Patty Cannon: The Infamous Slave Trader of the 1800s

From this dark period of American history, Patty Cannon’s legacy lives on in infamy.

On Investigation Discovery, the show Deadly Women focused on a 50-year-old woman named Patty Cannon who was living in a man’s world. In 1810, in Sussex County, Delaware, Cannon was known to dress and portray herself as a man, according retired state archivist of Delaware Russ McCabe.

She was a part of a gang which included family members such as her husband Jesse Cannon and son-in-law Henry Brereton and they participated in illegal slavery. The family worked together and made money from kidnapping free black people, and selling them into slavery, illegally, according to Professor Carol Wilson of the History Dept. of Washington College.

Patty was the leader because she was powerful and domineering, according to former FBI profiler Candice Delong. Many slaves who were free traveled to Delaware for a fresh start to live a better life and to get away from the harsh realities of forced human confinement and slavery. But unfortunately, on the way to Delaware, blacks didn’t know about the Cannon family.

All blacks were marked targets by Patty because she kidnapped men, women, and even children without any shame. The people who came across Patty were at a huge disadvantage because they were African-Americans, who at that time had very few rights even if they were free, according to McCabe.

To break her prisoners’ spirit, Patty used torture, like being chained and punished them when they complained or asserted their freedom, according to Wilson.

Over time, the abuse by Patty and her gang was more than they could handle, and they became submissive and compliant, Delong said.

According to McCabe, Patty enjoyed some perverse enjoyment from the physical violence and cruelty she inflicted on her victims. If the prisoners refused to become slaves, they met a worse fate, which resulted in Patty committing many murders.

The Cannon Family Tavern

Free black people weren’t Patty’s only targets, because she and her family also ran a tavern, which was popular amongst the other illegal slave traders. The slave traders were treated well, and were offered food and had a great time at the tavern, McCabe said. There was a huge demand and a lot of money was made.

The illegal slave traders thought the Cannon tavern was a haven to do business, but they were completely wrong because there was no honor among thieves.

The Cannon family picked their mark, noticed how much money the people had, and got greedy. Rather than make a deal with the people, the Cannon family killed them and took their money, Wilson said. Patty forced her husband and son-in-law to do her dirty work by killing their customers.

Patty didn’t care if she had to rob or murder her own customers to receive any kind of fortune, Delong said.

The Cannon family killed one to many slavers, and authorities managed to pin the latest murder on Patty’s son-in-law Henry, and other members of the family went on the run from the law. The authorities thought Henry was the leader of the gang, but didn’t know that Patty was the real leader and was still free to keep capturing, kidnapping, and torturing free black people and murdering fellow illegal slave traders for their money.

Patty dodged the authorities for so many years, and continued to escape punishment, McCabe said. It may have to do with the fact that Patty was a woman. In the 19th century, very few people could imagine a woman capable of such brutality, Delong said.

Losing most of her gang to incarceration never stopped Patty, and she felt she was untouchable, and got away with slave trading and murder for more than a decade.

In 1841, Patty’s reign of cruelty reached a new low when she suspected her husband slept with a black servant and they produced a baby. Patty believed that the servant’s child was the daughter of her husband, and out of jealousy and rage Patty decided to murder the child by stealing it from the servant’s arms and she threw the child into the fireplace, McCabe said.

At the end of the day, all Patty cared about was money, and her crimes made her a small fortune. She lived the good life for years until 1839, when one of her black servants discovered something disturbing on the property. What was on the property was a trunk full of human remains.

The police investigated and discovered more than one body on the property, and this caused one of the gang members to offer a testimony to the police in return for immunity, Wilson said.

After almost two decades of escaping the law, Patty Cannon was finally arrested, and charged with murder. Patty didn’t make it to her trial because she committed suicide by drinking poison in jail.

She was an absolute control freak, so she wanted to be in control of her own life to the very end. She wasn’t going to give that control to the hangman. She killed whites, blacks, adults, children, babies, and even her own paying customers. Patty Cannon could be the ringleader of all the deadly women, Delong said.

From this dark period of American history, Patty Cannon’s legacy lives on in infamy. 

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Patty Cannon: The Infamous Slave Trader of the 1800s