Friday, October 7, 2011

The Old Slave House – Equality, Illinois


In honor of October being the month of Halloween - and other things spooky - all of my blogs this month will deal with a haunted location and the cemetery that ties into the story.
Enjoy and make this a spook-tacular autumn!! ; )

Sign posted at drive

In the 1800’s it was formally called Hickory Hill.  It’s now known as the old Crenshaw Place, or the Old Slave House. And it’s claimed to be one of the most haunted places in the southern part of Illinois.

Located near Equality, Illinois, in Gallatin County, the large, two-story pseudo Greek Revival 

John H & Sinia Crenshaw

Hickory Hill - also known as
the Old Crenshaw House
style house is situated on top of a windswept hill, overlooking the Saline River.  John Hart Crenshaw had the house supposedly built for his wife, Sinia Taylor Crenshaw and their five children.  But research has revealed the most important function of the house was to aid as a place to stash kidnapped free blacks before sending them into slavery, a reverse Underground Railroad.

Old Shawneetown Bridge
over the Ohio River
John Crenshaw became deeply involved in the slave trade during the 1820’s.  He was charged several times with kidnapping, and became a slave trader in 1827.  The first documented case against his involved a black indentured servant named Frank Granger that Crenshaw kidnapped and took to Kentucky in 1828.  The second kidnapping case followed right on the heels of the first and involved a free black woman named Lucinda and her two children.  Crenshaw kidnapped the three and took them to Barren County Kentucky in 1828 to be sold into slavery. Crenshaw was also known as John Granger, (pronounced more like Cringer) due to regional dialects and accent.

Hickory Hill
In 1829, Crenshaw and his brother, Abraham, bought the land where Hickory Hill would be built.  It would be almost five years, in 1834, before ground was broken for the house, and another four before it was completed in 1838. The lavish house was furnished with European artwork and furnishings located on the first and second floors, where the family lived.  
A Whipping Post

The third floor was constructed of thicker walls with over a dozen cells, about the size of horse stalls, all equipped with heavy metal rings and chains.  A whipping post was located at either end of the hallway.  Windows at each end of the hall provided the only light and air to the attic.  It would only be after Crenshaw’s and his wife’s deaths, when new owners took over that the true secrets of the attic would come to light.

Map of Southern Illinois
Meanwhile, Crenshaw bought his first salt works in Gallatin County. Few men were interested in the harsh work and brutal conditions required to mine salt, so Crenshaw used slave laborers and indentured servants. 

Although Illinois was a ‘free state’ where slavery was not 
Only Surviving Record
allowed, an exception had been granted to Crenshaw for slaves to be leased for one-year terms for use in the salt mines in Gallatin, Saline and Hardin Counties. Illinois also allowed indentured servitude; the contracting of work for a specific period of time in exchange for food, shelter, and sometimes passage.  Crenshaw owned over 30,000 acres of land and leased numerous salt mines from the government.  He had over 700 slaves working for him in 1830.  At one time it was said that Crenshaw had made so much money he paid 1/7 of all taxes collected in Illinois. It is from his illegal trafficking of humans into slavery that much of his vast fortune was made. 

Crenshaw is best known for creating a reverse Underground Railroad in Illinois. He and his hired men would capture free blacks from the North and smuggle them across the Ohio River into Kentucky where they would be “sold down the river” and into slavery in the southern states.

Hickory Hill
Runaway Slaves
When the house at Hickory Hill was built, a secret wagon entrance was constructed in the back of the house.  Covered wagons carrying kidnapped blacks and indentured whites would go directly into this entry. Then the kidnapped would be taken up the back stairs to the third floor attic of his home.  There they were imprisoned in cells, tortured, raped, whipped, and sometimes murdered. According to local legend, there was also a secret tunnel from the basement to the Saline River so that the kidnapped could be put on boats quickly and inconspicuously. 

Slave Auction
Crenshaw then devised a plan to begin a slave-breeding program in the attic.   A slave named Uncle Bob was used as the stud breeder to provide Crenshaw with cargo to sell off to the south.  A pregnant black woman would bring more money at auction in a slave state. An adult able-bodied slave could bring $400 or more.  A child could be sold for around $200. It was said that Uncle Bob sired more than 300 children in that upstairs attic.

John H. Crenshaw
Crenshaw was finally indicted in 1842 for the kidnapping of Maria, his cook, and her seven children.  Because of his clout and financial standing in the community, he was found not guilty.  (If he had been found guilt, no jail time would have been served; the only penalty was a fine of $1,000 allowed by the Black Code of 1819.)  But people in the area talked and suddenly Crenshaw’s methods were being questioned.  His mill was burned and his standing as an upright and moral man in the community was waning.  Business in the salt works began to decline as more profitable salt was discovered in Ohio and Virginia. Crenshaw was now watching his empire dissolve.

Rumor has it that it was during this period of time that Crenshaw brutally beat several female slaves.  In retaliation, a group of male slaves attacked Crenshaw and during the assault Crenshaw’s leg was severed with an axe.  Following this attack, most of the slaves were sold off.

Equality, Illinois
The Crenshaw’s left Hickory Hill in 1850 and moved to Equality, Illinois.  Crenshaw continued farming, but also became involved in railroads and banks. The Hickory Hill house was sold in 1864.

Crenshaw died December 4, 1871, his wife, Sinia, in 1881.  Both are 
Hickory Hill Cemetery
Toppled Crenshaw Stone
buried in a tiny, forgotten cemetery down a lonely dirt road.  The cemetery is also known as Hickory Hill and is located to the northeast of the house.  It is said to be the oldest cemetery in Gallatin County.  It is fitting note that Crenshaw’s stone has been toppled off of its pedestal, now laying flat on the ground

Old Slave House in the Fifties
In 1906, the Crenshaw House was purchased by the Sisk family.  The true horrors of what had occurred on the third floor were then unmasked.  The slave quarters were dismantled soon after but talk spread and by the 1920’s tourists from around the country were arriving to see the attic and hear the stories of the Old Slave House.  George Sisk decided to capitalize on the history and by the 1930’s, was advertising that you could tour the house where “Slavery existed in Illinois,” for only 10 cents for adults and a nickel for children.

Third Floor Attic
It was during these tours that people began to report odd occurrences on the third floor; unseen fingers touching passersby, strange noises, rattling chains, whispering voices, hushed sobbing, and the feeling of being watched.  Legend has it that the Crenshaw House is haunted by those who were held captive there. 

Old Slave House in the '90's
From the thirties to the mid-90’s, the Old Slave House was visited by many ghost hunting groups, psychics, and paranormal investigators.  Many reported feelings of unrest and agony trapped up there.  It was on October 31, 1996 when the Sisk’s closed the house due to their age and declining health.

Courtesy Saluki Times
In December 2000, the State of Illinois acquired the house and two acres of land from George Sisk, Jr.  And in 2004 the National Park Service declared the Crenshaw house, aka the Old Slave House, as a station in the ‘Reverse Underground Railroad Network to Freedom’ program, thus acknowledging the sadistic part that John Crenshaw played in condemning free blacks and indentured servants to lives of slavery.  But no plans were made to reopen the house.

Courtsey Saluki Times
Earlier this year, the Center for Archaeological Investigations at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale began doing digs at the house.  Working with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the group has a three-year grant to undertake historical, architectural and archaeological research on the site. The archaeological excavations ended August 1, 2011.  The state says there are still no current plans to reopen the house to the public.

Hickory Hill - The Old Slave House
Crenshaw's Tombstone
It remains to be seen what more is discovered about the house and property with these investigations.  One thing is for sure, while John Hart Crenshaw was not the only slave trader in the state of Illinois; he became the most notorious, known as one of the most ruthless men in this state’s history.

~ Joy