Haunted History: The Sussex County Courthouse Ghost
In 1761, State Law dictated that the County Seat be moved from Lewes to what would later be called Georgetown. It was in this year that the construction of the Old Sussex County Courthouse began, having been completed in 1763.
Attending criminal trials was considered great entertainment - people traveled from all over Sussex County when the court was scheduled to be in session just to listen to the verdicts being read. When large crowds gathered, officers of the court often used a tipstaff (a long pole with a large triangular head that was red on one side and white on the other) to allow attendees outside the courthouse to visually see if a party was found guilty (red) or not guilty (white).
Delaware, in general, was quite harsh in its stance on criminal punishment. Consider these facts:
Delaware last whipped someone in 1952, however, whipping as punishment was not outlawed in the State until 1972. It was the last State to remove whipping as a form of punishment.
Pillorying was outlawed in Delaware in 1905. Pillorying was to be publicly put in stocks, however, in addition, at times one's ears were nailed to the wood, or the soft part of the ears was cut off as part of this punishment.
The last death by hanging was in 1996.
Delaware did not outlaw slavery until 1901, having declined to ratify the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865.
Punishment typically consisted of a combination of whipping, being pilloried, and short jail sentences. Hangings were reserved for the most serious of offenses, primarily murder. The reason that these methods were used instead of long-term jail sentences is that the original jail was designed to hold less than 20 prisoners and was ill-equipped to handle more than temporary stays. When whipping was the punishment, the sentences were as follows:
Larceny - up to 20 lashes
Burglary with explosives at night - 15 to 20 lashes
Breaking and entering at night - 20 - 40 lashes mandatory
For burning a vessel, mill, or granary - up to 20 lashes
Sixty lashes were the maximum applied to a man under one sentence and were distributed over two separate days
For burning a courthouse, one would receive a fine of $1,000.00, sixty lashes at the post, and up to twenty years in jail. It was not a prevalent crime.
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) person to be associated with the Old Sussex County Courthouse was Lucretia "Patty" Cannon. Patty Cannon was responsible for a variety of crimes, including kidnapping, robbery, and murder. She and her associates pretended to be assisting enslaved persons with safe passage to the northern states and freedom, but instead, they were being captured and resold into slavery. The gang also kidnapped freemen and sold them into slavery. Travelers were convinced to stay at their tavern (it was common then to open rooms in one's home and operate it as a "tavern" or rooming house), where they were often robbed and in at least one case, murdered for their possessions or cash. Patty was also known to have murdered the children that accompanied those that she sold into slavery if the children were not old enough to be of value in the slave market. She eluded capture by living in a house that straddled the Delaware-Maryland State line, easily entering another room in the neighboring state of the law enforcement authority that had come to arrest her. Ultimately, three bodies were found on her property in 1829 and she was captured and indicted on three counts of murder at the Old Sussex County Courthouse. While in jail awaiting her trial she took arsenic and died to avoid the death by hanging she was destined to receive for her heinous acts.
In 1837, the courthouse was moved from The Circle in Georgetown to its current location on South Bedford Street to make way for the construction of a new brick courthouse. The structure was used as a residence and then a printing shop. It was restored to its present condition in 1976.
In May 2022, I conducted an investigation of the old courthouse. I did not sense any spirit activity at this location, however, several minutes after I began to ask questions, the pendulum I was using "came to life" and I had an interesting conversation with a Spirit who said her name was Catherine. She, her husband, and her child were arrested for stealing sometime between 1800 and 1825. Catherine was in her 50s and she, her husband and her five children were enslaved people. She indicated that she had been guilty of stealing (possibly food) but that she was found not guilty by the court. Her husband and child were found guilty, with the husband receiving a sentence of jail time plus a whipping, while her child was sentenced to jail time. Catherine indicated that her family did live in Georgetown and that her descendants still live here. Interestingly, she felt she was not treated fairly because she was, indeed, guilty but perhaps (in my opinion) this was because of her status as a mother to four other children or as an enslaved person due to the needs of her master. I look forward to future investigations to see if Ms. Catherine has more to say on the matter.
The Entailed Hat” (1884) by George Alfred Townsend, is based on the life of Patty Cannon and her nefarious deeds. Local author Michael Morgan's book entitled “Delmarva's Patty Cannon: The Devil on the Nanticoke” also details her life.
This History of Sussex County
Narratives and Confession of Lucretia P. Cannon (1841)
The Notorious Patty Cannon
Sussex County Geneology Trails