A Skull Lived In a Library? 'No Way!' You Say? Read On
Patty Cannon's Skull, a longtime resident of the Dover, Del. Public Library
There’s a skull in storage somewhere in Delaware. Hidden from public view. But that wasn’t always the case. For decades the unusual artifact could be seen by anyone that asked for a peek, who wanted to snap a photo, or even asked to hold the historic head in his hands.
I know, because I touched it and, on a few October nights, I told Halloween stories—with the skull on display, surrounded by lit candles in the basement of the Dover, Del., Public Library. That was its home at the time, and where it was kept for many years.
The skull’s unusual journey began in the 1820s, at Johnson’s Cross Roads, Maryland. The three-way intersection was a well known, and often avoided, location at the Delaware-Maryland border (Mason-Dixon Line), just a few miles west of Seaford. The rural road is still there today, but it’s called Reliance, Md. (Take Delaware Route 20 west out of Seaford, and drive to the Maryland border. You’ll find the intersection—complete with a gray Maryland historic marker.) Visit there at night and you’ll get a sense of its isolation in the early 19th century, which contributed to the robberies, kidnappings and murders that occurred there.
During the early 1800s, a tavern and inn existed on the property, owned and operated by a strong, large woman named Patty Cannon. Patty made more money as a gang leader—who robbed and killed travelers. But even bigger money came from kidnapping and selling free blacks into slavery a second time.
In 1808, the U.S. government passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves. That became a moneymaking opportunity for slave traders, particularly those living in the Border States with water or land routes to the South.
Patty had a ship docked in Philadelphia, and another in the Port of Baltimore. Members of her gang would shanghai blacks, and deliver them to her at the Johnson’s Cross Roads inn. Regularly, slave buyers sailed up the nearby Nanticoke River, stopped at Patty’s place, purchased the unfortunate captives and carted them back to their plantations. It was the law of supply and demand at work, with human cargo as the product.
Patty made lots of money working this trade. She also killed travelers who selected the Cannon tavern as overnight lodging. Many of these unfortunate victims were directed to their death by “friendly” locals—who received commissions for their referrals.
Patty’s victims included travelers, slaves, wealthy merchants, and even small children—several of whom annoyed her by crying too loudly. Dead bodies were buried on her property in nearby fields and, some even under her front porch.
Evading the law was relatively easy for Patty, because her property spanned the famous Mason-Dixon Line. Her home/inn was at the border on the Maryland side; and her barn, just across the road, was in adjacent Delaware. When Maryland constables approached to investigate missing travelers, Patty would walk into Delaware, and the lawmen would not cross the state line to interrogate or arrest her. If the lawmen happened to be from Delaware, Patty would wave at the deputies from her front porch in Maryland.
It 1829, Delaware and Maryland collaborated to catch the killer, and she was taken to the Georgetown, Del., jail. Rather than stand trial, Patty committed suicide in her cell. Her body was buried in a pauper’s grave, which stood at the site of the present day Sussex County Courthouse.
She rested there until the early 1900s, when the graves were exhumed and moved to make way for the current court building. A document, secured several years ago from the then-director of the Dover, Del., Library, stated that a deputy sheriff in Sussex County, was involved in the reburial of Patty’s remains. “Somehow,” the document states, “while moving these bodies, Patty’s skull came into” his possession.
Thereafter, it became a family heirloom, and was passed down to several relatives. In 1961, a member of the clan loaned the skull to the Dover Library for safekeeping.
For decades, the unique artifact was kept in a red plastic hatbox, away from public view. But it was brought out for occasional events, and could be examined by visitors upon request. Until about eight years ago.
At that time, I was presenting a program on Delaware History and Folklore at Dover’s Holy Cross School. As a special added attraction, a representative of the Dover Library brought Patty to the talk.
Dressed in Colonial era attire, the visitor walked down the center aisle of the hall, displaying Patty’s ancient skull. Children gasped and shouted, others rose from their seats and jostled one another—hoping to get a peek at the remnant of Delmarva’s slave age history. All while a photographer from the local paper snapped away.
The story and photo appeared in the town paper, and someone complained that the library was not the proper place to hold and, certainly not, display human remains. Thus, due to the hurt sensitivities of a do-gooder, Patty’s current-day exposure to and contact with her adoring public came to an abrupt end.
While the artifact has been transferred to somewhere safe and out-of-sight, Patty’s story continues to be told and, certainly, grow as the decades and centuries pass.
And if you are wondering how much of this is true, the answer is: All of it.
Note: For a thorough account of the Patty Cannon story, read Delmarva author Hal Roth’s excellent book: The Monster’s Handsome Face: Patty Cannon in Fiction and Fact.
The Patty Cannon story also is included in In the Vestibule, of my Spirits Between the Bays Series, Haunted Maryland and The Big Book of Maryland Ghost Stories, available from Stackpole Books, in regional bookstores, and at Amazon.com
Posted on January 24, 2013
Wish Sheppard’s Century-Old Legend As Popular As Ever
The gallows on hanging day in Denton, Md.
There’s a ghost in Denton, Maryland’s Caroline County Jail, and we know who it is. Wish (pronounced “Wush”) Sheppard is his name, and he’s been a resident of the county lockup for nearly one hundred years. The red brick jail stands in the center of town, along the banks of the Choptank River. That location earned it the apt nickname: “Waterfront Hotel.” The original jail, built in the early 1900s, is in the front of the building. To its sides and rear, are modern additions that have been built since the 1980s, to respond to the county’s increases in both population and crime. Even today, employees and townsfolk still talk about the phantom prisoner that makes occasional appearances in the cells and also messes with the building’s high tech security equipment.
The ghost story begins in1915, when Wish Sheppard, a black man, was found guilty of raping a white girl and sentenced to death. A wooden gallows was erected at the bottom of the hill, near the jail and along the Choptank River.
Since the public was allowed to witness the execution—which also was a major social event—the townsfolk turned out in force. Some viewed the hanging from boats docked in the river and others climbed nearby trees to get a bird’s eye view of the proceedings.
Sheriff James Temple was in charge of the Sheppard hanging. At the time of the execution, there were three people up on the gallows standing beside Wish, and each official put one hand on the lever of the trap door. Then Temple came down with his hand and hit the tops of the others. That action pushed against the lever, causing the trap door to open and drop Wish through, sending him to his maker. Buåt since there were four executioners, it was not just one man who was responsible for pushing the deadly lever that caused the hanging. The deed was shared by the four men.
Somehow, Wish was able to leave a lasting impression on the cell wall that had been his last earthly home. It’s said when officials arrived to escort Wish out toward the gallows, he put up a fierce struggle. With one hand, he grabbed onto a jail cell metal bar, while he forcefully pressed his other hand against the cell wall—leaving a distinctive handprint in the solid building wall.
During an interview in his home in 1999, Caroline County Sheriff Louis C. Andrew shared some of the tales he had heard about Wish over the years. The then retired sheriff had served in office from 1961 until his retirement in 1994, and he had been associated with county law enforcement almost his entire life. In 1938, at the age of 10, he moved with his family into the jail’s residential area when his father—William E. Andrew—became sheriff. When the elder Andrew died, Louis took over the job and was elected to eight consecutive terms as county sheriff—serving a total of 33 years. He lived in the jailhouse building for 55 years, a portion of that time with his wife, Joyce, who helped her husband by cooking and feeding the prisoners while her husband held office.
‘I did see that hand print,” the former sheriff said. “It looked like a man’s palm and fingers pressed into the wall. We painted it over, plastered it over, and it always seemed to come back, and not too long a time later.”
But, before telling me the stories, he added, “Now, let me say this,” he stressed, “I’ve never seen anything strange in that jail, and I never experienced anything myself, no unusual sounds, no sightings, no stuff like that. All I can do is tell you what I heard from the prisoners and guards. I can tell you their stories, if they’re of interest to you.”
After I acknowledged his statement, he presented a number of interesting stories about the ghost of Wish Sheppard that folks said occurred in the Caroline County Jail.
“Over the years, the prisoners would always say somebody was in there,” he said, “and that it was Wish Sheppard. They swore he was in there roaming around. One old fella, he was about 75 years old, he’s dead now. He was a regular, in for disorderly. He always said there was no ghost in there, didn’t believe it. One night, I went down to see how they were doing, and there were seven or eight prisoners right up against the door. And the old fella was shouting, ‘Sheriff! He’s in here! I take it all back. He’s in here. I seen him!’
“I went in there and looked around, and they followed me around like a bunch of little kids. They said, ‘He went through that wall!’ We used to have a real dark area; we used to call it the ‘dungeon.’ I used to tell them, ‘If you act up, I’ll put you in the dungeon.’ They didn’t like that. You used to be able to get away with that in the old days. I throwed my light around down there and showed them there was nothing there, but they weren’t satisfied. They were scared and said he showed up that night.”
The cell where Wish appeared was on the first floor of the jail building. One evening when he had a pretty large number of prisoners, the sheriff was concerned that if there were a fire he wouldn’t be able to hear the screams of the prisoners. To insure that someone could alert him by banging on a door that led to the offices, the sheriff locked one prisoner in the hallway, outside of the cells.
“It got so loud from him beating on the door,” the sheriff said, “I went down and asked what was wrong. He said, ‘Ya gotta lock me in the cell! He’s here. Wish Sheppard. Ya gotta lock me inside with the others!’ I opened the door and he jumped in. He was scared to death. A lot of the prisoners would hear footsteps, and not see him. They’ll swing at him, but they can’t hit nothing.”
Joyce, the sheriff’s wife, said, “It was worse on rainy nights. It seemed they used to see him when it was raining. Now, I never saw or heard anything all the years we lived there. But I remember he’d go down to see what was going on and come back and say, ‘Old Wish was down there again,’ and I’d just laugh. I thought it was all a bunch of malarkey.”
But the sheriff said he couldn’t resist using the threat of Old Wish to quiet down the unruly prisoners from time to time.
“I’d tell them boys, ‘It’s a rainy night. You know who comes around on cloudy and rainy nights, don’t you?’ And right away, one or two of them who’d seen Wish would say, ‘Sheriff knows what he’s talkin’ about,’ and they’d quiet down.”
One year, Sheriff Andrew had a woman in the jail for nine months awaiting trial for murder. He explained that he usually kept the women prisoners in the second floor cells. When he came in one morning, she said to the sheriff, “What are you trying to do, scare me?”
The sheriff replied that he wouldn’t do that, and asked the prisoner what she meant.
“Well,” she said, “you pulled chains up and down the steel stairway last night.”
Denying that he would even think of doing that, the sheriff said he knew the woman was serious. She had been in the jail for a long time, and they had gotten to know each other.
“I guess it was that Wish Sheppard,” she said, seriously. “He was up and down with them chains all night.”
Thinking back to that conversation, the sheriff said, “She swore she heard those chains. She was serious. But I never heard anything. Living in that jail as long as I did, I got up many a night, ’cause I could tell if there was something different or not right. But every noise I heard in that jail, I could explain. I never heard anything that was unreasonable.
“I had one psychic person come in. He came with some radio station, and he said he could tell things by vibrations. So he took hold of the cell door, and he said I can make out something is in there. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Sheriff, you don’t hear it because you don’t believe. But I can tell you there’s something here.’ ”
After 1980 and the renovations, the old cell doors were thrown away and the wall with the handprint was covered over. However, that didn’t seem to get rid of the spirit of Wish Sheppard.
“I had guards tell me that the elevator would go up and down the floors by itself,” the sheriff said. “They would tell me at twelve midnight, the elevator would come up, the door would open, they’d go and look inside and there was not a soul inside.”
Sometimes, buzzers that would summon the elevators would be sounding during the early morning. But there was no one there to press the button, and it was protected behind an enclosed fence. So no one without a key could gain access.
“Another guard,” Sheriff Andrew said, “he told me, ‘I’m not kidding you, sheriff. I was in the control room and it was just a fog that comes over me, inside the jail. And it just floated right through here.’ He said it hit him right in the face, and he felt it. He believes it was Wish Sheppard.”
Shaking his head a moment, Sheriff Andrew looked up and said, “I believe what I was told. I have to believe what they tell me. These are reliable people. People I trust. The other is just prisoners’ talk. But, you have to understand that this is all of the stories that I was told. They all didn’t happen at one time. All this happened over the years I was there. There wasn’t something every single day.”
According to an interview with Sheriff Andrews, printed in the book Voices From the Land, by Mary Anne Fleetwood, during construction of the new additions to the jail, the sheriff mentioned the ghost to members of the work crew. Soon afterwards the foreman told the sheriff not to say anything about Wish Sheppard’s ghost or he wouldn’t be able to keep his help.
After almost a century, the story of Wish Sheppard hasn’t been forgotten, mainly because of his periodic ghostly visits.
On more than one occasion, Sheriff Andrew said he would be walking along through town on Market Street and a friend or shopkeeper would call out a hello and ask, “How’s ol’ Wish doin’?” to which the sheriff would wave a hand and smile in reply.
“People knew about Wish,” he said. “Prisoners talk. Word gets around.”
And, apparently, so does the ghost of Wish Sheppard.
Article posted September 1, 2012
This is an excerpt from The Big Book of Maryland Ghost Stories. For information, see Books page of this web site.
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Most people have experienced bad luck. Its ill fortune and annoyances often come in the form of three unfortunate instances. Then, after the unlucky process is played out, the invisible black cloud attaches itself to some other unsuspecting victim. But falling victim to a curse is indescribably worse, and it can hang around one’s neck, and even affect members of a group or family, for generations.
If bad luck is a misstep that causes a sprained ankle, a curse is like waking up each day and suffering through a bout of seasickness—while trapped on a small fishing boat in a hurricane, far from land, and with no hope of a clearing sky.
Some curses are famous. Snow White fell victim to a curse. So did Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, the owners of the Hope Diamond, members of the Kennedy family, U.S. presidents elected in years ending in zero, and athletes on the Madden video game cover. The sport of baseball has suffered through several curses that lasted for generations.
The Curse of the Billy Goat still hovers over the hapless Chicago Cubs. It began with William "Billy Goat" Sianis, owner of the Billygoat Tavern, a short distance from Wrigley Field. In 1945, Sianis brought a real billy goat to Game 4 of the World Series. He and his goat were allowed into Wrigley Field—and paraded on the playing field during pregame. However, during the game, they were ejected from the stadium because the Cubs owner said the goat was too stinky. Sianis cursed the Cubs, saying they'd never win a World Series until a billy goat sat in Wrigley Field. The Cubs lost that series and his curse has held up for well over 60 years.
The Curse of the Bambino hovered overon the Boston Red Sox. In 1918, the Red Sox won their fifth World Series, and the team’s big star was Babe Ruth. Two years later, Boston’s owner sold the slugger to the New York Yankees—a team of losers that had never won a World Series. Butafter that trade, the Yanks have won more championships than any team in baseball. Over several generations, the Red Sox had terrible luck in theirchampionship and World Series games—often losing because of flukes and errors. Whenever such a unlucky incident occurred, Sox fans blamed it on the hated former owner, who created the Curse of the Bambino. However, in 2004, the Red Sox broke the curse dramatically—by winning the World Series in a four-game sweep.
Philadelphia’s Curse of William Penn not only ruined the hopes of the Philadelphia Phillies, but spread to the other major sports teams—thehockey Flyers, football Eagles, and basketball 76ers. The curse centers around an oversized statue of William Penn, founder of the city of Philadelphia, standing atop City Hall. It had long been a tradition that no building would be built higher than the Penn statue’s hat. But in 1987, One Liberty Place a taller skyscraper was erected. Since then, the City of Brotherly Love earned no major sports title.
Previously, the last Philly team to win a world championship was the 1982-1983 Sixers. The Flyers had their hot times in the 1970s. The Eagles nevre won a Super Bowl. But, in 2008, the Fightin’ Phillies, who had been in baseball for more than 120 years, won the World Series, officially breaking the Curse of William Penn.
But success didn’t occur only because of athletic skills. In 2007, a group of construction workers secretly placed a miniature-sized replica of William Penn—complete with signatues of various Philly athletes—inside the top of Comcast Tower, the city’s tallest skyscraper. Thus, returning the city’s founder to his rightful perch overseeing all below him in his City of Brotherly Love.
That’s what really broke the curse and delivered the title to the bad luck sports town.
Article posted July 31, 2012
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