Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Martha "Patty" Cannon (b. circa 1746 - d. May 11, 1829)
MSA SC 5496-051231
Slaveholder, slave trader, kidnapper and human trafficker, Dorchester, Maryland


Martha Cannon, known popularly as “Patty Cannon”, was a notorious slave trader, kidnapper, and serial murderer. She was married to Jesse Cannon of Sussex County Delaware, who died sometime before March 18261. Cannon had at least one child, a daughter who married Joseph Johnson, a slave trader and known member of Cannon’s infamous gang of human traffickers. Patty Cannon died on May 11, 1829 while an inmate in a jail in Georgetown, Delaware, following the discovery of multiple human remains on her property in Reliance, Dorchester, County Maryland. According to periodicals at the time, Cannon was an elderly woman in her 60s or 70s. Many details about Cannon’s personal life remain unclear.

Posthumous accounts in 20th century newspapers of Cannon’s life as a career-criminal and domestic trafficker locate her operations on Maryland’s eastern Shore near the Delaware border. Dorchester County, Caroline County, and sites named “Reliance”, “Johnson’s Crossroads”, and “the Patty Cannon House” (said to be Cannon’s former Maryland residence) appear throughout these reports. In December of 1907 The Baltimore Sun reported the death of one James Matthew Smith, who “was found dead in bed [...] at this home, the old Patty Cannon place at Reliance.”2 During the fall of 1930 a resident of Bel Air, Maryland, suggested that members of the Federated Women’s Clubs at Preston consider “the one-time home of Patty Cannon, notorious slave trader, at Johnson’s Corner” as a possible location for a historic site marker in Caroline County.3 Thirty years later in May of 1967, The Baltimore Sun reported that “A. Hill Smith, former owner of a general store in Reliance, Md., and the owner of the Patty Cannon House in Reliance, died.”4 Another article posted in The Sun on September 18, 1967 included an image of the “Original Cannon House”, stating in the image’s caption that the original building was “built in the early 1800s”, and was “Joe Johnson’s tavern.”5 A short piece in the New York Times noted that Patty Cannon had been a tavern keeper, and that it was the site of multiple murders and the center of her human trafficking operations.6

“Reliance” and “Johnson’s Crossroads” or  “Johnson’s Corner” refer to the same unincorporated area that sits on the border of Maryland and Delaware, intersecting with Caroline and Dorchester Counties on the Maryland side, and Sussex County on the Delaware side. Patty Cannon owned land in Dorchester County.7 On March 1, 1826 she purchased, for $1,000 from her son-in-law Joseph Johnson, a parcel of land called Wilson’s Plain.8 Five years earlier, in 1821, Joseph Johnson had purchased the Wilson’s Plain tract from James Wilson.9 At the time, the area was known as “Wilson’s Crossroads.” After Johnson’s purchase, it would come to be known as “Johnson’s Crossroads.” In 1882, a later owner of the property renamed the area “Reliance.10 Some sources also suggest that Cannon may have owned land in Caroline County. An entry in a Caroline County Levy Court ledger notes that in 1841 “Isaac & Jesse Cannon” were assessed for 25 acres of land noted as “part of Patty Cannon.11 As of yet, it is unclear how Isaac and Jesse were related to Cannon. It is possible that they were children or other close relatives.

In April of 1829, human remains were found in various areas on a property in Northwest Fork Hundred, Sussex County, Delaware.12 Patty Cannon, a Black man named Cyrus James and another individual by the name of “Butler” were arrested and placed in jail at Georgetown, Delaware. At the time, Cannon was reported to be “ between 60 and 70 years of age.13 Joseph Johnson, Cannon’s son-in-law and accomplice, had reportedly been seen in Delaware recently, but had not yet been located or arrested.14 At that time, it was said that he may have relocated to the state of Alabama.15 According to news sources in Delaware, three indictments for murder were found against Patty Cannon, and one indictment for murder against both Joseph Johnson and his brother, Ebenezer F. Johnson.16 A trial date was set, but Cannon died in prison on the 11th of May, 1829.17

Reports of the discovery of the human remains would be reprinted in periodicals from Mississippi to Vermont, and even farther away in London.18 An article printed in The Torchlight and Public Advertiser of Hagerstown, Washington County, Maryland reported:

[...] a tenant, who lives on the farm where Patty Cannon and her son-in-law, the celebrated Joseph Johnson, negro trader, lived for many year in N. W. Fork Hundred [...] was ploughing in the field in a place generally covered with water and where a heap of brush had been laying over for years, when his horse sunk in a grave, and on digging her found a blue painted chest, about three feet long, and in it the bones of a man.19

The Torchlight and Public Advertiser further stated that it was supposed by residents in the area that the remains found in the blue chest were of a slave trader from Georgia “named Bell or Miller, or perhaps both.”20 According to local memory, the Torchlight relayed, the man “had been murdered by Johnson and his gang, about ten or twelve years ago.21 His horse had been identified “at Patty Cannon’s, who laid claim to the animal until a person from Maryland, who had lent the horse, came forward and claimed his property.” 22 Cannon “alleged at the time that Bell or Miller had sailed a short time previous[sic], with a cargo of negroes for the South.”23 The Georgia slave trader’s remains were the first of many bodies to be located on the property.

A Black Marylander named Cyrus James, who was a member of Cannon and Johnson’s gang, was captured and arrested in Delaware on April 3rd, 1829.24 According to newspaper articles, Cyrus James had been raised by Cannon. By the time he was 7 years old, James had participated, the result of the coercion and grooming of a child, in a variety of the Cannon/Johnson gang’s crimes.25 It is likely, though not entirely clear, that James was enslaved by Cannon. During his examination by a Justice of the Peace in Seaford, Delaware, James shared many details of Johnson and Cannon’s murders. He stated: 

Joseph Johnson, Ebenezer F. Johnson, and old Patty Cannon has shot the man [the slave trader from Georgia] while at supper at her house, and that he saw them all engaged in carrying him in the chest and burying him; and he stated moreover, that many others also had been killed and that he could show where they had been buried.26

Bodies of free and formerly enslaved Black people were also disinterred on the property. The remains of at least one adult, and at least two children were uncovered. The body of a young child was found, buried in a garden. According to Cyrus James, the child and their mother were enslaved by Cannon.27 The child was “a mulatto.” According to James’s testimony, Cannon murdered the child because she suspected that the father was white, perhaps a member of her own family.28; The article contained no statements regarding the fate of the child's mother. Thus, it is unclear if she was murdered as well. 

Taking direction from Cyrus James' recall , authorities in Delaware also located “two oak boxes [...] each of which contained human bones.29 Another child was identified, who James had witnessed Cannon beat to death “in the head with a billet of wood.30 Another body was of an individual “whom [James] said they considered had property”, meaning that Cannon and her gang supposed  “that he was free.31 This individual had a family. James stated that, “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.32 According to the Torchlight,  “On examining the scull [sic] bone of the largest child, it was discovered to have been broken, as described by James.33 Searches on the property continued for other bodies, whose exact locations James did not show authorities.34 It is as of yet unclear if Cyrus James or other accomplices were prosecuted following Cannon’s death in jail.



1. DORCHESTER COUNTY COURT (Land Records) 1669-1851, MSA CE46. Book ER 10, 1825-1828, p.205, Martha Cannon from Joseph Johnson and Ebenezer Johnson.

2. “James Matthew Smith”, in The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 28 December, 1907. p.5

3. “J. Alexis Shriver Urges Women’s Clubs to Consider Locations Worthy of Such Recognition” in The Baltimore Sun, (Baltimore, Maryland), 12 November, 1938, p.10.

4.  “A. Hill Smith”, in The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 24 May, 1967, p.A13.

5. "Cannon House Auction Stalled By Bidding Lack”, The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Md), September 18, 1967 p.A9

6. “Sale of Maryland Home Recalls Murder Legend”, in The New York Times (New York, New York), 17 September, 1967, p.43.

7. DORCHESTER COUNTY COURT (Land Records) 1669-1851, MSA CE46. Book ER 10, 1825-1828, f.205, Martha Cannon from Joseph Johnson and Ebenezer Johnson.

8. Ibid.

9. DORCHESTER COUNTY COURT (land records), 1669-1851, MSA CE46. Book ER 8, 1821-1823, f.147-148. Joseph Johnson from James Wilson. The indenture was made July 18, 1821 and recorded in Court records on January 14, 1822.

10. See Maryland Historical Trust Maryland Inventory of HIstoric Properties no. D-125, section 8 p.1

11. CAROLINE COUNTY LEVY COURT (Assessors Field Book), 1841, p.67, MSA C472-1

12.  Note: Northwest Fork Hundred was formed in 1775 from parts of Dorchester County, Maryland..

13. The Delaware Register, or, Farmers’, Manufacturers’ and Mechanics’ Advocate (Wilmington, Delaware), May 16, 1829, p.7

14. Ibid

15. Ibid

16. Ibid

17.  The United States Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Friday May 22, 1829, p.4

18. An article was published in the London, England paper, The Examiner (London, Greater London, England), Sunday June 14, 1829.

19. The Torchlight and Public Advertiser (Hagerstown, Maryland), Thursday April 30, 1829 p.2

20. Ibid

21. Ibid

22. Ibid

23. Ibid

24. Ibid

25. Ibid

26. Ibid

27. Ibid

28. Ibid

29. Ibid

30. Ibid

31. Ibid

32. Ibid

33. Ibid

34. Ibid

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