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Crenshaw House

Crenshaw House

The Crenshaw House (also known as the Crenshaw Mansion, Hickory Hill or, most commonly, The Old Slave House) is a historic former residence and alleged haunted house located in Gallatin County, Illinois. It was the main residence of John Crenshaw, one of the only slaveholders in Illinois history.

Early history

Landowner and slave trader John Crenshaw leased the state-owned salt works at the " Gallatin Salines" The Gallatin Salines were two saline springs along the Saline River near Equality that were important sources of salt since prehistory. Salt was vital to the early American frontier economy, both as a nutrient and as a means to preserve food. Illinois was a free state, and the Illinois State Constitution bans slavery. However, the law permitted the use of slaves at the salt works since the labor was so arduous that no free men could be found to do it. As the lessee of the salt works, Crenshaw was therefore the only Illinois resident legally entitled to keep slaves, and Crenshaw became remarkably wealthy. At one point, Crenshaw's taxes amounted to one-seventh of the revenue of the entire state. Crenshaw owned thousands of acres of land, in addition to the 30,000 acres (120 km²) he leased from the state, and more than 700 slaves. In 1838, Crenshaw and his brother Abraham used this wealth to built the mansion on Hickory Hill, a few miles from the salt works near the town of Junction.

Kidnapping and the "Reverse Underground Railroad"

Crenshaw was notorious for kidnapping free blacks in Illinois and selling them into slavery in nearby slave states, as part of what has been called the "Reverse Underground Railroad". Crenshaw was indicted for kidnapping in the 1820s and again in 1842, but never convicted. The house on Hickory Hill had a carriage door in back, an extremely unusual feature at the time, so that kidnapped blacks could be brought in and out of the house without being observed. The third floor attic held a secret prison for his victims, who were kept in small cells with ringbolts mounted in the floor for their chains. In 1848, Crenshaw lost a leg when his slaves attacked him, allegedly because of a particularly brutal beating Crenshaw was dispensing to several female slaves at the time.

Strange events and later years

In 1850, Crenshaw and his family moved to the nearby town of Equality, and hired a German family to live in the house and operate the farm. By 1851, there were reports of strange sounds coming from the third floor. The house soon developed a reputation as haunted, perhaps based on stories of the suffering endured by Crenshaw's slaves in the attic. Crenshaw sold the house in 1864. By 1913, the house was owned by the Sisk family. By 1926, tourists began visiting to see the slave prison on the third floor, and the Sisk family began charging admission in 1930. As many as 150 curious tourists, ghost hunters, and self-described exorcists have attempted to spend the night in the attic, but fled. One man allegedly died after spending the night in the attic. Finally, in 1978, David Rodgers, a reporter from a local TV station (WSIL-TV) stayed an entire night in the attic, despite "strange noises."

In 2003, the Sisk family sold the house to the state of Illinois. It is currently closed to the public as the state determines its ultimate fate. One proposal is to preserve the house as part of a new state park.


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