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Patty Cannon Estates is named for serial killer. Residents aren’t spooked.

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SEAFORD, Delaware — On a recent afternoon at Patty Cannon Estates, two strangers knocked on the doors of ranch-style homes overflowing with Halloween decorations. A low sun illuminated red and yellow leaves like stained glass, and a breeze hinted at a coming coldness. When the owners answered the door, the strangers asked them, “Do you know who your neighborhood is named after?”

“A bad person,” said one woman softly.

“A bit of a rough slave owner,” a man a few doors down offered.

At the corner of the street, a man thinks for a moment. “I think she burned a black boy?”

It’s not half.

Patty Cannon was the first known female serial killer in the United States, a white woman who kidnapped and tortured possibly hundreds of black people whom she chained up in a secret cellar. Most of them she sold into slavery; those who struggled too much – perhaps as many as two dozen – she killed.

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She was arrested after the remains of a missing white man were found on her property. She died in prison awaiting trial in 1829.

None of that happened on the land now called Patty Cannon Estates, but the development is shrouded in his legacy. The murders took place five miles west on the Delaware-Maryland state line. Cannon’s body is buried near the Sussex County Jail 15 miles to the east. A mannequin dressed as Cannon sits in a rocking chair at the Seaford Museum six miles north.

“The neighborhood doesn’t seem haunted by that,” said Nosalie Bataille, a Haitian immigrant who has lived there for years. “It’s someone else’s story.”

The “reverse underground railway”

Many people know the case of Solomon Northup, the free black musician portrayed in the movie “12 Years a Slave,” who was kidnapped from DC and enslaved in the Deep South. But Northup was not the only victim of this type of kidnapping, far from it. Along with tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad, there was also a “Reverse Underground Railroad”, a network of kidnappers who snatched and sold nearly as many of free African Americans in slavery.

The Cannon-Johnson kidnapping gang likely originated with Patty’s husband, Jesse Cannon, around 1808, the same year the United States banned the importation of Africans, causing the domestic slave trade to flourish. , both legal and illegal. When Jessie died, her widow, probably in her 50s, and her son-in-law, Joe Johnson, took over. They may have even expanded the operation, which numbered around 60 people at its peak, according to historian Richard Bell, author of “Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home,” which chronicles the fate of five of the gang members. child victims.

Philadelphia was a prime hunting ground, and black children were particularly easy prey. A typical scenario looked like this: a paid black lure asked a group of kids to help him unload something a docked ship, promising payment. Once on board, the children would be held while the ship navigated the Delaware River. The victims were hidden in the cellar and attic of Cannon’s Tavern until a buyer was arranged, then transported to the Deep South, probably never to be freed again.

In another case described in an 1829 journal, gang members convinced an enslaved man in Maryland that they could have him forged freedom papers and lead him to safety. Instead, they lured him to Cannon’s property, then told the man’s wife and seven freeborn children that their father wanted them to join him. All were kidnapped and sold as slaves.

It was illegal, but Cannon and the gang were well known and operated with “practical impunity,” Bell said. There were two main reasons. First, law enforcement at the time was almost non-existent. What few sheriffs and constables there were were easily outwitted by crossing into another jurisdiction, an easy thing for Cannon, whose home and tavern straddled the Delaware-Maryland border. And second, although slavery was becoming less common in the area, white residents “had not abandoned the white supremacist attitudes that come with slavery,” Bell said. He even found an 1817 editorial praising the kidnappers for relieving the community of the “black plague”.

In 1829, a Delaware farmer was digging land he was renting from Cannon when he came across “a chest painted blue…and the bones of a man were found there,” reported a Pennsylvania abolitionist newspaper. It was determined – the newspaper did not specify how – that the bones belonged to a rival kidnapper who had disappeared more than a decade earlier. By then Johnson had fled to the Deep South, but when authorities arrested a former gang member, he admitted to seeing Cannon kill a number of people and he directed to several burial sites. At least three sets of remains belonged to children, according to the newspaper.

Cannon was arrested and imprisoned in the county seat of Georgetown, where she died on May 11, 1829, in her 60s or 60s. There were rumors that she poisoned herself to escape the gallows, but Bell thinks it’s just as likely that she died of natural causes.

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Before her death, she may have confessed to killing two dozen of her captives, but historians disagree on this point. Much of what is “known” about her comes from a popular pamphlet written in 1841, 12 years after Cannon’s death, which contains provable errors. For example, he claims her first name was Lucretius while other records indicate it was Martha. Bell doubts its veracity, but local historian Michael Morgan, who has published a book on Cannon, told the Cape Gazette he had found contemporary documents supporting most of the pamphlet’s claims.

“Everything you heard about him is probably true, and more,” Morgan told the Gazette.

The legend of Patty Cannon abounds. Novels from “The Entailed Hat” (1882) to “Song Yet Sung” (2008) were based on his life. An episode of the 1990s series “Homicide: Life on the Street” based a character (“Patty Ridenour”) on her. Until recently, historic markers were posted on both sides of the Delaware-Maryland line at the intersection where his home and tavern once stood. In 2007, after the PBS show “History Detectives” determined that the house next to the “Patty Cannon House” freeway marker was not its own, the State of Maryland added two words at the top as a correction: ” Nearby stood”.

Jack and Rosalie Messick, a retired couple who have lived in this house for 40 years, now believe their home is the site of Cannon’s Tavern and that an interior American chestnut railing is all that remains of the structure. origin.

Are they scared to live where the Cannon murders may have taken place? No way. They are history buffs, they said during a recent visit. This piece of history is “not beautiful or glorious or something to be proud of”, said Jack Messick, “but it happened”, and it is interesting.

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They keep a scrapbook of newspaper clippings mentioning their house and were always happy to talk to tourists who knocked on the door, even those who insisted there were tunnels under the house and asked to enter. There was also the Ghostbuster who told them the house “had a vibe”, but when they refused his plan to monetize the vibe, he left “and took his ghost with him”, Jack said Messick.

A few months ago, state employees from Maryland arrived at the house unannounced and removed the marker from the freeway. Julie Schablitsky, cultural resources manager for the Maryland Department of Transportation, confirmed that he removed the sign at the request of a local racial justice group, which argued that the sign, largely on the book ” The Entailed Hat”, was not the right context for the site. Schablitsky said she would be happy to consider replacing the sign with one on the Reverse Underground Railroad, but so far no one has asked.

The Messicks are disappointed to see the sign go. Halloween was the best time of year, Rosalie said, as children flocked home ready to be spooked. Without the sign, they don’t know what will happen.

Then there’s Patty Cannon Estates.

When Dave Abbott moved from Chicago 11 months ago, a resident asked him if he knew who owned his neighborhood. “You should look it up,” the person told him.

He was appalled and his friends in Chicago, whom he told, were appalled. “I never thought Delaware was a Southern state,” Abbott said. (Although they were never part of the Confederacy, Delaware, New Jersey and Kentucky were the last states to emancipate all of their slaves, when the 13th Amendment went into effect in December 1865.)

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Bataille, the Haitian immigrant, discovered it at the Seaford library. She was shocked at the time, she says, but doesn’t think much about it.

Tanya Tappan, who moved from Philadelphia to Patty Cannon Estates with his girlfriend and their five children, found out when her kids Googled it and told her. “That’s crazy,” she said. “But I like the neighborhood.”

Both white and black residents said the neighborhood was multiracial and everyone got along well. And although everyone found the name more or less bizarre, there was little enthusiasm to change it. Abbott said if anyone else wanted to change it, they could help, but he wasn’t going to “raise a ruckus.”

A young father, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he didn’t trust the mainstream media, compared the idea of ​​changing the name to removing statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “It’s history,” he said. “You can’t change history.” Len Kaveckas, a retiree who has lived there for 12 years, is indifferent: “Let them take down the sign. We do not care?”

Ric Thornton, who said he built and maintained the neighborhood sign, has in recent years feared it could be vandalized, but so far so good. “It’s just a name,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the neighborhood”

So how did it get its name? It was the brainchild of the late Thayer B. Porter, a local lumber merchant and real estate developer who sold the first lots in the early 1970s. In 1982 he told a Delaware newspaper why he named it according to her: “He was the Al Capone of this region. I often wondered why no one made a film of her.

A Google search did not provide evidence of a neighborhood named after Al Capone.

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