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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two-and-a‑half‑story square wood frame house, striking for an oversize window in the attic gable. Each of the lower stories is ahded by a portico of six wooden columns extending the full width of the house. It is the Old Slave House in Equality, Illinois.]

Chicago Daily News

John Crenshaw Residence, Equality, Built 1834.

 p29  The Old Slave House

Some natives of the surrounding countryside say the house is haunted. They will tell you that at certain times you can hear strange moanings and wailings from the dark attic. At other times, they say, you can make out what sounds like sad Negro spirituals.

But whether or not all this is true, the big, rangy old mansion on the grassy hilltop overlooking the Saline River Valley near Shawneetown, is of distinct historic interest, not only because of its great age and the prominence of the man who lived in it, but also because of its architecture and the events that occurred in its vicinity.

It is probably one of the best-known landmarks in the southeastern part of the state. Standing in lonely isolation, its columned verandas outlined against the sky, this dwelling is now generally known down in the Ohio River country as the "Old Slave House."

In the more than one hundred years of its existence, legends and superstitions have grown up about it like climbing vines and these tales have attracted — and continue to attract — hundreds of visitors each year. It is easily accessible to motorists, being located near the intersection of State Highways 1 and 13.

From the official guidebook of the state, we learn that the sinister legends arose from the house's association with the Ohio River slave traffic. "Under the eaves on the third floor," says the guidebook, "are tiny cells, each less than the height of a man, equipped with two narrow wooden bunks. Chain anchors are embedded in the floors of these cells, and the door frames appear to have been cross-hatched with bars. A strange contraption of timbers on this floor, according to the present residents, was a torture instrument."

It was in 1834 that work was begun on this big hilltop mansion. The man who had it built, and who afterward made it well known, was John Hart Crenshaw, whose family had settled in Gallatin County in 1811.

Upon reaching maturity, John Crenshaw entered the salt-making industry — the principal industry of Gallatin County and one that made the county famous throughout the Midwest in pioneer days. Here were located natural salt wells and here, on both banks of the Saline River, were built salt furnaces for reducing the briny water of the wells into crystals.

John Crenshaw had prospered in this business and by 1834 he was ready to build a large home for himself; one that would be suitable to his station as a leading citizen. In addition to his wife, he had five children.  p30 As a site for his new home, he chose the top of a high hill near the little pioneer town of Equality, once the seat of Gallatin County. He named his place Hickory Hill. The builder of the Crenshaw mansion was William Cavin, widely known contractor and architect in early days.

The house, it is said, required some ten years to build. Architecturally, it is, as one authority puts it, an "ungainly adaptation of the Greek Parthenon." This places it in the Greek Revival era of American architecture. Twelve great columns, hewn from pine trees, support first and second story verandas stretching clear across the façade of the dwelling. The third floor, containing the sinister and much-storied cells, forms a pediment of imposing, though hardly Grecian, proportion and design. Without trees or landscaping around it, the house looks bare and stark as it stands there on the summit of Hickory Hill.

In a detailed article on the Old Slave House, written by Barbara Burr Hubbs for the Illinois Journal of Commerce, the dark little cubicles in the attic are described as having been used "to house the slaves worked the salt wells and kettles. Yes, even in the free State of Illinois." She goes on to explain: "Employers unable to secure laborers were allowed  p31 to lease slaves from their owners in slave territory. This arrangement obtained especially at the salines."

We learn further that John Crenshaw "leased numbers of Negroes in Kentucky and brought them to Equality to work at his salt wells and furnaces." After working hours, these Negroes had to be closely guarded, it was said, because if any of them escaped the lessee would be required to pay the owner the full price of the slave. The "torture equipment" referred to in the state guidebook was a whipping post in which malingerers among the slaves were given bodily punishment. It is still on exhibit in the attic, as are the stuffy, dark cubicles.

There were two whipping posts. Mrs. Hubbs tells us that they were "built of heavy timber pegged together. A man of average height could be strung up by his wrists, and his toes would barely touch the lower cross-piece. What wonder that the superstitious say that mysterious voices can be heard in that attic, sometimes moaning, sometimes singing the spirituals that comfort heavy hearts."

After explaining how free Negroes in Illinois were often kidnapped, their certificates of freedom stolen from them, and how they were then sold back into slavery across the Ohio River in Kentucky, and after referring to "dark tales" told of the Crenshaw attic, Mrs. Hubbs goes on: "Whatever their truth, we have the record of one occasion when suspicion was strong. Leading citizen John Crenshaw was indicted for kidnapping by a Gallatin County grand jury. . . . The case was tried at the spring term of court, 1842. Mr. Crenshaw was acquitted."

At that time feeling was beginning to run high between pro- and antislavery factions. Soon after Crenshaw was acquitted his salt works on the Saline River were burned to the ground. There were rumors that Negroes set the works on fire in revenge for their abducted friends. But many people insisted that the fire was accidental. The salt works were rebuilt and John Crenshaw continued as Salt King of Gallatin County.

Another story told of the Crenshaw house is that its rear wall originally contained huge double doors that provided an opening large enough to admit a carriage or small wagon. A driveway led up to this entrance. The legend is that frequently, during the night, a wagon would drive into the rear part of the house, and, after the doors were carefully closed, the occupants of the wagon — slaves — were hurried up a small stairway to the third-floor attic. These doors have long since disappeared and this part of the house has been remodeled into a large, comfortable dining room.

John Crenshaw died in 1871 and his widow died ten years later. A faded monument in Hickory Hill Cemetery marks their graves.

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Page updated: 4 Dec 07