.”
Chris and Imelda Davis recently retired here from the D.C. area. They knew they loved the neighborhood with its mix of modest ranch and multi-story homes. They did not know Patty Cannon was one of Delaware’s most notorious killers, who helped run a gang trafficking free Blacks, kidnapping them and selling them into slavery.
They were not thrilled to find this out after buying a home there.
Chris Davis brought the topic up on a local Facebook group recently, asking in a post: Why is a community named after a notorious illegal slave trader and murderer?
Who was Patty Cannon?
Cannon’s lore in Delaware has grown beyond what is known of her life, partly because of two books published after her death: “The Narrative and Confessions of Lucretia P. Cannon” (1841) and a novel called “The Entailed Hat” (1884) based on stories about her. There’s no evidence that Cannon, whose given name was Martha, ever went by the name Lucretia. That indicates a little about the reliability of the “confessions” (the book is generally considered to contain lots of made up stories and exaggerations, some of which then made it into the Cannon canon).
Sober historical accounts are less lurid and more cautious, but Cannon was a real historical figure who did horrible things. She ran a tavern near the Maryland-Delaware border and was part of a gang including her son-in-law Joe Johnson that kidnapped free Blacks in the area and sold them into slavery in other states. She supposedly put her location near the state line to good use in ducking the local authorities by jumping to a different jurisdiction when needed.
We have some details about the kidnappings thanks to accounts of the victims, preserved in the the papers of Philadelphia Mayor Joseph Watson. A slaveholder in the deep south contacted Watson about someone trying to sell kidnapped people as slaves, and some of them were rescued.
“The presence of such gangs meant that free African Americans lived in a constant state of fear that they or members of their families would be sold into slavery,” notes the book “A History of African Americans of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.”
Cannon’s trafficking ring collapsed after the bodies were discovered, though. Some accounts say a tenant farmer found a body or bones on her land; others say one of her slaves informed on her. However it happened, authorities discovered multiple bodies, one of which was said to be that of a white slave trader, and finally moved against her in 1829.
“Authorities only took substantial action against the gang after they discovered evidence of the murder of a white slave trader and the bodies of several others, including a young child and a baby,” a historical plaque near the site reads.
Cannon, who may have been around 70 years old at the time, is said to have poisoned herself in jail before she could be tried for murder.
Why would someone name a community after her?
It’s no longer possible to ask Thayer P. Porter, the developer of Patty Cannon Estates, just exactly what he was thinking when he named the development in the early 1970s. Porter, a lumber dealer in the area, died in 1988. According to his obituary, he ran Sussex Lumber and Home Center, which eventually became Duke’s Lumber.
However, he did give a brief explanation in 1982 when a reporter for the News Journal put the question to him. It basically came down to tying into the area’s history.
“She was the Al Capone of this area. I’ve often wondered why no one made a movie of her,” he told Pattie Sewell.
He said he grew up hearing Cannon’s legend, and said, “from all the stories, she used this road to do her deeds, you might say. The hill toward the river is where she’s supposed to have killed two slaves.”
Just what about this legacy made Porter think it would entice people to buy homes there is still a little hazy from that explanation. It could be an effort to tap into the way people sometimes cheerfully embrace the horrible and grisly when it has to do with folk tales or stories about outlaws. Or perhaps Porter was going with the “all publicity is good publicity” motto.
Why the Facebook post?
The Davises, for two, are not at all impressed with the idea of naming a community for a former slave kidnapper and killer.
What if the neighborhood was named after Timothy McVeigh, Imelda Davis wonders, the domestic terrorist executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Would people have an issue with that?
“I think it’s a real big slap in the face, not only just for Black folks, people period,” Chris Davis said.
“It’s disrespectful; it’s hurtful.” He said he feels embarrassed even telling people where he lives now.
Both Chris and Imelda emphasized that they like the neighborhood and said they are not looking to become activists on the issue or make it a big campaign.
“I really like the quietness of the neighborhood,” Imelda Davis said. “There’s nothing wrong with this neighborhood, absolutely nothing.”
After Chris Davis found out the story behind the name, though, he decided to put it out on social media to start raising awareness. “Ignorance is not bliss,” he said.
Chris Davis’ post did get some interest, but didn’t really cause a controversy or firestorm. A number of the commenters seemed to agree that naming a neighborhood after Cannon was strange or distasteful, although there was some pushback taking a “don’t erase history” line. Davis said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction, having expected more negativity.
Local historian Jim Bowden, who grew up in Seaford and runs the “Seaford Delaware, a look back in time” Facebook page, weighed in on the post, suggesting it would be better to change the name to Cannon Estates.
He told me he thought Cannon’s legacy had been glossed over with the passage of time. He reckoned Thayer was going for notoriety, an easily recognizable name that would stick.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t delve into the seriousness of what we all know,” he said, of Cannon’s legacy as one of the most notorious female killers in history.
The News Journal article described Patty Cannon Estates as “a peaceful development of tidy homes,” where “frisky dogs romp with tow-headed children among the trees.”
I didn’t see any tow-headed children and the dogs seemed less frisky and more outraged about a reporter knocking on doors, but I did manage to talk to a couple of other residents of the development to get their thoughts.
Lester Humphrey was one of those. He had extensive knowledge of Patty Cannon and her crimes, although he speculated some people might not.
“You won’t find any young ones around that know anything about her,” he said.
He was not bothered by the name or in favor of changing it, despite Cannon’s notoriety.
“I’m really disappointed in this country when it comes to burying things that made this country good or bad over the past couple centuries,” he said, mentioning the push to take down Confederate statues.
Resident Becky Peterson gave a brief, wry smile of recognition when I brought up Cannon’s name.
“I find the history interesting, but it doesn’t disturb me or bother me,” she said. For her, moving to the area wasn’t about the name of the neighborhood, but liking the location.
“The name of the neighborhood was not a factor in our moving here whatsoever.”
She said the name doesn’t really come up in conversations with neighbors, either. As far as changing it, she said she’s indifferent, although she added, “I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s part of history.”
It was strikingly similar to what residents told the reporter in 1982.
“She was a mean old so-and-so, but I don’t think it makes any difference to anybody. Those days are long gone,” one man said. (We can only speculate whether a copy editor inserted “so-and-so” or if the resident politely censored himself.)
Bowden said as a history buff, he’s uneasy with throwing away everything in history and taking down statues of complicated figures like Thomas Jefferson. That said, the Patty Cannon Estates name strikes him differently.
“As notorious as she was, certainly making that ‘Cannon Estates’ would be an appropriate thing in this day and time.”
When it comes to history, he said, people have to be willing to discuss the good and the bad. “Some people would just like to brush it all under the rug,” he said, suggesting that may be why a development named for Patty Cannon wasn’t questioned in the first place.
A side note about that skull
A story about Patty Cannon wouldn’t be complete without mentioning her skull, which is morbidly famous for having gotten passed around after her death.
Former News Journal reporter robin brown, who wrote many pieces on Delaware history, chronicled the story of the skull in a 2013 article. Cannon was buried at the Sussex County Courthouse, she wrote, and when her grave was later moved a courthouse employee took the skull home and supposedly hung it on a nail. It ended up at the Dover Library, where it used to be put on display at Halloween. From there it was sent on to the Smithsonian.
The museum told brown that analysis showed the skull was of a female about the same age as Cannon when she died, but Bowden said he has done some digging and isn’t so sure the skull is the real deal. He and others tracked down a believed direct descendent of Cannon’s who lives in the South, where the family apparently moved after Cannon’s disgrace.
The descendent, who said his prim and proper grandmother would have been aghast to find out about the connection, is willing to undergo DNA analysis to compare with the skull, Bowden said. That analysis has yet to be done, though, so all we have to go on for now is the stories.