"THE OLD SLAVE HOUSE"
High on a windswept rise in southern Illinois is one of the state’s most haunted spots. It is called Hickory Hill and over the years, it has been many things from plantation house to tourist attraction to chamber of horrors for the men and women once brought here in chains. Thanks to this dark blight on its history, Hickory Hill has long been known by its more familiar name, the “Old Slave House”.
For decades, travelers have come from all over Illinois and beyond to see this mysterious and forbidding place. The secrets of slavery that were hidden here were given up many years ago, but there are other dark whispers about the place. These stories claim that the dead of Hickory Hill do not rest in peace.
Hickory Hill was built by a man named John Hart Crenshaw, a descendant of old American family with ties to the founding of our country. Crenshaw himself has a notable spot in the history of Illinois, thanks to both his public and private deeds.
He was born in November 1797 in a house on the borders of North and South Carolina. His family moved west and settled in New Madrid, Missouri, only to have their home destroyed by the great earthquake of 1811. A short time later, they moved to Saline County, Illinois and started a farm on the east side of Eagle Mountain. There was a salt well on the farm called Half Moon Lick.
Not long after settling in Illinois, William Crenshaw died and left his eldest son, John, to provide for his mother and six brothers and sisters. By the time he was 18, he was already toiling in the crude salt refinery at Half Moon Lick.
Today, it is hard for us to understand the demand that existed for salt in times past. In those days, salt was often used as money or as barter material when purchasing goods and supplies. In the early 1800s, a large salt reservation was discovered in southern Illinois and the land began to be leased out by the government. Individual operators rented tracts of land and hired laborers, usually poor white and black men, to work them.
In 1829, the government decided to sell off the salt lands to raise money for a new prison and other state improvements in Illinois. The individual operators were given the opportunity to purchase their holdings and one man who did so was John Hart Crenshaw. He made a number of such purchases over the years and eventually owned several thousand acres of land. At that time, he also owned a sawmill and three salt furnaces for processing.
Eventually, Crenshaw would become an important man in southern Illinois. He had developed wide-reaching business interests that would allow him to amass quite a fortune. In fact, at one point he made so much money that he paid one-seventh of all of the taxes collected in the state. Despite all of these accomplishments, Crenshaw is best remembered today for Hickory Hill and his ties to Illinois slavery, kidnapping and illegal trafficking in slaves --- all in a state where slavery was not technically allowed by law. There were exceptions, however, and one exception allowed for slaves to be leased for one-year terms in the salt lands of Gallatin, Hardin and Saline counties.
John H & Sinia Crenshaw
The Old Slave House
Workers were always needed for the salt mines. The work was backbreaking, hot and brutal and attracted only the most desperate workers. Because of this, slavery became essential to the success of the salt operations.
In fact, it became so essential that salt mine operators, like John Hart Crenshaw, were not adverse to kidnapping free blacks and runaway slaves and pressing them into service. They also sold many African-Americans into slavery. Night riders of the 1830s and 1840s were always on the lookout for escaped slaves and they posted men along the Ohio River at night. Runaway slaves were captured and could be ransomed back to their masters or returned for a reward. They also kidnapped free men, and their children, and sold them in the south. The night riders created a “reverse underground railroad”, where slaves were spirited away to the southern plantations instead of to the northern cities and freedom.
Local tradition has it that John Hart Crenshaw, who leased slaves to work the salt mines, kept a number of night riders in his employ to watch for escaped slaves. He used this as a profitable sideline to his legitimate businesses.
Crenshaw was seen as a respected businessman and a pillar of the church and community. No one had any idea that he was holding illegal slaves or that he was suspected of kidnapping black families and selling them into slavery. They would have been even more surprised to learn that the slaves were being held captive in the barred chambers of the third floor attic of Hickory Hill.
Third Floor Attic
Crenshaw contracted an architect to begin on the house in 1833, but Hickory Hill was not completed until a number of years later. It stands on a high hill, overlooking the Saline River. The structure was built in the Classic Greek style of the time period and is three stories tall. Huge columns, cut from the hearts of individual pine trees, span the front of the house and support wide verandahs. On the porch is a main entrance door and above it, on the upper verandah, is another door that opens onto the balcony. Here, Crenshaw could look out over his vast holdings. He furnished the interior of the house with original artwork and designs that had been imported from Europe. Each of the rooms, and there were thirteen on the first and second floors, were heated with separate fireplaces.
The house was certainly grand, but the most unusual additions to the place were not easily seen. Legend had it that there was once a tunnel that connected the basement to the Saline River, where slaves could be loaded and unloaded at night. In addition, another passageway, which was large enough to contain a wagon, was built into the rear of the house. It allowed the vehicles to actually enter into the house and, according to the stories, allowed slaves to be unloaded where they could not be seen from the outside. The back of the house is still marked by this carriage entrance today.
Located on the third floor of Hickory Hill are the infamous confines of the attic and proof that Crenshaw had something unusual in mind when he contracted the house to be built. The attic can still be reached today by a flight of narrow, well-worn stairs. They exit into a wide hallway and there are about a dozen cell-like rooms with barred windows and flat, wooden bunks facing the corridor. Originally, the cells were even smaller, and there were more of them, but some were removed in the past. One can only imagine how small and cramped they must have been because even an average-sized visitor to the attic can scarcely turn around in the ones that remain. The corridor between the cells extends from one end of the room to the other. Windows at the ends provided the only ventilation and during the summer months, the heat in the attic was unbearable. The windows also provided the only source of light. The slaves spent their time secured in their cells, chained to heavy metal rings. There are still scars on the wooden walls and floors today and chains and heavy balls are still kept on display.
The Old Slave House
After Crenshaw was indicted for kidnapping a free black woman and her children in 1842, rumors began to spread about his questionable business activities. One of his sawmills was burned down and over the course of the next few years, his business holdings began to decline. In addition to several civil court actions against him, salt deposits were discovered in both Virginia and Ohio that proved to be more profitable than those in southern Illinois. To make matters worse, Crenshaw was also attacked by one of his slaves, resulting in the loss of one leg. The stories maintain that he was beating a woman in his fields one day when an angry slave picked up an ax and severed Crenshaw’s leg with it. After that, most of the slaves were sold off and his operations dwindled with the end of the salt mining.
During the Civil War, Crenshaw sold Hickory Hill and moved to a new farmhouse closer to Equality. He continued farming but also diversified into lumber, railroads and banks. He died on December 4, 1871 and was buried in Hickory Hill Cemetery, a lonely piece of ground just northeast of his former home.
Whether John Crenshaw rests in peace is unknown, but according to the tales of Little Egypt, many of his former captives most certainly do not. According to the accounts, “mysterious voices can be heard in that attic, sometimes moaning, sometimes singing the spirituals that comfort heavy hearts”.
And those accounts, as the reader will soon learn, are just the beginning.
In 1906, Hickory Hill was purchased by the Sisk family from a descendant of John Hart Crenshaw. It was already a notorious place in the local area, but it would soon become even more widely known.
To locals, the house was known more as the “Old Slave House” than as Hickory Hill, thanks to the stories surrounding the place. In the 1920s, the Sisk’s began to have visitors from outside the area. They would come to the door at just about any hour and request a tour of the place, having heard about it from a local waitress or gas station attendant as they were passing through. The Old Slave House, thanks to a savvy advertising campaign, became a destination point for many travelers and tourists were so numerous that the owners began charging an admission in 1930. For just a dime, or a nickel if you were a child, you could tour the place where “Slavery Existed in Illinois”, as the road signs put it.
Shortly after the house became a tourist attraction, visitors began reporting that strange things were happening in the place. They complained of odd noises in the attic especially, noises that sounds like cries, whimpers and even the rattling of chains. A number of people told of uncomfortable feelings in the slave quarters like sensations of intense fear, sadness and of being watched. They also told of cold chills, being touched by invisible hands and feeling unseen figures brush by them.
The rumored hauntings had little effect on tourist traffic and if anything, the stories brought more people to the house. Other legends soon began to attach themselves to Hickory Hill. The most famous is the story that “no one could spend the entire night in the attic”. The story got started because of an incident involving a “ghost chaser” from Benton named Hickman Whittington, who planned to put the ghosts of the house to rest.
Years passed and, despite many attempts, no one managed to spend the entire night in the attic of the Old Slave House. Thrill-seekers had a habit of running from the house long before daybreak. Eventually, the practice was ended because, as George Sisk informed me later, a small fire got started one night by an overturned lantern. After that, he turned down requests for late night ghost hunting.
He only relented on one other occasion. In 1978, he allowed a reporter from Harrisburg named David Rodgers to spend the night in the attic as a Halloween stunt for a local television station. The reporter managed to beat out nearly 150 previous challengers and became the first person to spend the night in the slave quarters in more than a century. Rodgers later admitted that he was “queasy” going into the house and also said that his experience in the attic was anything but mundane. He heard many sounds that he could not identify and later, he would discover that his recorder picked up voices that he himself could not hear.
Stories from visitors and curiosity seekers have continued to be told over the years and the Old Slave House has been a frequent stopping place for ghost hunters, psychic investigators and supernatural enthusiasts.
In 1996, the Old Slave House was closed down, due to the declining health of Mr. and Mrs. Sisk. Although it looked as though the house might never re-open, it was finally purchased by the state of Illinois just over three years later. Plans are in the works to open the house again in the future as a state historic site. What will become of the ghosts, or at least the ghost stories, is unknown. As many readers know, legends and lore don’t often fare well at official state locations.
The Old Slave House
The site is currently closed and trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. It is heavily patrolled and readers are advised to stay away from the property until further notice.