The Crenshaw House, known as the Old Slave House, atop Hickory Hill near Equality, Illinois
Note: The Old Slave House outside of Equality, Illinois is a decaying symbol of a sordid time in Illinois history. Its own history has been clouded over the years by folklore, and some say the tales of a huckster. But here are the facts. The Great Salt Springs at the foot of Hickory Hill employed slave labor brought in from states where slavery was still legal. This took place only because the State of Illinois created an exemption, which was against the state constitution, the laws of Illinois and the laws of the United States. They did it for money, no other reason.
That’s not folklore, that’s history, and that’s appalling. And a story that should be told.
The Crenshaw House is still amazingly popular. It doesn’t need the ghost stories, nor the more sensational tales about the house itself to warrant saving. The above facts more than cover it.
Just the facts …
John Hart Crenshaw made a fortune from the salt springs. According to the official history recognized by the state of Illinois, “Census records show both slaves and indentured free blacks were kept at his home, sometimes called the ‘Old Slave House.’” Also according to the state, there’s strong evidence that Crenshaw “helped seize free or fugitive African-Americans so that they might be sold into slavery.”
Census records show that he owned slaves at least until 1830, which was a blatant violation of federal law, Illinois law, and even the laws of his church, of which family history says he was known as a faithful and dedicated member. He did this in full view, and rather than
paying a cost for it, the state of Illinois made him even richer by granting him an exclusive lease to the salt springs.
Did the State pay a half million bucks for the Old Slave House just to shut it down and curb the legend? Or block out the truth?
The National Park Service endorses the belief that it’s the last remaining station on the Reverse Underground Railroad. That seals its importance.
But another part of the history of this house and this area, is the story of how the house survived, when so many others like it in this impoverished corner of southern Illinois dis- appeared. For it was the truth hidden in the folklore, and spread for nearly a century, that finally made people open their eyes to what was happening here, 200 years ago.
The State of Illinois bought the house in 2000 and shut it down as a tourist attraction. They ordered a few archaeological studies, then quietly let it fall into ruin.
Those studies proved what we already knew. That the more far-fetched stories about the Old Slave House weren’t true, or at best, vastly overblown. But do you really expect to find much in the way of physical evidence in a house, more than 150 years after the fact, of crimes that those who committed them would do their best to hide the evidence?
Now it’s political. The state isn’t talking, except to say there’s no money to restore it. They point fingers at the locals. Who point fingers at the state. A common sentiment down here is that those in Springfield, and places north care little for southern Illinois and its history.
Once again, that’s history.
Even the incontrovertible facts of slavery and the salt mines here, warrant saving the house. The whole state profited just as much from the practice, and in the indentured servant era that followed, as did those down here.
That’s useful to keep in mind in our present day, when northern states and southern states see each other once more as enemies. Or when faced with the question of whether my county should secede from Illinois appears on the ballot, and the northern counties talk of throwing the southern ones out.
The ghost stories, the folklore, has kept the Crenshaw House in the public’s consciousness for a hundred years. The ghost stories are pretty mundane. I’m usually a skeptic. Some of the stories are obviously false, most are just third party accounts with no verification. But I think the Old Slave House deserves a spot on that list, because of one long night, back in the early eighties, which erased the doubt from my mind.
Illinois sells its soul for salt
Never let it be said that the state of Illinois would hide the original sin it bore at its birth. There’s a historic marker as you come into Equality, Illinois. You might think that the marker would be stationed on the highway, where it could be seen by more people. After all, the road that led to the salt mine from Equality its closed.
A short distance away is Route One, which does have a road leading to the Old Salt Mine. But there’s no marker there, or at the mine. You have to know what you’re looking for.
The marker reads in Equality reads…
OLD SALT WORKS
One mile south was located one of the oldest salt works west of the Alleghenies. Here Indians and French made salt, while at a later day Americans established a commercial salt industry which finally attained a production of 500 bushels a day. The industry was abandoned in 1875.
White people couldn’t be paid enough to work the Great Salt Springs, so the state of Illinois solved the prob- lem by making an exemption to allow slavery here. Slaves had no choice, nor were they paid, which provided a huge boost to Illinois economy. At the expense of their morals, which they gladly sold out. Today it’s an unmarked archaeological site.
It doesn’t mention the sin … that for the first part of Illinois’ history, long after law forbade it, the salt industry was built upon slavery. At the time the marker was put up, Illinois didn’t talk about these things.
Slavery had been banned in the Northwest Territory since 1787, but settlers complained and threatened to leave for Missouri where it was still legal. As a result, those already owning slaves were allowed to keep them. And in 1805, the Indiana legislature (which at the time governed southern Illinois) made an exemption to keep slavery legal for the production of salt, a valuable commodity.
In 1818, upon its admittance to the Union, the state of Illinois signed on to ban slavery, as was required to become a state. But once again the salt exception remained, as it was a job so dreadful you couldn’t find enough whites willing to do it. The industry was given till 1825 to replace the slaves.
Following statehood, for the next seven years, the legislative body which governed Illinois al- lowed a select few to bring in hundreds of slaves from territories where slavery was still legal. Keeping the cost of labor down meant more money for the state, and for the men who held the leases on the salt springs.
You can’t just say it was a different time and therefore excusable. Even in that different time, in Illinois, slavery was officially considered wrong and morally repugnant. Illinois sold out their morals and not only condoned slavery, but profited from it. That is one of the most horrifying stories I’ve ever heard, and horrifying stories are kinda my job.
According to Jacob M. Myers, author of History of the Gallatin Salines written in 1921, older men in the area recalled that at one time, nearly all the work done at the salt springs was
done by slave labor. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division, “African-Americans played a central role in Crenshaw’s saline operation, providing the bulk of labor used in operating the furnaces.”
Myer’s work was based on research conducted in 1904 by George W. Smith, and is notable for being a detailed account of the Great Salt Springs in Gallatin county, but it has one notable exception. There is only a passing mention of John Hart Crenshaw, who controlled most of the salt springs in the early to mid 19th century, and who built and lived in a house atop Hickory Hill, which later became known as the Old Slave House.
It might be the first example of historians trying to whitewash the story of Crenshaw, as it’s said that Smith later spoke at length to his students about Crenshaw and his dealing with slaves. He just didn’t make it public knowledge.
The value of the Old Slave House in the 21st century
Today, there is a continuing battle between those who want to believe the stories about the Old Slave House, and those who think those stories were fabrications, lurid tales meant to sell tickets. Historians by nature have to rely on facts, and the stories told here were about the kinds of acts that don’t leave a paper trail.
The federal government sees Hickory Hill and the Crenshaw House, the formal name of the plantation, in a different light. The National Park Service bought into enough of the history to designate the house as a station on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
They believe the Old Slave House’s main value lies in its sordid history as the last remaining station known to be a part of the Reverse Underground Railroad, an abhorrent practice in which freed slaves would be kidnapped and taken back to the south, then resold into slavery.
After slavery was abolished in Illinois, the southern part of the state became a hotbed of this practice, as it was a short distance to Kentucky, St. Louis and then the deep south.
John Crenshaw was tried for this twice, and found innocent both times. But even to a lay- man like myself, it’s obvious the cards were stacked against his prosecution.
If it wasn’t for a now rotting tourist trap, this story would barely get a mention.
The Old Slave House captured the imagination of the twentieth century. It exposed in graphic detail, albeit admittedly inflated, a first hand example of the atrocious treatment of blacks in the early years of statehood.
The stories spun in that house are so captivating, that true or not, accurate or exaggerated, they kept the story in the public consciousness and whetted the appetite of people to know more.
That’s the role of folklore, to create an interest in our past, to keep it alive. That’s where historians are supposed to step in and fill in the blanks, correct the mistakes. Even if what they find is ambiguous in some respects.
What isn’t ambiguous is that the Old Slave House was built by a man who made his fortune in large part from slave labor and black indentured servants who were unfairly kept. And that in this area, free blacks were kidnapped and sold back into slavery in the south.
That’s a story worth preserving, worth reminding people of, even if the rest of the story could be bullshit.
The state bought the Old Slave House, with the idea of turning it into a museum. That was twenty years ago, almost a third as long as the house was open to the public. Instead of be- coming a museum, the house has been left to fall apart, and the public’s access to it blocked by threats of fines and arrest, despite a steady stream of interest.
In the state’s defense, it costs a lot to create and maintain a site worthy of being opened to the public, and it usually requires local funding as well. This part of the state isn’t exactly thriving, and deep pockets are hard to find.
As Mark Wagner, Director at the Center for Archaeological Investigations and Professor in Anthropology at SIU Carbondale related to me, that when he was giving presentations on the Old Slave House in the area, he would be asked when it would be reopened. He stated that he “would always reply by saying ‘well, let me ask you a question. How many of you are in favor of having your taxes raised so the state has enough money to repair and reopen that house? Just raise your hands.’ The people would sit there with their arms crossed and glare at me and not one would raise their hand. And I would just say ‘Well, you just got your answer.’”
But let’s face it, for most people history is dull. Even the kind of history which is believed to have taken place here. What those who ran the Old Slave House did that bordered on genius, was find a more entertaining hook to pull people in.
The first sentence of the house’s Wikipedia puts the finger on why attention is often still focused on the Old Slave House. Its reputation for being haunted.
It’s a story that’s gone on for a long time. Some believe that it began when slaves were kept on the third floor, and the children were told the noise over their heads were ghosts.
When the house was open as a tourist attraction, did the owners push the ghost stories with- out hard evidence? Oh absolutely. If hard evidence was required to tell ghost stories, there would be no ghost stories. And yet the Crenshaw family and various historical agencies all pushed the owners to drop them. To the family who then owned the house’s credit, they didn’t. That’s in large part why the house wasn’t forgotten, and still exists.
It’s popular culture that gives the historian a moment in the spotlight to tell the truth be- hind the legends. It’s how history works. There is a lot of great history in the story of Paul Revere’s ride. But the reason people were interested in it, was the poem, and the line, “the British are coming.” It was never uttered on Revere’s ride, but that bit of genius storytelling ensures the true story is always close by, for those who want to know more.
That’s how history and folklore work hand in hand. Or should we ban Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride?
Order The Haunted History of Southern Illinois
Find this story and many others about the weirdness in Little Egypt, which goes back to our very beginnings.
Growing up with the Old Slave House
I was a kid the first time I went to the Old Slave House, outside Equality, Illinois. It was in its heyday then, back in the sixties.
We lived in Carmi, a little over a half hour away. Beyond Equality lies the Shawnee Hills and the national forest, which has always been a popular recreation spot. At the time, Route One was a major road through here. Traffic was increasing, the region was growing. People were moving to southern Illinois, and looking for places to go on the weekend.
We’d been to Pound’s Hollow, in the Shawnee forest, swimming. On the way home, heading north, dad pulled into the lane that led up Hickory Hill to the Old Slave House.
You couldn’t help but be excited. Slaves in Illinois? I barely knew what a slave was, and growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, had seen very few blacks in my life. You’d see the billboards around, and back then the trees weren’t so tall. You could still see the house on top of the hill, looking down on you from the highway.
As dad made his way up the wooded drive, my heart was leaping out of my chest. I was going someplace I’d seen billboards for. This was like going on vacation.
That visit helped fuel an interest in ghosts, the Civil War and history in general that has sustained me for years.
The story of the Old Slave House is framed by the competition between two small southern Illinois towns, Shawneetown and Equality, which were vying to be the political, and therefore economic powerhouse of the area.
A century later Shawneetown lies nearly abandoned for higher ground, and Equality is a sleepy little village. The economic powerhouse is Harrisburg, after snaring a super Walmart and a marijuana dispensary. The gateway to the Shawnee Forest which attracts the tourist to the area is now coming from that direction, and potential tourists along Route One, who used to flock to the Old Slave House have dried up.
Which was another reason the state wanted to purchase the house, to bring visitors who were already flocking to the Shawnee Forest, to this economically disadvantaged area.
Illinois turns a blind eye to slavery to increase revenues
The Great Salt Springs lie alongside the Saline river, in Gallatin County, Illinois. The coun- tryside to the north is mostly flat, with an occasional hill or ridge along the way. Mostly it’s wide open farmland. Looking south from the Old Slave House, beyond the river and springs below, the Shawnee Hills rise up to mark the edge of the Shawnee National Forest.
There’s a bridge over the Saline river. Make the first right on Route One after you cross it going south, and as you head towards the river you find yourself on a narrow, tree lined lane. It’s easy to see the place as a swamp when the river is up. It’s wooded now, but was clear cut when the salt springs were in operation. Crenshaw even sold the trees for a profit. The nice shade that keeps you cool today was nonexistent when slaves worked this swamp.
The state bank at Shawneetown is one of the few structures still existing in Old Shawneetown. Once the economic powerhouse of the area, it’s now nearly a ghost town.
The native Americans were once here. They knew about the springs and traded in it, before Europeans set foot here. Today the Great Salt Springs is an archaeological site.
At the turn of the 19th century, for black slaves it was likely Hell on Earth.
My wife, Lisa, came from the west. She used to live in Texas, Utah, Nevada, even Mexico. Before she came here, she figured summers wouldn’t be a big deal. Her son said the same thing when he first visited. I think a fair approximation of their response to summers here are “oh my fucking god.” She knows heat, but desert heat. Here it’s heat and humidity.
Humidity so thick you can scratch your initials in the air.
Salt was as essential then as oil is today. Taking the salt from the marshlands of the Saline River was hard, nasty work. The heat and humidity could kill a person. There are the bugs, mosquitoes which in those days could kill a person with disease. You’ve got rattlesnakes in the woodlands, water moccasins in the wetlands … there are ponds in the area whose banks are at times utterly littered with snakes, many of them venomous. Bears and wolves were also common. Few white people could be persuaded to work in the springs.
After the Indians came the French, then the British, both of whom brought slavery.
According to the History of the Gallatin Salines, “Philip Francis Renault, as agent for the company of St. Phillips, introduced the first slaves into the Illinois country. In 1720 he purchased five hundred slaves in St. Domingo and transported them to Illinois to work in the mines. However, mining did not prove successful here and many were employed in Missouri and Iowa, while a portion of them were purchased by the French settlers, and the offsprings of these formed a great part of the slave population of Illinois down to the time of the election of Governor Coles.”
As 1825 approached, and the end of legal slavery approached, the slaves were replaced by indentured servants, which in many cases were slaves in everything but name only. Cren- shaw used these in the salt springs, on his farm and as servants in his own home. The terms were supposed to be for seven years, and afterwards you were to be free. But it was easy enough, and common enough to keep extending the terms of indenture, if not for a black person’s entire life, but for their useful life. One case I read of was for a term of 99 years, for which the black was paid one dollar.
Crenshaw builds the big house, but did Lincoln sleep here?
The Old Slave House was built by John Hart Crenshaw back in 1838, according to the cornerstone of the house. But as is the truth of much of his life, even that is up for debate. Crenshaw was said to be the grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, which later proved false, his wife Sina was first cousin to Zachary Taylor, who was to go on to become president.
Crenshaw eventually ended up with an exclusive lease of the salt springs, and made a fortune leasing the land and overseeing the operations. One year he paid one-seventh of the Illinois state tax revenue himself. And he made that fortune on the backs of backs of blacks who had no choice.
Crenshaw started off working the salt springs, supervising the labor and administration. But it takes money to make money. It’s believed with good reason that he supplemented his income by kidnapping freed blacks, as well as those who had escaped slavery in the south and made their way north. It was a lucrative profession, with it not being uncommon for a particularly fine specimen to bring $1,000 or more. Crenshaw was believed to have kid- napped and sold entire families.
Historians and journalists have found contemporary evidence which points to Crenshaw’s guilt. There’s fairly good evidence that Crenshaw or his associates kidnapped more than
John Hart Crenshaw and his wife, Sina
thirty blacks in Illinois, then sold them back into slavery. Recent research has shown he likely owned several thousand acres down in Mississippi, so he had a pretty extensive reach.
And again, the whole question of whether he kidnapped or not is moot. As is the question of whether most of the stories told in the Old Slave House are true. The fact is, he made a fortune on the backs of blacks in a free state, and got rich doing it.
From 1818 till 1825, the only place slavery was legal in Illinois was the salt springs. In 1830, five years after all slavery was to have been abolished in the state, the census records clearly show Crenshaw owned seven slaves, including one child.
He didn’t even try to hide the fact that he illegally owned blacks, thumbing his nose at the law and common decency. If that’s not evil enough for you, I don’t what is.
By all accounts, even the favorable ones, he was a hard man. It was a hard time and hard place. But Crenshaw was beyond the pale. That much is certain, even if no other facts ever came to light.
Crenshaw bought Hickory Hill in 1829, but didn’t start building his house for almost five years. And it was almost four years before the Greek Revival house was finished, on top of the hill, overlooking the salt springs below.
He brought a seedling of a Beech tree from the grave of George Washington at Mt. Ver- non, Virginia and planted it here. It died in the past twenty years. There were three floors
to the house, and the walls on the second floor opened up to create a ballroom. He had political ambitions, even if they were mainly just to be influential enough to craft the politics to grow even richer.
According to legend, Abraham Lincoln stayed here in September of 1840, when as a state representative, he was participating in debates throughout the area. It’s believed by many that a ball was held at Hickory Hill for the participants, and Lincoln came along.
It’s often debated whether Lincoln was ever there. After all, Crenshaw was a Democrat and Lincoln a Whig. But both had economic and political interests in common. And there are several accounts from people who claimed to be there, including some young ladies who danced with Abe that night.
One of the charges thrown against the Old Slave House was they didn’t back up stories like this with historic fact. But if the state of Illinois can’t find the money to research the history, how could a private citizen? The state has allowed limited archaeological research, and one of their proudest moments was announcing they found a stone walled outhouse, complete with a mirror in an unusual display of vanity for the time.
The state can’t find money to research documents to prove or disprove Crenshaw’s links to slavery, but they can afford to excavate his shitter?
Crenshaw falls from grace
One of Crenshaw’s direct descendants told harrowing stories she’d heard from her grand- mother. She was told that Crenshaw took pleasure in whipping his slaves, and had the entire household, including his young daughters watch. Family stories also told of him sexually abusing some of the females.
Around the beginning of 1848, Crenshaw lost his left leg. The most frequently told stories include slaves, some claiming it as an accident and others done with intent. One of the more popular stories concerns a young black girl who was screaming from a particularly brutal beating by Crenshaw, and her father, hearing the screams came running and lobbed off the old man’s leg.
Stories from people who lived in the house in the 1850s while Crenshaw was living else- where place the incident on the third floor, where slaves were said to be kept and often, pun- ished. Others have it at the sawmill. At any rate, in the only photo we have of Crenshaw, his stump is sitting on his wife’s leg.
John Crenshaw was indicted for kidnapping in 1820, but there’s no record of the outcome of that case. He was indicted again for kidnapping, this time his cook and her children in 1842, went to trial and the jury found him not guilty. But you could expect little else from a jury in this area at this time.
I’ve lived here for forty years. I grew up in the sixties, and even as a child, I saw the racism that was still commonplace in the last century. I was invited to join the Klan when I was in high school, who were operating less than twenty minutes from Hickory Hill. Later on, I worked for a printer, where on the last day, while cleaning up files, saw that he did the print- ing for the Klan in that area. I’ll admit, I tampered with them.
I spent nearly a decade in New York, and my southern accent made people feel comfortable enough to show their racism as well, which was just as rampant, if not more so than here.
So do I believe that an all white jury would acquit a rich white landowner with deep pockets and political connections of a crime against blacks? Especially when blacks weren’t allowed to testify against whites? Without hesitation. I would be stunned to see otherwise. Even into the twentieth century, mob violence and lynchings were fairly common in southern Illinois.
That they managed to bring Crenshaw to trial was an accomplishment.
By the middle of the century, Crenshaw was advancing in years. His mill, which was also a general store and post office burned down, and was uninsured. Crenshaw lost a fortune, and stopped paying his rent to the state. Competition to his salt production was eating away his profit. The state was talking about pulling his salt leases which they eventually did.
He was being sued, mortgages foreclosed on. He moved a family from Germany into the house on Hickory Hill and let them manage the farm, and moved to another house, neary Equality, some saying so he could put as much distance as he could between himself and the blacks working the springs and his plantation.
He continued farming, and seemes to move back and forth into his house a few times, and was still involved with the banks and the railroads. He sold Hickory Hill in 1864, just before the end of the Civil War, and lived till 1871. His grave can be found in Hickory Hill ceme- tery, where he’s buried next to his wife. Oddly, they share a tombstone with his parents, with John and Sinia’s inscription being on the one side of it, though evidence suggests his parents are buried elsewhere.
The grave of John Hart Crenshaw and his wife, Zina, in the Crenshaw family graveyard on Hickory Hill
The Crenshaw House as the Old Slave House in the seventies (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A new owner at Hickory Hill throws open the doors to the public and the Old Slave House is born
Hickory Hill was still loaded with antiques when the last private owner’s grandfather, An- drew J. Fisk bought the place around 1913. It was said that even the original beds were still in use.
It’s a common belief that when the Fisk family moved in, stories of the macabre and dia- bolical use of the third floor began to leak out. It’s been said that the accusations against Crenshaw which make the Old Slave House famous didn’t begin till the Fisk family started running the place as a tourist attraction around 1930.
But as documented in the book, Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw, by Jon Musgrave, there’s evidence of earlier sources for some of the stories the Fisk family began telling.
The earliest reference to some of these legends can be found dating to 1920, before the house was opened to tourists. And some of those were verified by earlier inhabitants of the house.
The Fisk family says they only started charging admission because so many people were showing up wanting to see the Old Slave House. They thought charging would keep people away. Instead it opened a flood gate of the curious.
You reached the attic at the end of the tour. It was the mid-sixties when I was there, just a small child. It was my first real brush with the darkness in people’s souls.
The place was swarming with folk back thens. Signs on the wall spelled out the history, sometimes in lurid detail. It was here I heard about Lincoln spending the night, about slaves on the third floor, the breeding of slaves and of course, the ghost stories. There were display cases of guns, knives, brass knuckles, whips, pistols, shotguns and rifles which were said to be found in the house. Right there between two Victorian era bedrooms. Even the light in that house had stains.
The steps that lead to the third floor are steep and narrow. It’s said, though disproven, that there was an underground tunnel which led from the woods up inside the back door of the house. That allowed slaves to be smuggled in without being spotted, then shuffled up these stairs before being chained in a small stall. Often with others crammed into the same space.
The layout is like that of a Pullman car, bunks in each stall side by side under the sloping roof. They line each side of the attic, with an open walkway in between, just like a train car. The largest stall was said to be for their breeder.
The Fisk family claim that when they first moved in, the stalls were equipped with steel rings and chains. Other residents prior to the Fisks back up those stories. Even some family members have vouched for it, while others vehemently deny it.
What is said to be a whipping post stood at each end of the hallway. In reality, it looks more like a stand for holding a horse’s saddle and tack.
Still, it was a harrowing place to be as a little kid.
Looking back I can see that we were conned. There’s a lot of history here, and a lot of it was told in the house. But a lot of it was at best, folklore. It was an era where you could mix fact and folklore at tourist traps throughout the country. You were there to be entertained, as well as educated.
The Crenshaws fight back to gain control of their family’s and the Old Slave House’s legacy
Some of the descendants of Crenshaw got more than a little pissed about the stories coming out of the Old Slave House. Understandably perhaps. The old man’s reputation was bad enough, but his great-great grandson was the serial killer, Joe Ball, a.k.a. The Alligator Man, down south.
Joe had opened a saloon in Texas and dug a pond in the back, which he stocked with a half dozen alligators. He charged admission for viewing them as he fed them live dogs and cats. When women in the county started going missing, a deputy came to talk to him. He pulled out a gun and killed himself. Two of his victims were located with the help of the fellow who helped bury them. It’s often believed the other 18 ended up in the bellies of the gators.
Between Joe and the old man, it’s hard being bad enough to be the black sheep of that family.
So the Crenshaws set out to preserve what was left of their reputation, and paint a picture of Hickory Hill as a lovely home, where “children frolic on the lawn and pies cool on the window sills.”
There is a lovely breeze on top of Hickory Hill, in contrast to the hell below working in the salt springs. Even the third floor of the house remains remarkably cool in the summer. It’s not ghosts, but good ventilation and a breeze.
Graffiti discovered in the attic written by teenage girls in the mid 19th century backs the account of idyllic childhoods, drawing pictures on the walls of the attic. They certainly weren’t afraid to be up there, and this is during a time when many believe that slaves were housed on the third floor.
Much has been said about the kindness Crenshaw extended to his family, taking in the children of his brother who died an untimely death. The family say, without proof I should add, that the kids slept in the third floor with the servants.
That is there’s no proof except family memories, and historians as well as much of the family say family reminiscents should be discounted when those stories paint a darker tale.
The Crenshaw family insists that the third flood was designed like a Pullman car because the old man had wanted to make the floor a hotel, for people traveling the nearby railroad, which was supposed to pass just below the house. They insist there were no bars on the windows, that Fisk put them there. The Fisk family says they only replaced the ones that were missing.
Unfortunately for Crenshaw, it was several decades before the railroad came through.
Archaeologists have found that the family’s story about the third floor being designed as a hotel is likely true. The drab appearance now belies its decor when it was built, as it is believed to have matched the rest of the house. They also found evidence that there was no underground tunnel or secret entrance to the house.
Crenshaw Lane leading towards Hickory Hill
On breeding at the Old Slave House and Uncle Bob Wilson
The Crenshaws are particularly horrified by the stories of breeding slaves. That story too is on pretty shaky ground.
According to the Fisk family during their tours, Uncle Bob Wilson died in 1948 at the age of 112. He was a veteran, a servant for an officer in the Confederacy during the Civil War. He said he passed the war shining the boots of officers.
Uncle Bob stood six foot, five inches tall and weighed in for his carnal duties at 245 pounds. His only duty was impregnating other slaves, sometimes against their will, which according to the story, led to somewhere between 300 and 2,000 babies, many of them sired while he worked for Crenshaw on the third floor of the Old Slave House.
He wasn’t proud of his work, and regretted doing it. But he preferred that to becoming a field hand.
He shows up again at Elgin State Hospital, a mental health center outside Chicago in the 1940s, notable for his age and that he had fought for the south. It’s there he died.
The Gallatin County Historical Society does admit that iMr. Wilson lived in Gallatin County for a while after the Civil War, but no proof that he was a breeder for the Crenshaws prior to the war. Or that he was here in those years. He was known to be back in Virginia, where he was born in 1859.
During the last twenty five years of his life, he claimed to have been used for stud services in his teens and twenties, at seven different plantations, including Hickory Hill.
The Crenshaws say it never happened. The historians shrug their shoulders.
It’s been pointed out he would have only been twelve years old when he started his service, too young for that. I was twelve years old once, and I beg to differ. A twelve year old is not only fully functional, but eager to function. Usually alone.
And why did Wilson choose Equality and Shawneetown to move to after the war, of all places, if he hadn’t lived here before? Equality is down the road from the middle of no- where. And not particularly friendly to blacks. It’s here that he first told the story about how he was a breeder for Crenshaw.
Not knowing the exact years he was in the area after gaining his freedom, it’s hard to say which came first, the story of the Old Slave House, which he could have added himself to? Or him telling his story in the area, and the Fisk family hearing of it? And why do the stories about him focus almost exclusively on the Crenshaw house? What about the other plantations he worked on?
The element which bothers me most is why in reports of him telling his story, does he call it the Old Slave House? The old men I’ve known stuck to the names of places that they orig- inally knew, even if the names change later. It wasn’t called the Old Slave House till much later on, more than fifty years after he was said to work there.
There are just enough elements about his story that make it appear to be true. But it could just as equally be an old man writing himself into history, or even a promoter wanting to create a new legend, who took advantage of someone local who fit the bill.
The State of Illinois inherited a problem with the Old Slave House. There was money to turn it into a museum, but not enough. Historically it’s important. But it’s the folklore attached to it, that made the story resonate further than a stop on the reverse underground railroad.
As SIU’s Mark Wagner puts the dilemma of separating fact from fiction of that third floor into focus, “We can’t say no one was ever held there against their will. But that’s not why the third floor was built that way – we can say that.”
As Crenshaw held hundreds of slaves and indentured servants, it’s impossible he housed them all on the third floor. Besides, we know he had separate slave quarters on his proper- ties. That said, his servants who worked in the house and his household slaves as well, could quite possibly have been kept on the third floor. It’s also said that those who misbehaved were kept there as punishment.
And it’s quite possible that as some reports say, kidnapped blacks were kept there while waiting to be taken south and sold. No matter how you look at it, Crenshaw was an asshole and a racist. Even in an era where racism was commonplace, he was beyond the pale.
But were they beaten in the attic on the whipping post? Suspended by their thumbs? That’s beyond cruel and into the realm of the sadistic. If not the demonic.
I’d tend to side more with the Crenshaw family, that the stories were vastly overblown. But I’m pretty much convinced that Crenshaw had it in him, and that I brought him home with me the last time I visited The Old Slave House.
The last stretch of the lane up Hickory Hill. The Crenshaw House sits behind the trees to the left
Looking into the eyes of evil
You’ll find I don’t tell a lot of ghost stories involving myself. The exceptions are those involv- ing my house. You catch a lot of shit when you start talking about ghosts, and I’ve not talked about this one to many people. But the Crenshaw House ain’t getting any younger.
It was the early-eighties and I’d read More Haunted Houses, and found the Old Slave House there.
The stories had been around for years. A nationally renowned, professional ghost hunter visited in the 1920s, only to see the ghosts of former slaves and fled in terror. Despite having tackled ghosts before, he only made it to a house down the road before dying of a heart attack.
Trouble with that story is he actually lived several years more, before dying in a mental institution in Anna, Illinois. The fellow’s name was Hickman Whittington, who claimed he could banish ghosts with a verse from the Bible. I’ve yet to see any actual evidence he ever visited the Old Slave House, though he announced his intent to.
There’s also the story of two Vietnam veterans who tried to spend the night on the third floor, but also fled in terror. According to the writer, Julie Carr, “Suddenly, a terrible moan reverberated and shook the attic’s walls. A “cacophony of human voices,” speaking “unintelligible words” assaulted their ears, while ghostly figures swirled and danced around them. Their only source of light, the kerosene lamp, then blew out.
Blood-curdling screams rang out all around them, and they were filled with anxiety and panic, which inspired them to fly down the steep stairs and make a quick exit.”
The trouble with that one is Vietnam vets fleeing in terror in the middle of the night is a staple of urban legends across the country in the seventies and beyond.
David Rodgers, a reporter from Harrisburg was the first person in modern memory to suc- cessfully spend the night on the third floor, when in 1978 he reported on the experience for a local TV station. He reported hearing many sounds he couldn’t identify, saw vague shapes as have others who tried it. And in one report I read, claimed if he had stationed himself closer to the exit, he likely would have left. But to leave meant walking through the most active part of the room.
Others have reported hearing voices, whispering, loud bangs, the sounds of rattling chains, crying and whimpering and the occasional scream. There’s said to be a mournful wailing on the third floor, though most people attribute that to the wind on top of the hill.
Controversial ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren,y visited the Crenshaw House and called it “the most demoniacal place” they had ever visited.
After reading More Haunted Houses, I had been to the Shawnee Forest one fall afternoon, and stopped by the Old Slave House in the way back. I got to talking to the owner about old photos, such as the one on display of Crenshaw and his wife. I was in my early twenties at the time, and I was making spare change taking photos like that and doing pencil drawings of them, greatly blown up in size. He asked if I’d take a whirl at the photo of the old couple. I said “sure,” and he gave me a few copies to take with me.
That night I spread the copies on my drawing table and started sketching. Part of the pro- cess involved looking closely at the person through a magnifying glass. Seeing how the eyes look, where the folds lie, the wrinkles, the lips, imagining the voice which came from them.
Eventually I grew tired, flipped off the light and went to bed. My bed was across the room from the table, and as I lay there, trying to fall asleep, I noticed a dark shadow in the corner by the table.
That corner is to my left and behind me right now as I write. Though I’ve had several paranormal encounters in this house, aside from that night, I’ve never had anything happen in this room.
The shadow didn’t seem right. It didn’t go the full height of the wall, but stopped short of the ceiling by several feet. It was about the height of a man, somewhat short, and somewhat stocky. It didn’t move, it was just an area of darkness, darker than the other shadows in the room.
I turned the light back on, there was nothing there.
I switched it off and rolled over, my back to that corner to try to get to sleep. But I had the certain feeling I was being watched, and by someone who wasn’t very happy. I rolled over quickly, and the shadow was still there. I tried opening the curtains to let more light in, but the shadow remained. I turned on a small lamp which helped, but it was still darker in that corner, and I still felt someone was there, someone menacing. As I looked to the corner, I thought the shadow was coming back, even in the light. It never grew as dark as it was earlier, but it was still definable.
I don’t know if I ever fell asleep, at least before daybreak. As I lay there I wondered who could it be? I tried talking to it, but there was no answer. My first thought was it was a for- mer slave, not wanting me to do the drawing. But that felt like a story I was making up for myself.
What it felt most like, was that I had conjured up Crenshaw that evening, staring into his eyes, thinking of the horror he inflicted. To this day, I’m convinced it was him in some form, and whatever form he took, I didn’t want to be a part of it.
So the next morning I packed up the copies of his photos and mailed them back to the Old Slave House.
Don’t bother with the phone number, as it doesn’t work. And by all accounts, violaters are prosecuted.
The future of the Crenshaw House
There appears to be no plan to open the Old Slave House. There are no means for those looking to tell the history or the folklore, to have access to the actual site. It took me a month to finally get permission to walk up the lane and take a photo from the other side of the fence. The caretaker I was told, is sort of a recluse and doesn’t like visitors.
The walk up the lane and up the hill is gorgeous. It had been raining, and the steam was rising off the Shawnee Hills to the south. The last stretch was fairly steep, and my heart was pounding for several reasons as I reached the fence.
I could see the back corner of the house. Enough to see a piece of plywood where a window should be. Peeling paint. Through the trees I could see missing posts on the porch. It’s not being maintained. It’s being allowed to disintegrate in a somewhat controlled fashion.
The difficulty in presenting the story of the Old Slave House, and John Hart Crenshaw himself, is that it’s too hard to tell fact from fiction. Did the Fisk family run the Old Slave House as a tourist trap, and stretch some stories and likely make up others? Absolutely. Were the ghost stories true? Perhaps some, but others were demonstrably false.
But true or not, for seventy years it became the history of this little intersection of two high- ways, where history once raged. That folklore became a history unto itself.
In the past few decades Crenshaw’s guilt in the Reverse Underground Railroad, and even some of its extent has begun to be documented. As reported on the National Park Service’s website:
“The Old Slave House outside Equality, Illinois, is the last standing station on the Reverse U.G.R.R. Start- ed by salt maker John Hart Crenshaw in 1838, the home’s third floor attic contains 12 rooms long believed to be where Crenshaw operated a secret slave jail for kidnapped free black and captured runaway slaves. A grand jury indicted Crenshaw for kidnapping, once in the mid 1820s (the outcome unknown) and again in 1842 when a trial jury acquitted him. The case’s victims, Maria Adams and her seven or eight children, ended up as slaves in Texas. In 1828, Crenshaw took Frank Granger and 15 others downriver to Tipton Co., Tennessee, and sold them as slaves. Crenshaw also kidnapped Lucinda and her children in 1828. She ended up in Barren Co., Kentucky. Contemporary letters identifying Crenshaw’s role back both cases. Cren- shaw also kidnapped Peter White and three others in the 1840s. They were sold into slavery in Arkansas, but later rescued. Stories of strange noises upstairs coming from victims, date to 1851. Despite accounts that the rooms were slave quarters, Crenshaw family stories indicate a distinction between the plantation’s house- hold servants and field hands, and the victim’s of Crenshaw’s criminal activities.”
It was the folklore sold to the masses which brought it to people’s attention in the twentieth century, and bought time for historians to start doing their work.
By 1850, Illinois had managed to more or less stamp slavery out. But from then till the Civil War, Illinois had the most restrictive laws in the nation concerning free blacks. The residents around here fought hard to prevent blacks from settling in Illinois. This isn’t folklore, it’s fact.
So it’s no wonder Illinois doesn’t want to tell the story. And doesn’t want others telling it either. But it’s important these stories continue to be told, and told accurately.
Perhaps Crenshaw was devoted to his family. So is a Mafia don, both his family with a little f and a big F. It’s the Other, those outside his protected circle who feel the pain.
There are nearly a million visitors to the Shawnee Forest every year, with a large chunk of those driving beneath the watchful eye of the Old Slave House. Around 150,000 of those visitors travel to the Garden of the Gods, twenty minutes away. The house is still there. The Great Salt Springs, another historic site is at the foot of the hill.
If the Old Slave House was used for the purpose for which the state bought it, how many visitors might learn the story of what actually happened in those horrifying years, when slavery was legal, or at least condoned and profited by northern states? Might we find that evil in people’s hearts isn’t confined to a geographic region, but was a choice made individually?
The final bit of horror in this tale, is that the state of Illinois and its citizens don’t believe that kind of history, that kind of education is worth the money.
After a month of emails and phone calls, this was as close as I could legally get to a decent shot of the Cren- shaw House. Though every person I talked to was friendly, there simply is no way to get any closer without hopping the fence, which I was specifically forbaden to do.