[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
What’s left of the infamous Patty Cannon rests in a wig box in the Dover library.
By ROBERT N. JENKINS
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 17, 2001
WOODLAND, Del. — In a state where you practically stumble over Colonial this or Underground Railroad that, this spot 40 miles in from the Chesapeake Bay has its own colorful lore. It centers on the outrageously bloody Patty Cannon.
“She was a slave trader and farmer and ran this ferry in the early 1800s,” says Bonnie Maull, one of the contemporary captains of the tiny ferry crossing the Nanticoke River.
It’s a bright day, but as Maull recites this ghost story, a listener might visualize her turning the pages of a book filled with the lavish illustrations of N.C. Wyeth, who worked a few dozen miles to the north, just across the border in Pennsylvania.
“Patty was 6 feet and about 180 pounds,” continues Maull, “and she used to boast she could beat any man in Delaware.”
Apparently she could kill a bunch of them, too. She dealt in slaves brought in on barges, reportedly keeping some to work her own farm. When the human traffic was slow, she would send men to Philadelphia, to the north, to drug and kidnap free black men. She killed some slaves, too.
“She kept her own slaves in chains in the basement of her house right there,” Maull says, turning from the river toward the pleasant but obviously old house next to the ferry captains’ building. “The owners say it’s haunted.”
Though she dodged the authorities by escaping into Maryland or Delaware — depending on who was chasing her — the notorious Cannon finally was arrested. She confessed to 11 murders, including that of her husband and one of her infant children.
But before she could be brought to trial in 1827, she took some smuggled arsenic and died. “But they decapitated her anyway, and her head’s in a museum in Dover.”
Well, yes and no. According to a sworn document in the City Library in the state capital of Dover, Cannon and a few prisoners executed over the years were buried in the yard behind the Sussex County Jail. In the early 1900s, construction necessitated the exhumation and reburial elsewhere of these bodies, and that’s when one James Marsh, deputy sheriff, came into possession of Cannon’s remains.
Ultimately he passed Cannon’s skull to a nephew, who hung it on a nail in the barn until, at his death, that man’s son came into possession of the skull. Forty years ago, he loaned it to the library, which is where I found it. The ferocious Patty Cannon has been reduced to a skull without a jaw; it is kept in an inner office, nestled in tatty red velvet in a vinyl wig box.