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


  1. Fabulous and extremely interesting blog, especially for fellow taphophiles like me! I shall add you to my blogroll.

  2. Replies
    1. Have they tore the Crenshaw house down? I was driving today and did not see the house, was just wondering if anybody knew for sure. Thanks, Brenda

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Hello Joy. My name is Dale and just thought id say I enjoyed your blog. As someone who visited the house, I have to say thanks for providing the cemetery location. I was there several times and always found Mr. Disk to be very polite and always willing to answer questions. Wish they would reopen soon so I could visit again. Anyway just wanted to add that the whipping post that was used was still installed on the third floor with bloodstains still very much visible in that area. The grounds also contained a large farrowing barn type structure in the back yard. There was a story behind it but was too young to remember it. There was also a rare tree on the right side of the house that I think was a blue oak or maple. It was unfortunately felled by a storm 14 years or so ago, but the stump remains. I do remember Mr Disk saying that Pres. Washington was quite fond of those type of trees. Anyway, I just wanted to say I have quite a few stories about the house and if you or anyone else would like to hear, shoot me an email at and you're more than welcome to do so. Can tell you about some of the items shown by Mr. Disk that aren't shown to the faint of heart, and that infamous third floor. By the way, wasnt there a staircase to a fourth floor? I think I remember seeing one but it may have just opened to the roof.

    1. Hi Dale,
      Thank you for the information! Looks like it will be a while before they reopen, if the state decides to do so. I would love to hear more - I'll be contacting yo by email for more!

  5. Dale I would love to hear some of your stories if you would be willing. I just learned about The Slave House, believe it or not from a teacher who had been on a field trip to the place and found out it was closed. The teacher used the history of The Slave House and its Illinois location to do some lessons on slavery. I would like to take a drive and find the location for myself when the weather warms up. Thank you in advance for your kindness and I look forward to hearing from you. My address is

  6. I visited Hickory Hill 2 times while Mr. Sisk was alive and yes, it was a very intimidating house to be in. The Sisk family would not go past the first floor according to him due to the atmosphere. The artifacts used on the slaves to keep them in line and the pictures of the Crenshaws were creepy and set the mood. The attic was dark and smelled like sweat from bodies and it was soaked into the wood. The cells were not much more than 5-6 ft wide with a lipped board for a bed much like a bunk on a ship. The cells were also shallow in depth and so not much room to move around. With the misery in that attic I understand why there would be impressions left from those who suffered. It is an intimidating site as it stands alone on the hill, serving as a lookout point to keep an eye on the salt mines and to see who was coming to visit, much like a fortress.

  7. Just seeing the place from the outside is enough to make you uncomfortable. I can't image all of the feelings and impressions contained within those walls Dale! And, as for living there - NO WAY!! What Crenshaw did was evil and that still lingers there. Thanks so much for sharing your memories and impressions of the place.

    I hope the State of Illinois considers opening this house as an example of the Reverse Underground Railroad. Not enough is known about this. While the Underground Railroad offered hope and a chance for a new life - the Reverse Underground Railroad (and Crenshaw) dealt only with cruelty and death; be it of spirit, of mind or physically.

  8. I remember the attic smelling like a stable, with a really sad feeling about it that made you want to cry. Bobs room was all the way down on the left, which was a bigger cage than the rest. I remember iron rings on the walls to detain the slaves, and metal devices that were put on all other male slaves to prevent reproducing. Not sure but i think there was a cellar or basement off limits to public.

  9. WOW! I wish I had had a chance to tour the house before it closed. Thanks you for sharing your memories! It makes the history of the place even more real when told by those who have been there.

  10. My mother was raised in Southern Illinois and we always went to visit our grandmother there during summer. One particular summer, on our way through to grandmothers, my father got the notion to stop and take a tour of " The Old Slave House". Although I was only about 10 years old and my brother 11, neither of us heard or felt anything haunting about the place.I just felt horrified that people were actually kept in those cells that I still have not forgotten after 38 years. at the end of the hall to the right, if I re call correctly, was a cell that was kept for the male slave who was used for breeding purposes. He ad a type writer where he was allowed to write

    1. Thanks for sharing Cynthia. I've had others tell me that it wasn't so much a feeling of spooky as hopelessness they felt in the house. Sounds like that's what you experienced also. Such a tragic and horrid story in Illinois' history...

  11. I visited the house in the early 90's not realizing what it was, we had small children and needed a place to pull over and let the kids stretch. When we pulled up to the place we were the only vehicle in the parking lot. I had a brand new video camera and wanted to try it out so I immediately began filming, as I panned upwards and noticed a woman in a black woman in a white dress and bonnet staring out of the 3rd story window, then she rotated 90 degrees in a floating motion and drifted back toward the center of the house. We then walked up to the front door and met with a man and woman who greeted us and informed us there would be a tour starting again in 30 minutes, I asked if we could join the tour that was going on right now? She said the only two people in the house were her and her husband. I said, "How did you get down from the 3rd floor so quickly then? I told her I filmed her as I was walking up the stairs. She looked at me and said, " I don't go up there any more", long story short, I prodded her into telling me why, She said she encountered a little slave girl up there and it was between her and the stairway, thus trapping her until it left. I am glad I filmed the place, it was incredible and had a lot of old guns , knives and history which was explained on the film and to the rest of the tour. There were creepy stories such as the owner of the home in the 1800s was so mean that his little kid was screaming out side and the old man lost his temper and grabbed the kid by the feet and bashed his brains out on the oak tree out front.. Just for crying too loud. I never believed in ghosts before we happened by this place, but believe me, it will make a believer out of you. On the video I still have here you can here my little boy stating every few minutes,, "Dad can we get out of here?" .. The place really gets to you, and after the house tour we went out back and checked out the tool shed which had wares of the era, along with a human skull of one of the slaves. I showed this film to several people and none of them could explain the floating lady at the beginning of it.
    If it ever opens back up check it out, I know it's still in tact because we were with the kids competing in high school rodeo a couple of years ago, and the kid camped next to our rig currently lives close to there and he mows the property for the guy who takes care of the place, he said even the old cave is still there that leads to the river.
    Thanks for Listening, I really grilled the folks that ran the place before the tour started and got a lot of really interesting and amazing stories about the place from them but I have rambled on enough already.. lol

    1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing your memories of the place!! Do you still have the video?

  12. Hi Joy, Yes I do, at one time I cut the clip of the ghost out so I could show folks without having a long family video out on the web but it in it's entirety is fascinating.

    1. I am curious...would you be willing to share the video? Possibly on youtube or something, even just the beginning or full thing I wouldn't mind seeing the inside of the house again as I was young when I visited the house. It isn't mentioned a lot and isn't on here but my great great grandparents lived in the house after Crenshaw, but before the Sisk's opened it to the public. Three of their children were born in this house! I cannot imagine from all I have read how they lived there or how they managed to be there long enough to birth 3 children there. Just hoping and wondering!

  13. I am a paranormal investigator here at SIU. I I am very interested in investigating hickory hill. I understand it is close to the public as of now but I read that investigators can still stay the night to conduct their investigation. can anyone tell me who to contact and how to contact to make this happen? Thank u for any help.

    1. Geno,

      I would start here -

      Mark Wagner at the Center for Archaeological Investigations at SIUC at or at 618/453-5031.

  14. When I was a child in the 1970's, family vacations to Southern Illinois always included a visit to the Old Slave House near Equality.
    In 1984 I was 19 years old and visited the house with a friend of mine. Mr Sisk gave us a short tour and mentioned that many people had tried to spend the night in the third floor slave quarters and that no one had ever managed to stay until dawn. We considered that to be a challenge and arranged to spend the night.
    It wasn't bad at first, a bit creepy, and we were having fun being scared. As the sun set it got creepier. We both heard what sounded like whispers and voices, but we wrote this off as wind through an old house. About 11:00 it got bad.
    We noticed that the whispers sounded much closer and then we were hit with the scent of unwashed bodies, human feces, and a smell that can only be described as fear and despair. Then the touching began. Very lightly at first, like being stroked with a feather, then more firmly, like several hands touching us at once, then hair pulling, pinching, and finally a shove that sent my friend sliding halfway down the attic hallway. At this point we were scared witless and literally ran from the house. As we drove away we had the feeling that there were people in the back seat of the car and we kept looking over our shoulders. It wasn't until the sun rose and we arrived at home that the fealings of fear and being watched passed.
    We had a 35 mm camera with us that day and took many pictures of the house and outbuildings. They all developed without a hitch. All of the pictures we took that night in the attic were very overexposed, none of them came out as anything more than white blurs.
    Up until this time I was sort of skeptical about ghosts and the paranormal, the Crenshaw house made me a firm believer.

    1. Scott,
      I have a friend who went there several times in the 70's. She also mentioned the feelings of fear and despair that seemed to fill the attic. She said on one trip, someone/thing touched her arm and hair - and she was "outta there!"

      Very spooky place, even in the daylight.....

  15. I am writing a Book about crenshaw, the home and the reverse underground railroad, If at all possible My team and I would be very interested in interviewing you and seeing any possible evidence and pictures of the home. Please let me know.

    1. Jeff,

      You may contact me at to discuss.


  16. I too visited the Old Slave House as a child back in the 70's. I can't say I had any paranormal experiences or anything, but I do remember the strong feeling of sadness I felt that day, even after leaving the house. I too wished it would reopen to the public. I always wanted to take my own children to tour this house, but it has been closed to the public for many years now. It is a great piece of history. I would love to see more pictures of the inside of the house that tourist have taken over the years. My question is, how was the Sisk family able to live in the house as many years as they did. I seem to recall they resided in the back part of the house? Has anyone heard that the house has been sold to a private individual? Would love to learn more of the history of this site.

  17. The house is now owned by the State of Illinois. There was talk of reopening it sometime in the future, but with the dire financial situation of the state, that has been quietly dropped - for now.

    You are right, the part this house played in the state's and the nation's
    Reverse Underground Railroad history should be remembered. It is a prime example of how greed, and a complete lack of empathy or caring can hurt so many.

  18. There is a video on youtube from the 80's. I think the guy is really into God and that type of talk, so I muted it until the video started.

    1. Thanks for the share, Nick!! You're right, the audio was a bit too preachy, but the candid video was amazing!

  19. Thanks for the blog. I visited the Old Slave house about 1968 69 with my family. All the stories in the threads were what I recall when I was about5 years old. At that age I didn't understand the meanings then. Two things that always stood out about this was the the upstairs slave quarters and the ghost stories connected up there. and the big Oak tree in the front yard. I always thought that Mr Sisk mentioned it had a connection to George Washington. It might have been a cutting from his tree at his own home. Does that sound familiar. Thanks again for all the stories. I woul loveto go back some day.

    1. Klayton, I hadn't heard about the oak tree but will check on that - it could be. As for now, the State of Illinois is not planning on reopening the house for tours, but I'm hoping to be approved to do a story on it next year. I'll keep you posted here!

  20. Joy, thanks. I'm looking forward to your story.

  21. Enjoyed your blog. Francine "Sina " Taylor Crenshaw is my 3rd Great Grand Aunt. Her father was Giles Taylor, my 4th Great Grandfather. I was at the house a couple of years ago, it was posted No Traspassing, so I could only look at it from the road. I did find the cemetery and there is a large monument put there by Edmund "Dick" Taylor for his parents Giles and Sina Stokes Taylor. I assume that they are buried there, but no stone. Yes there are some Crenshaws and Lawlers there. I wish I knew more about it. Giles was supposed to have been in the Rev. War. He died in 1830. Earlene

    1. Thanks! The grounds are now owned by the state of Illinois and no one is allowed on the property without clearance. Hickory Hill Cemetery is a tough find but interesting once you get there.

      I will be documenting the restoration of Hickory Hill and Lawler Cemeteries next year. If I find out something about Giles & Sina Taylor's stones, I'll let you know here.

  22. Come check out the Ghosts of old Shawneetown