Friday, September 24, 2010

A Killer Exhibit From The National Library Of Medicine

by Nancy Mattoon

The last words of a dying penitent: being an exact account of the passages...on which was grounded the first suspicion of his being concerned in the...murder of Dr. Clinch... Written with his own hand after condemnation... Author: Henry Harrison. 31 pp. (London, 1692).
Henry Harrison, the pamphlet's alleged author, was sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of Dr. Andrew Clinch, who had loaned a large sum of money to Harrison’s friend, a widow, and had evicted her when she failed to repay him.
(Courtesy The National Library of Medicine.)

Axe murders, murder by bludgeon, horrific mutilations, dismembered corpses, torture, impalement of a virgin on a stake, family members with slashed throats and crushed skulls, killings for profit, suicides, incest and child abuse, botched abortions, death due to "female troubles," "irregular" pregnancies, illegitimate children, unfaithful spouses, "womanizers," loose women, prostitutes, pregnant governesses, venereal diseases, perjured testimony, tainted "expert" witnesses, blackmail, crimes to cover up other crimes, poisonings ("strange-looking" dumplings laced with arsenic), clergymen gone bad, insane and "monomaniacal" killers. And let's not leave out these perennial favorites: serial killings (by both men and women), and political assassinations (the British government had failed to justly compensate him for his bad business dealings, so the Prime Minister had to die).

What is this, another day at the local grindhouse? Or are we virtual jurors parked in front of TruTV (formerly, Court TV)?

Nope, it's a remarkable exhibit, Most Horrible And Shocking Murders: "True Crime" Murder Pamphlets in the Collection of The National Library of Medicine (NLM). This online museum of mayhem is derived from an exhibit by the NLM in 2008, and is curated by Michael Sappol.

In Life: Dr. George Parkman, Boston Brahmin, murdered in 1849 by Dr. John Webster, a chemistry professor at Harvard Medical College. Webster had taken out a loan from Parkman that he couldn't repay. He used his medical knowledge to disarticulate the body and consign it to the furnace. Alas, Dr. Webster was sloppy: he was done in by, among other things, a brother-in-law who ID'd the corpse due to "its extreme hairiness," and a dentist who recognized the deceased's false teeth. "A Correct Likeness of Dr. Parkman," from Trial of Professor John W. Webster, for the murder of Doctor George Parkman. Reported exclusively for the N.Y. Daily Globe... 76 pp. (New York, 1850).

Documented on this site are a selection of historical pamphlets that depict humans on their worst possible behavior. The toll and consequences of murder and savagery, and various other crimes, are gut-wrenchingly detailed in a chronological array of pamphlets, published from 1692 - 1881. The pamphlet covers are gorgeously reproduced, as well as selected pages of the actual text.

Many of the authors of these studies in scarlet are quite rightly anonymous, as they reveal shocking details of the case in question, whether from actual court testimony or straight out of their own fevered imaginations. Other authors, especially scandal-mongering journalists, take full credit for their work, their names being prominently emblazoned on the title page. Invariably accompanying the text are drawings and sketches, again either from real life or the artists' imagination, and sometimes bearing little, if any, resemblance to the actual crimes they "depict."

In Death: Scattered about at the scene were various body parts, including a dismembered thigh, the lower part of a leg, a torso crammed into a chest (minus the heart and other vital organs). Professor Webster was found guilty. After the trial, he did, in fact confess to the crime, but plead self-defense. He was hung later that year. "Restoration of Dr. Parkman's Skeleton," from Trial of Professor John W. Webster, for the murder of Doctor George Parkman. Reported exclusively for the N.Y. Daily Globe... 76 pp. (New York, 1850).

At times these rags also included lurid "confessions," by the perpetrators, typically just before their date with death, and in highly dramatic fashion. These alleged confessions, could include heretofore unreleased and appalling details of the crime or provide an outline of the miscreant's sordid life as a rationale for resorting to murder. They could be wholly made-up fictions, in order to sell a sensational story, or florid apologies to give the document a patina of redeeming value. Sometimes, instead of a confession, readers would be treated to a plea of innocence, even including the identification of "the real killer."

Booktryst has plucked one such juicy story, and leaves it for you to determine its redeeming value (if any).

Exhibit: Patty Cannon

Narratives 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. 24 pp.
(New York, 1841).
A rather fanciful account and in error on several points: Patty Cannon was never tried, thus never convicted or sentenced, and it is very doubtful if she ever "confessed."
(Courtesy The National Library of Medicine.)

Lurid details surround early 19th century American female serial killer, kidnapper, and torturer Patty Cannon. She was nicknamed by some "Lucretia," in homage to Lucrezia Borgia, the notorious Italian Renaissance aristocrat and Machiavellian-style serial poisoner. To others, she was known simply as "Fat Patty." Still others flat-out called her "the wickedest woman in the world." Described in a 1907 newspaper article as "massive of bosom, massive elsewhere," this "Amazonian Paul Bunyan," was foul-mouthed, and "swarthy," all 260-plus pounds of her, and was no shrinking violet . She was said to be as muscular as any man, able to heft a 300-pound bag of grain onto her shoulder with ease. She ran a tavern and was the resident bouncer as well, snatching up unruly customers and pitching them into the street (often while rifling through their pockets for cash or valuables on the way to the exit). Documents at the time reported that she was "of a fierce temperament and homicidal."

George Alfred ("GATH") Townsend, Author of the Crime Novel
The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times (1884).

Very little reliable information exists about the crimes of Patty Cannon, and only scant court records have survived. In truth, much of what is stated as "fact" derives equally from local legend and journalistic exaggerations, as well as from an influential crime novel published several decades later: George Alfred ("GATH") Townsend's wildly popular The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times (1884, and reprinted numerous times). (The full text of which can be found here.)

The Entailed Hat by "Gath" [George Alfred Townsend]. Harper & Brothers, (1884).

Patty Cannon's origins are simply unknown: she was born around 1760, and may have emigrated from Canada, or even Eastern Europe, leading to her being described by the derogatory term "gypsyish." Even her real name is in doubt. She may have adopted an alias to hide her true identity. Patty's first husband, Jesse Cannon, who she married at the tender age of 16, died under mysterious circumstances a few years later. Her tavern, on the Maryland/Delaware border in an area known as the Delmarva Peninsula was the headquarters for the gang she commanded. Here she recruited both relatives (the family that slays together...) and low-lifes from the bar scene to aid in her nefarious schemes.

Often Mistakenly Reported as Patty Cannon's House. In fact, many of the architectural details prove that it is decidedly not, even assuming it was vastly remodeled. Her true house was actually some distance away.

Though she dabbled in standard highway robbery and stolen goods, this big bad mama's forte was kidnapping free blacks and slaves and literally selling them down the river, especially to plantation owners in the Deep South. Trafficking in humans was an especially lucrative business in the early 1800's. In 1808 Congress banned the importation of slaves. Once the supply was cut, the financial value of slaves skyrocketed. A healthy slave could fetch $1,000 or more. Patty Cannon's slave trade in 1819 alone made as much as $25,000. (All in gold coin, of course.)

Historical Marker Erected in 1939. Again, Many Details are Incorrect.
(Courtesy Historical Marker Database)

Patty Cannon's area of Maryland/Delaware included a significant free black population; some historians say that it was the largest concentration of African Americans in the country. It was also smack-dab on one of the routes used by the famed Underground Railroad, which spirited slaves and free blacks to safety. Kidnapping free blacks was less risky for Cannon's gang than stealing slaves from their masters. And greedy property owners in the area were all too eager to purchase any blacks from Cannon, no questions asked.

General Map Showing Major Routes of The Underground Railroad,
Taking Slaves and Free Blacks Northward.

Detailed View of Underground Railroad Routes, Including Maryland & Delaware (Large Red Concentration at Right.) Several Routes are Virtually at Patty Cannon's Doorstep.
(Courtesy Maryland State Archives.)

Local law enforcement was haphazard in dealing with illegal slave trading. On those rare occasions when the authorities did come to the Cannon house and tavern to investigate crimes, gang members would simply slip across the border into Delaware. In one instance, when the Maryland authorities came knocking at her tavern door, Patty brazenly stood her ground and said the very turf she was standing on wasn't in Maryland, but actually one state over, in Delaware. In true Keystone Kops fashion, the police left to verify this. By the time they got back, Patty was long gone.

"A picture of Joe Johnson's Kidnapper's Tavern, as it stood in the year 1883." An Artist's Rendering, Nearly 60 Years After the Events That Took Place There. Frontispiece illustration for George Alfred Townsend's Novel
The Entailed Hat, Or, Patty Cannon's Times

Even when suspicions of her illegal activities were finally running high, the Cannon Gang's reputation for extreme violence gave the authorities pause. And some actually suggested Patty may have been a "witch," a "conjurer," or a "supernatural," using magical powers to escape detection. Witnesses said they had seen her morph into a black crow, able to fly from place to place and spy her targets from on high. Naturally, gang members embraced these superstitions, offering to "hex" or "cast spells" on troublesome neighbors for a little extra cash.

Patty's "black contraband" was kept close: hidden for months at a time in "secret rooms" in her house, as well as in the basement and attic, and held in leg irons with manacles around their necks. There were persistent rumors that her victims were routinely beaten and tortured. "Ear-witnesses" reported hideous screams emanating from the house in the dead of night. Ominously, behind the property were several unmarked graves. The gang worked in conjunction with white slavers, using nearby waterways to ship large batches of captives to the South, some to as far away as Georgia. The gang's activities continued relatively unhindered for several years.

This business was also a family affair. The first husband of Patty's daughter (name unknown) was later hung for kidnapping blacks. Her second husband was a whole lot worse. The notorious Joe Johnson, was not just a kidnapper of blacks, but an expert at administering beatings, giving special attention to those captives who claimed to be free. Though he upped the violence quotient considerably, he still couldn't outdo his mother-in-law for sheer mayhem and terror. It was said that Patty herself beat several victims to death, often because they were "troublesome" or "damaged goods," for which she wouldn't get her usual asking price. On one occasion, she plucked a crying young slave from her mother's arms and tossed the child into the fireplace.

"This is not a rare case." An Illustration From the Anti-Slavery Almanac (1836),
Warning of the Kidnapping of "a free colored man," from Westchester Co.,
New York, to be Sent into Slavery.

In 1822, the law caught up--with some of the Cannon Gang. Their crimes had become increasingly audacious and the many local disappearances of free blacks could no longer be explained away or ignored. Son-in-law Joe Johnson was arrested, but got off relatively lightly, considering the enormity of his crimes, with 39 lashes at the pillory. Records do not survive to indicate exactly what happened to him or to the other gang members arrested with him. We can only conclude that there were no further trials. All were apparently freed and immediately resumed their crimes.

It wasn't until several years later, in early 1828, that a local farmer out plowing his fields uncovered what were later determined to be the bodies of three males and one female. One body was rumored to have been Patty's husband, who had mysteriously disappeared. The authorities, however, really perked up when it was revealed that one of the corpses was that of a wealthy slave trader from down South who had been missing for over a decade. This man had apparently been lured to the house by Patty and Johnson, on the promise of a good deal on slaves, a hearty meal, and more than a few tankards of rum. He was said to be carrying a bankroll of $15,000 in gold coin, intending to purchase a dozen slaves. This unlucky fellow was quickly dispatched by the gang, then neatly wrapped in a tablecloth and hastily buried in one of Patty's trunks, along with the butcher knife used to kill him. His money was never recovered.

James McBride, Song Yet Sung (2008). A Novel About a Runaway
Slave and a Determined Slave Catcher, Patty Cannon.

This murder proved to be the gang's undoing. It was one thing to traffic in human cargo, torture and kill blacks, but quite another to kill a white man. When the cops raided her home, the proof of the gang's crimes (or at least some of their crimes) was literally staring them in the face. At the time of Patty's capture, 21 blacks were discovered manacled in her house. As the leader of the gang, Patty Cannon was indicted in Georgetown, Delaware, on four counts of murder by a (naturally) all-white grand jury. More than one gang member ratted her out while in prison. Further eyewitness testimony came from several black victims. In particular, from Cyrus James, whom Cannon had "bought" when he was a small child. James grew up in the Cannon household and was apparently a full participant in some of the crimes.

Patty Cannon, however, had one final trick up her sleeve. Days before her trial, long lines of eager observers, stretching around the block, had cued up for seats in the courthouse. On the eve of her big day, Patty, now around 70 years of age, cheated her audience and certain execution by allegedly poisoning herself. She had apparently previously sewn a vial of arsenic into her dress. Others, though, insisted that this was just another magic act, and that she had in fact escaped, leaving behind a lifeless replicant to take her place. The total number of her victims can only be guessed at, but it may well have been over 100.

Former Dover Library Director Bob Wetherall, posing with Patty's skull in 1997,
for Maryland author Hal Roth's book on the case,
The Monster's Handsome Face, Patty Cannon in Fiction and Fact.
(Photo courtesy of Hal Roth.)

Decades later, when authorities were expanding the Sussex County Courthouse and Jail, the pauper's field behind the buildings was excavated, with the bodies to be re-interred elsewhere. Patty's remains were re-buried as well -- minus her head. It seems one of the diggers presented his father with her skull as a "gift."

What happened years later sounds like the storyline of a bad joke, but in 1961, a man walked into the Dover, Delaware Public Library, gripping a hatbox and some papers. Patty Cannon's head had resurfaced and was authenticated by the documents. Would the library like a "donation" for their collections? They took it, where it remained for over 50 years. Dover Public Library's Director, Margery Cyr, whose office has been graced by Patty Cannon's skull for some years, says: "Patty Cannon was not a nice person in life, but [in death] she’s been quiet and respectful."

The Monster's Handsome Face, Patty Cannon in Fiction and Fact, by Hal Roth (1997). A Non-Fiction Account of Her Crimes.

This past June, Patty Cannon's skull was taken to the Smithsonian for modern scientific testing, as part of a study documenting life in the Chesapeake area, from colonial times into the 19th century. Dr. Douglas Owsley, chief of the Smithsonian's Division of Physical Anthropology, says: "We’re stepping back, tracking our ancestors, and seeing what their bones tell us about their lifestyles....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."

Rumors have persisted through the years that Patty and her gang had buried as much as $75,000-100,000 in gold coins in troves throughout the area. Treasure hunters from the 1910's to the 1950's have recovered caches of as many as one hundred coins, some placed in glass jars, and buried a few feet from where Cannon's tavern once stood. To this day, adventurers continue to comb the area. Rumor has it that the locale is haunted by Patty Cannon's vengeful spirit, her restless ghost wandering the back roads she knew so well.

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