- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

RELIANCE, Md. With Patty Cannon, it's hard to divine where history ends and legend begins.
As Eastern Shore residents tell it, Patty Cannon made money in the early 1800s by capturing and smuggling free blacks and selling them into slavery. Others say she stole slaves from one farm and sold them to others.
The gang she and several family members operated kept the slaves shackled in an attic, or chained to trees on a small island in the Nanticoke River. Under the cover of darkness, they drove the captives to boats that carried them to slave markets in the Deep South.
She lived in a house that straddled the border between Delaware and Maryland, in tiny present-day Reliance. When officials from Maryland came to get her, she shifted to rooms in Delaware. When Delaware authorities came after her, she hustled over to the Maryland side.
A house in Reliance is called "Patty Cannon's House." A Maryland Historical Trust sign outside refers to it as the headquarters of a "noted kidnapping group" with no mention of slaves.
It's an ordinary-looking, two-story, green house in Dorchester County, just across the street from Caroline County. It's a few hundred feet from the Delaware border, which also marks the Mason-Dixon line.
W. Wright Robinson, 93, of Seaford, Del., said the building wasn't Patty Cannon's house, but a tavern run by her and her cohorts. Mr. Robinson, the editor of the weekly Seaford Leader for more than 40 years, said his grandfather used to stop in for drinks.
"She was a rough-and-ready woman, but my grandfather said she was a great gal. He thought the world of her," he said.
Sitting in Mr. Robinson's living room, Francis Wright is quick to point out, "My grandfather would say the opposite."
Mr. Wright's family owned a 1,500-acre farm that abutted the Cannon property. Mr. Wright, 76, said Patty Cannon stole one of the farm's 15 slaves.
"It cost my great-grandfather $600 to get him back," said Mr. Wright, who still owns 500 acres of corn, wheat and soybean fields just down the street from the so-called Cannon house.
Hal Roth, author of a 1998 book on Patty Cannon, said much of what people say about her is "nonsense," starting with the house. The building did not exist when Patty Cannon died in 1829, he said.
"There's nothing connected to Patty Cannon that doesn't have at least three versions," said Mr. Roth.
Patty Cannon predates photography, and record-keeping, in this remote and rural part of the Delmarva Peninsula, was sparse at the time. Most of what is known about her comes from two sources, Mr. Roth explains, both of them undependable.
Mr. Roth's book, "The Monster's Handsome Face: Patty Cannon in Fiction and Fact," alludes to legend that she was a comely woman. Mr. Wright said the way he hears it, Patty Cannon was a "stout, hard-as-nails woman" as strong as any man on the Eastern Shore.
Mr. Roth questions key parts in the Cannon legend, which he said originated in fiction.
Mr. Roth said Patty Cannon was not involved in actively kidnapping slaves and freedmen, but served as more of a middleman, passing the captives along as they made their way south. Mr. Roth said records indicate she held as many as 12 at a time.


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