Daily Egyptian

There are places throughout Southern Illinois with dark histories, unspoken pasts and skeletons in the closets. At the top of Hickory Hill near Equality stands an old house that not only has skeletons in its closet, but ghosts as well.

By Gus Bode

The Crenshaw House, known as the Old Slave House, serves as a reminder of a time in Illinois’ history that many people would rather forget.

The historic house was the location of a slave jail, a place where free blacks were allegedly kept and sold into slavery. John Crenshaw built the house in 1838 where, according to legend, he kept slaves who were subjected to brutal torture and even death.

The house tells a tale of kidnapping, forced slavery and lost souls who, some say, still remain to this day.

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Stories of ghosts who haunt the slave quarters on the third floor of the mansion caught the attention of ghost hunter Troy Taylor.

The owner of the house, George Sisk, said he does not speak about the haunting because of his Christian beliefs, but he allowed Taylor to conduct an investigation on his own.

Taylor, president of the American Ghost Society, said he has heard rumors that many slaves died at the hands of Crenshaw and his men. He also believes these same slaves now haunt the third floor of the mansion.

Taylor said people reported strange noises coming from the attic when the Old Slave House opened to tourists in 1926.

Sounds of cries and whimpering, and even rattling chains were heard by visitors to the house.

During the 1920s, self-described exorcist Hickman Whittington from Benton visited the Old Slave House where he allegedly witnessed ghosts of the dead slaves.

Although in perfect health before his visit, Whittington later became ill and died the same night, according to the American Ghost Society webpage.

In the late 1960s, two Vietnam veterans ran out of the house screaming in fright. They reported being surrounded by ghostly shapes and non-human figures.

Taylor said these initial stories led him to investigate the house, where he ran into unexplained events of his own.

On one occasion I was sure I heard the sound of whispering even though I was alone at the time,” Taylor said.

Taylor said he sensed cold areas in the attic on the warmest days of summer.

Sensing changes in temperature is common when investigating the supernatural, according to Taylor. It is an indication of an unnatural presence nearby.

Although the word of a ghost hunter may not sway people’s beliefs, others have encountered strange occurrences in the house.

Gary DeNeal, editor of Springhouse magazine, said he experienced odd incidents in the house while researching it for historic articles.

A couple of times during the hot summer months, I would feel a sudden coldness, DeNeal said. It was a definite change in temperature.

DeNeal said while he was on the third floor, he had a strange feeling he could not identify.

I don’t know if it was just a wild imagination, but for a while I had a feeling that I can’t describe, DeNeal said. It’s an eerie place.

DeNeal also experienced unusual sounds while in the house, but he believes the combination of wind and the house’s location on a high hill is responsible for the strange noises.

It’s a very mournful sound, DeNeal said.

Taylor included the Old Slave House in his book, Ghosts of Little Egypt. He said it is one of his favorite haunted places because it combines history with haunting.

Although the Old Slave House has a history of ghost stories, its hidden past can be more intriguing than tales of the supernatural.

Ron Nelson, a Southern Illinois historian, said Crenshaw was known for breeding, kidnapping and selling free blacks into slavery.

Although Illinois was registered as a free state, the law allowed leasing slaves to work in the salt mines of Equality.

Crenshaw owned several salt works in the area and took advantage of the law by leasing a large number of blacks from other states.

Slaves, or indentured servants, were forced to sign a contract leasing their bodies for $1 in exchange for 99 years of work. Nelson said that Crenshaw had more indentured servants than anyone else in the state.

One story associated with Crenshaw’s servants includes a man called Uncle Bob who was used as a stud-slave. Uncle Bob is said to have fathered more than 300 children for Crenshaw to sell into slavery.

Crenshaw soon expanded his plans and began kidnapping free blacks to sell back into slavery.

The Old Slave House served as a jail where slaves were held against their will. A carriage door, located at the back of the house, opened directly into the house and was used to usher slaves into the third floor for caging.

Slaves could be transferred into the house from a carriage without being seen.

Nelson said the third floor of the house evokes images of a zoo. The third floor is a long hallway 12 feet wide and 50 feet long. Twelve small doors on both sides of the hallway lead into tiny rooms where the slaves were kept.

A whipping post still remains, along with a ball-and-chain, a testimony to the pain that was suffered more than a century ago.

Indictments were brought against Crenshaw at least twice, according to Nelson. He was never convicted because kidnapping charges were hard to prove at the time the main reason being that blacks were not allowed to testify against whites.

In 1946, one of Crenshaw’s slaves attacked him with an ax, severing his leg and putting an end to his slave-selling years.

Nelson said there are some historians who do not believe the mansion once was a home to slavery. The State Historic Preservation Society denies that slavery ever existed in the Old Slave House.

Nelson admits that although he cannot prove 100 percent that Crenshaw kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery, the evidence is overwhelming.

It’s a black spot on Illinois history and many people don’t want this to be made public, Nelson said.

Nelson spent two years researching the Old Slave House for Sisk, the owner, after it closed in October of 1996.

Sisk closed the house because of personal health reasons. The state of Illinois requested to buy the Old Slave House in July, although Sisk still is undecided about the offer.

The house remains a mix of fact and fiction, secrets and rumors, and truths hidden in lies. Whether or not the stories can be proven in the future remains unknown.

Until then, the wind continues to moan through the third floor of the Old Slave House as historians debate the legitimacy of the tales.

And if not ghosts, at least the memory of what happened at the Old Slave House more than 150 years ago will continue to haunt the people of Southern Illinois.

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