London has Jack the Ripper. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s D.B. Cooper. San Francisco is famous for the Zodiac killer.
In Southside Virginia, it’s the Cannon murders.
Nothing enthralls the intellect and sparks the imagination like an unsolved mystery. What were those mysterious lights in the sky? How did those airplanes just disappear into thin air? Who’s the killer?
This reporter is no different, and as a child, I remember being both frightened and fascinated hearing about the Cannon murders from my grandparents, John Garland and Eunice Taylor of Ebony. In his ancient green pickup truck, with a bunch of us kids in the back, Grandaddy would drive by the old Cannon farm in Bracey and tell us to watch out for ghosts. We would scream that we had no business being there, and beg him to drive away, and fast! Yet as spooked as I was, the story was too tantalizing to leave my mind.
When asked for the details, Grandma obliged. She told us that she had been a young woman when the murders occurred and had even attended the funeral. She recalled that four men — two uncles and two nephews — had been robbed and killed, possibly by a friend or family member. She remembered that the men’s bodies had been laid out in a small parlor, and that hundreds of people had come to see them. The killer was never found, she said.
Years later, as an adult, I decided to dig into the case a bit further. I figured that Grandma had been exaggerating to frighten us. She wasn’t. In fact, the truth was even more bizarre, and sad, than she had let on.
On March 31, 1933, a simple rural homesite became the scene of a horrible crime that made national news at the time and has continued to fascinate local residents as well as armchair detectives even decades later.
The story of what happened that night to the Cannon family, and the ultimately fruitless years of investigations afterwards, can be pieced together from dozens of newspaper articles, ancestry websites and oral histories from area residents.
In the early 20th century, the Cannon family owned a large farm near Bracey. They were related to several prominent families in Brunswick, Mecklenburg and Greensville counties, as well as Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina., including the Kidds, Tudors, Johnsons, Estes and more.
Living on the farm were B.L. Cannon, 77; his brother, Willis, 82; and their two nephews, Thomas, 56, and John William, 28. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the farm was prosperous, producing wheat, corn, cotton, cattle and more.
That prosperity apparently was well-known. Numerous press accounts state that it was common knowledge in the community that the Cannons were wealthy. But, like many people during those times, they were distrustful of banks, and kept their money at home — as much as $35,000 in cash and gold — in a safe.
Despite reading numerous articles, I never could determine where, exactly, that figure originated. It was just an accepted reported fact. Regardless, in the 1930s, having thousands of dollars at all was nearly unheard of, especially in a rural area. In today’s dollars, the Cannons would have had nearly $700,000 stashed at home.
Such an amount would have been an incredible temptation at the time. By 1933, as many as 25% of American adults were unemployed, and half of the nation’s banks had failed. The rural areas were particularly hard-hit. Many scraped by through subsistence farming and sporadic “public work” from a few local employers.
In short, people were hungry and desperate. Crime rates rose, and begging, excessive drinking and even prostitution became more common.
On the evening of March 31, someone, or multiple someones, gave into temptation and went to the Cannon farm with murder on their mind. By the next morning, four men were dead, the safe was busted, and $35,000 had disappeared.
The crime shocked the quiet community. The Associated Press covered the case and those reports were picked up in newspapers across the country:
“The massacre of four Cannon men, who lived as recluses on their isolated farm, has been the subject of an exhaustive investigation launched on the theory that $35,000 believed to have been taken from the home furnished a motive for the deed.”
Investigators laid out a scenario for the crimes. They speculated that the men, known to be wary of strangers, knew their killer or killers, based on the crime scene. The Richmond Times-Dispatch described the police’s theory in an extensive follow-up piece in 1936:
“The aged Willis Cannon was found inside the house, unconscious. He had been beaten about the head with a poker and had been shot. Rushed toward a hospital in Richmond, he died near Petersburg without regaining consciousness. … Ben L. Cannon had been shot down as he emerged from the smokehouse door, falling backward into the fire pit. Young William Cannon lay at the left of the smokehouse door and Thomas W. Cannon lay at the right of the doorway. Both had been shot through the head, apparently dying instantly.
“One of the men outside the doorway still had his hands hooked through his suspenders, in an attitude of complete relaxation; the other had one hand in a trousers pocket and the other hand inside his vest. …
“Three men were believed to have committed the murders; men who must have been known to the Cannons, always suspicious of strangers.”
It’s possible that the perpetrators even attended the men’s funeral on April 2. Just as my grandmother recalled, the Times-Dispatch reported that more than 2,000 people visited “the lonely Cannon plantation … to jam the farm yard and crowd into the little room where the bodies lay. Later, the throng streamed up a gentle rise from the house to watch the burial services in a private graveyard atop a lightly wooded hill.”
The whole farm was covered by family, friends, neighbors and the curious, “the milling feet slowly trampled the bloodstains at the smokehouse into dust.”
Several suspects were questioned and released, one of whom was a brother-in-law and at least one more was an unspecified relative. Detectives from Richmond were brought in to assist in the case. The family posted a reward of $750 for information leading to the conviction of the murderers.
But in the midst of these investigations came another tragedy. Marvel Cullum, a 23-year-old Roanoke Rapids woman, was found dead near her home. Her throat had been slashed. Authorities told the AP that Cullum actually had been a witness in the Cannon case. The young woman’s killer, likewise, was never found.
Periodically over the next few years short items popped up reporting that a suspect had been questioned and released, but no arrests ever stuck, and there were no related convictions, either.
In 1935, the Times-Dispatch published a letter to the editor from an E.R. Thomas, who said he lived on West 25th Street in Richmond:
“Please do not forget the Cannon murder in Mecklenburg. … The Cannons were as good to their community as … any other people that ever lived on earth. They were some of my kin folks, and, if anything can be done to catch the murderers of these dear old people, I will give $25 myself.”
While it seems that the perpetrator of this family tragedy was never identified, it certainly wasn’t forgotten.
It has, as so many dramatic unsolved mysteries do, passed into local legend.
Remnants of the Cannons can still be seen today — Cannon’s Ferry Road, Cannon Lane, Cannon’s Ferry Boat Ramp. Nothing much remains of the once-bustling farm. Along the quiet country lane now called Nellie Jones Road, you’ll see mostly single-family homes and a few local businesses.
But tucked away in a copse of trees still lies the old Cannon family cemetery. It’s on private property, so I wouldn’t recommend trying to find it. Besides, you never know who — or what — might catch you wandering somewhere you have no business!