Hickory Hill (The Old Slave House)

An image of Hickory House with text that reads "Hickory House."

Equality, Illinois

BUILT: 1830s
STATUS: Still standing


John Hart Crenshaw was an entrepreneur in the salt mining industry during the early 1800s in southern Illinois. Due to the dangers of mining the mineral, he struggled to find labor for his mines. Slavery was illegal in Illinois, but one small loophole in the law made it possible to “lease” slaves; Crenshaw did just this. However, he started kidnapping freedmen and women and runaway slaves, either putting them to work in his salt mines or up for sale.

In 1817, John Hart Crenshaw married Sinia Taylor, and started building her a better home in the 1830s. He names the three-story mansion Hickory Hill. Unbeknownst the outside world, however, was a secret passageway that allowed for wagons to bring slaves directly into the house, as well as a tunnel that connected the basement to the Saline River to unload slaves brought by boat.

The third floor held the slaves, where they would live shackled inside of dingy prison cell-like chambers that were smaller than the average closet. On this floor was a whipping post that Crenshaw had a sadistic delight in using. Becoming unsatisfied with just the kidnapping, Crenshaw devised a “breeding program” for his slaves; one such slave named “Uncle Bob” was believed to have fathered about 300 children.

None of Crenshaw’s evil deeds were uncovered until 1842 when he was arrested for kidnapping a free woman and her children. Unfortunately, the prosecuting attorney was unable to convict him of the allegations, and he went free. However, the trial was not completely in vain – rumors began to circulate around Crenshaw, leading a group of African American men to burn down one of his steam mills in March of the same year.

Four years later in 1846, the salt mining industry took a decline as the demand for salt decreased. A short while later, one of Crenshaw’s employees attacks him, managing to cut off the entrepreneur’s leg. He shut down most of his mines thereafter.

John Hart Crenshaw died in 1871, taking his horrible secrets to the grave and never seeing justice. In 1913, the Sisk family purchased the home and started giving tours in the 1920s. The spirits of the tortured slaves lingered on the notorious third floor; paranormal activity included disembodied moans, cries, and whispers, the sensation of being touched by icy hands, someone brushing past the visitors, the feeling of being watched, chills, and intense feelings of sadness and fear.

During the 1920s, Hickory Hill gained a reputation: no one could stay the night on the third floor. Hickman Whittington, a ghost hunter and spiritualist during the 20s, visited the house and attempted to exorcise it. He fled only a few hours later and died only a short while after.

In 1966, two United States Marines attempted to brave the night, but they too fled, having heard moan and screams, and viewing indistinguishable shapes. It wasn’t until 1978 did someone actually last on the third floor. TV reporter David Rogers managed to do it for a Halloween stunt. While he had succeeded in staying, he described the experience as “extremely unsettling”. He had heard several peculiar noises, some of which he had recorded on his tape.

The Sisk family gave up the home in 1996. While the house was in their possession, Mrs. Sisk had refused to stay alone in the house. Hickory Hill closed immediately after the family left, and it is currently owned by the State of Illinois. The house is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


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