One of my favorite haunted spots in Illinois is a place called Hickory Hill, or THE OLD SLAVE HOUSE, in Southern Illinois. It is located near
Equality and Junction, just a few miles away from Harrisburg, Illinois.
Although the house closed to the public in 1996, and has been endangered for
several years, it was later purchased by the state of Illinois with plans to
turn it into a historic site. As of Spring 2006, it had not
re-opened but we'll keep readers updated here when (or if) that time
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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 Sisks 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
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.
Regardless, if you should
get the chance, mark Hickory Hill as a historical and haunted place
to visit. If you climb those stairs to the attic, you will feel your
stomach drop just a little and you might even be overwhelmed by
Is it your imagination or
does the tragedy of the house still make itself felt here? I can't
say for sure, but I can guarantee that you will find yourself
speaking softly in the gloomy, third floor corridor as your voice
lowers in deference to the nameless people who once suffered here.
The Old Slave House is located near the junction of Highway 45 and Highway 13 in
Southern Illinois. It is 14 miles east of Harrisburg.
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