Patty Cannon should not be glorified

March 31, 2023

A recent story in Delaware media about the location of Patty Cannon’s bones correctly identifies her as a murderess who also kidnapped African American adults and children to sell to slave catchers as runaway slaves. The guest column also portrays her as the object of children’s scare games and whose bones were unearthed in 1902 and were passed to various people, ultimately landing in the Smithsonian Institution in 2010, where doubt was cast upon whether they were her bones or those of a man. 

Patty Cannon is an object of fascination who has been inappropriately memorialized. The Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice takes exception to the portrayal of these bones as historically interesting and mysterious, without any attempt to judge the racist murderess. SDARJ first became involved with Patty Cannon’s dubious legacy when a resident of the Patty Cannon Estates in Seaford contacted us. The resident was concerned about the planned expansion of this development and that county leaders were supporting the expansion on county owned property. The resident was curious as to how the leaders could support the broadening of the Patty Cannon legacy of murder and racism. 

Cannon, her family and accomplices are also on display in the Seaford Library, where there is a larger-than-life permanent exhibit, which helps to keep her memory and deeds alive and encourages a silent admiration for this psychopath despite the torture and deaths of many.  

Other honors are scattered throughout Delaware and Maryland. A historical plaque marks a home where she resided. In 2012, Delaware erected another plaque called “The Cannon-Johnson Kidnapping Gang” across the road that serves as the border between Delaware and Maryland, that tells how the Cannon-Johnson Gang owned land and houses on both sides of the border. Both Delaware and Maryland erected highway signs glorifying her. After receiving a letter from SDARJ, the Maryland Department of Transportation removed the sign.  

How to explain the continued fascination with publicly memorializing and glorifying a mass murderess and kidnapper of African American children? It is similar to the fascination in Georgetown with the memorial to Confederate soldiers and the Confederate flag flying at the Marvel Museum, despite the widespread community protest. The explanation is racism. Racism underlies what is passing for historical interest and honoring dead Confederate heroes: the racism that African Americans were inferior and useful as slaves and that preservation of that way of life was worth dying for. It is ironic that the author of the column about Patty Cannon’s bones describes the generations of children who walked past the Georgetown jail yard calling out, “Patty Cannon, Patty Cannon. What are you doing there?” waiting for her to answer. To borrow from “Stranger Things,” the upside down is the screams of the kidnapped African American children sold as runaway slaves.

We cannot deny Patty Cannon’s existence and crimes. But why memorialize the killer rather than the victims? Why not a local exhibit on the horrors experienced by the enslaved victims rather than commemorating the heinous crimes? Patty Cannon should be an item in a history book, not celebrated in numerous memorials.

Charlotte King and Clara S. Licata
Co-chairs, Legislative Advocacy Committee
Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice
  • A letter to the editor expresses a reader's opinion and, as such, is not reflective of the editorial opinions of this newspaper.

    To submit a letter to the editor for publishing, send an email to Letters must be signed and include a telephone number and address for verification. Please keep letters to 500 words or fewer. We reserve the right to edit for content and length. Letters should be responsive to issues addressed in the Cape Gazette rather than content from other publications or media. Only one letter per author will be published every 30 days. Letters restating information and opinions already offered by the same author will not be used. Letters must focus on issues of general, local concern, not personalities or specific businesses.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter