Martha "Patty" CANNON
Characteristics: Leader of a gang that kidnapped slaves and free blacks from the Delmarva Peninsula and transported and sold them to plantation owners
Number of victims: 4 - 11 +
Date of murders: 1821 - 1829
Date of arrest: 1829
Date of birth: 1760
Victims profile: Men, women and children
Method of murder: Beating - Shooting
Location: Delaware, USA
Status: Died in prison while awaiting trial on May 11, 1829, purportedly a suicide via poison
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 forces.
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 children.)
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 receive sentences.
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 her crimes.
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 self-administered poison.
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 Cannon’s remains
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 her death.
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 Smithsonian Institute.
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 century.
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 library.
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 kidnap victim.
“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 office.
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 falling tide.
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 three."
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 passage."
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' stiffy."
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 disappearance.
"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 explain that."
"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 band.
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 your client."
"You had been trading with Patty Cannon; I guessed that much."
"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 grave."
Judge Custis broke into a long fit of sobbing, and Clay]ton, 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 truth!"
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 flight.
"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 bidder."
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 loudly:
"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 forest fled
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 they expired.
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 again.
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 spending-money!
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 attorneys.
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 own shortcomings.
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 back.
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 Chancellor.
"Yes; she will never plague Delaware again, marster."
"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