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Hickory Hill Mansion –
The Old Slave House Museum
Highway 13 Junction
Harrisburg, Illinois 62954
Built in 1834-38, on top of high Hickory Hill, on highway 13, about 14 miles east of Harrisburg, near the town of Equality, Illinois, Hickory Hill Mansion overlooks the Saline River.
Harrisburg is located at the southernmost tip of Illinois.
Hickory Hill Mansion was not only designed to be the dream home of John Crenshaw, his wife, Sinia Taylor and their five children, it was also built with an evil purpose in mind; to house an illegal slave trade and establish a breeding program. The outside of the mansion was designed in a "pseudo-Greek revival style," having both upper and lower verandahs, all which was supported by massive columns, spreading the width of the mansion. The first two floors had six rooms each, where the Crenshaw family enjoyed a life of privilege, and looked on as model citizens of their community. The attic, just above the family's living quarters had thickened walls, and consisted of 12 tiny rooms, not much bigger than horse stalls, and a hallway with two whipping posts.
John Hart Crenshaw got his start in running a salt refinery, started by his father, who died when John was in his teens. By 1834 he had made a small fortune. Because he now had money to invest, John was able to lease several salt springs from the government and also applied to be authorized to lease slaves from their owners, as it was an old, established, legal practice in Illinois. Back In 1817, because it was getting harder and harder to hire laborers, Illinois, a slave-free state, had given employers permission to lease slaves from their owners in slave territory, and bring them to Illinois to work in businesses suffering from labor shortages, such as salt mining.
But why spend money leasing slaves, when you could kidnap freed blacks in Illinois/elsewhere? Why not "breed" your own slaves and sell them on the southern market? With these evil ideas in mind, John had a carriageway built that entered directly into his new mansion. By 1838, when the house was finished, Carriages full of slaves/kidnap victims could be driven right into the mansion, and secretly hustled up the back stairway to the infamous attic; a place of imprisonment, suffering, rape, birth and death. It is said that at least 300 babies were produced from the efforts of one sire slave alone! Pregnant slaves, or a slave woman with a child brought a high price in the slave states. Crenshaw found the Saline River to be a very convenient way to transport his cargo to and from the slave states interested in his business. Slaves were shackled to the floor of their stall-like rooms. Ventilation was poor, and there was little light. They had to endure indignities, torture, bad treatment and a doomed existence.
In 1842, John was arrested, and accused of selling into slavery a family of freed blacks, who owed him services. Because of his financial and political standing in the community, he was found not guilty. His mill was burned, though, as public sentiment turned against him. No one found out what had gone on in the attic until after John and his wife died, in (1871 & 1881). John Crenshaw was considered the most evil man who ever lived in Illinois. What he did to make money was the largest scandal in Illinois' history.
In 1996, the Sisks closed the museum because they could no longer keep the mansion museum open. Thus began the long battle to get the state interested in buying the property as a part of Illinois history, though the place has an infamous history. Although the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency finally acquired the house in December 2000, the site remained closed to the public, due to lack of state funding to hire staff. On June 9, 2003, between 40 and 50 residents from more than seven counties met at Southeastern Illinois College and adopted a Plan of Action that could reopen the site.
Keep your fingers crossed. As of Friday, May 28, 2004, the Illinois General Assembly is still in session, and they're hoping to pass next year's budget soon. A local auxiliary deputy sheriff is willing to put up with spirits in the house and protects the mansion by living in the first floor living quarters and keeps the public off the grounds. Hopefully, money from the state will be hashed out in a plan, and the Old
Slave House will be finally reopened to the public.
To keep up on the latest news, visit Status Alert.
Because of the great suffering and cruelty that went on in the attic, there are many angry, tormented entities hanging out in the attic, making it one of the "scariest spots in the country." They are not too fond of the living, and keep a guarded eye on the people down on the first two floors, as well as do their best to sometimes chase the living out of the attic.
1) During the day, tourists have felt a growing chill as they climb the steps to the attic. Some have heard shuffling feet, whimpering cries, and are filled with an uneasy feeling.
2) Over the years, out of at least 150 people trying to spend the night in the attic, only one, a reporter by the name of David, successfully spent the entire, rather long night in the attic, in 1978. Perhaps, because he only heard a lot of strange noises, and wasn't treated to the full treatment usually given to the living, who dare to trespass at night in the attic.
3) Others were not treated so leniently by the presences there. In the 1920s, an exorcist by the name of Hickman Whittington went up to the attic to try to rid it of its entities. Only after a short time, he ran from the mansion and died of fright a few hours later, perhaps having experienced what the marines did, described in #4 below.
4) In 1966, two veteran marines decided to try to spend the night in the infamous attic. The full treatment started at 1 o'clock in the morning, when their kerosene lamp started to flicker. Suddenly, a terrible moan reverberated and shook the attic's walls. A "cacophony of human voices," speaking "unintelligible words" assaulted their ears, while ghostly figures swirled and danced around them. Their only source of light, the kerosene lamp, then blew out. Blood-curdling screams rang out all around them, and they were filled with anxiety and panic, which inspired them to fly down the steep stairs and make a quick exit.
5) The Sisks, whose family had owned the mansion for 80 years, were the owners of the mansion and lived there while operating a museum there as well. They stayed on the first and second floor, and never went up to the attic, as they respected the entities there. They were interviewed by psychic investigators, Richard Winer and Nancy Osborne, for their book, "Haunted Heartland." Mrs. Sisk spoke of an icy chill that can hang in the rooms of the mansion, even on hot days, and how she had to stop taking baths, because a mischievous unseen presence would inevitably call out her first name in the hallway, to draw her out of the bathroom. No one was ever there. Both she and her husband felt like they were being constantly watched by unseen presences, but they had learned to live with their entities, and the entities tolerated their presence.
The spirits have gotten used to having the mansion to themselves. I hope they are tolerant of the policeman guarding the mansion.
To see more pictures of The Old Slave House, visit the Virtual
All Photos courtesy IllinoisHistory.com