Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Old Slave House

Years ago, my family visited a historic old place called The Old Slave House, which was a secret holding location for northern blacks who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. I wanted to take Lori to see the place. It's fascinating and horrible, and you can't help but imagine how awful and brutal it must have been for those kidnapped people.

It appears that the property was bought up by the State of Illinois in 1996 and has never reopened, which is too bad since it's an important piece of our history.


From Haunted Illinois:

Hickory Hill was built by a man named John Hart Crenshaw and became a blight on the history of Illinois. In those days, it was illegal to own slaves in Illinois but because no man would work the brutal salt mines of Saline County, it was allowed that slaves could be leased from other states to work. Crenshaw owned several salt tracts and quickly took advantage of the law.

He built Hickory Hill in 1842 and began a new scheme that would bring him even more money than the salt mines could. He devised a plan to kidnap free blacks and put them to work in the salt mines. He also sold these people back to slave owners in the south, creating a sort of reverse "underground railroad."

Once the house was completed, Crenshaw added a few finishing touches like a carriage door that opened directly into the house so that slaves could be taken up a secret passage directly to the attic. In was in the attic that the slaves were imprisoned during the night and some say, subjected to brutal torture. According to the stories, there was also an underground tunnel that led from the basement to the river, where slaves could be loaded at night.

Crenshaw devised another plan, this one to create slaves of his own. He selected a slave for his size and stamina and set him to breeding more slaves with the females that could bear children. This man, known simply as "Uncle Bob" was said to have fathered as many as 300 children. He lived until the age of 112 and died in 1948.The attic at Hickory Hill was a chamber of horrors. A dozen cells opened off a wide corridor. They were small rooms with bars on the windows and with iron rings where shackles could be bolted to the floor. The attic had only a small window at either end, so the air was stifling. A whipping post was also constantly in use and many of the valuable slaves were said to have died at the cruel hands of Crenshaw and his men.

In 1842, Crenshaw was brought to trial for selling a free family into slavery. The case could not be proven until after the trial and by then it was too late. The prosecutor would try again in 1846, the same year that one of Crenshaw's slaves attacked him with an ax, severing his leg. His slave trade days were over and his mill was burned to the ground. He died in 1871 and he and his wife were buried at Hickory Hill Cemetery.

Many years later, the house was opened as a tourist attraction and it was no secret that strange things were going on in the house. Tourist were reporting hearing strange noises coming from the attic. . .noises that sounded like cries and whimpers, and even rattling chains.The legends say that on one could ever spend the night in the attic of the house, especially after an event in the 1920's that got the attention of ghost researchers all over the country.

An "exorcist" from Benton, Illinois named Hickman Whittington wrote an article about the house in a local newspaper. He was in perfect health when he came to visit the old mansion but took ill later than same night and died just hours later.

As the years passed, no one dared to spend the night in the room. In the late 1960's, two soldiers who had seen action in Vietnam ran screaming from the house after being surrounded by ghostly shapes. A year or so later, the owner stopped letting people in the house after dark. A small fire had accidentally been started by a lantern.

In 1978, he finally relented and a reporter from Harrisburg named David Rodgers was allowed to spend the night. Despite hearing a lot of strange noises, he managed to beat out 150 previous challengers to become the first to brave the night in the former slave quarters.

Today, the Old Slave House has been closed down. Because of poor health, the owner, Mr. George Sisk, cannot continue the operation of the house. He tried to get the state of Illinois to step in and take over the location but negotiations are still at a stand still.

The house was closed down at the end of 1996, possibly never to reopen.A few years ago, I asked Mr. Sisk if he believes that the house is haunted. He told me that he never goes to the attic and if he does for some reason, he leaves as soon as possible. He has never encountered a ghost in the house. . .but his wife hasn't been so lucky. She refuses to set foot in the former slave quarters.

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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