Thursday, June 7, 2018

Ep. 261 - Old Slave House

Moment in Oddity - Cora and the Carved Tree Spirits

There are a group of islands in the state of Georgia known as the Golden Isles. These islands include Jekyll, Sea, Brunswick, Little St. Simons and St. Simons. I was passing through a few days ago and learned of the local legend of Cora on the island of St. Simons. She is a spellbinding beauty that is part human and part fish. Yes, a mermaid. She has rarely been seen by islanders, but those that have spotted her say that she is full of grace and has the deepest green eyes they have ever seen and light brown hair. Cora's purpose is to protect the eggs of the Loggerhead Turtles that are buried in nests along the St. Simons' beaches. Cora hums a song along the shoreline as the turtles hatch. This song guides the babies to the water. The mermaid teaches them to hunt and how to keep safe in the water. She then returns for the next batch of newborns. This all takes place on moonlit nights, which is why Cora is rarely seen. Her image is carved into one of the trees on the island, as are the images of 19 tree spirits. These carvings were created by sculptor Keith Jennings starting in 1982. Only seven of them are in public viewing areas, but the idea that the island of St. Simons commissioned the work in tribute to their local legends, certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Sally J. Priesand Becomes 1st Female American Rabbi

In the month of June, on the 3rd, in 1972, Sally J. Priesand became the first woman in America to be ordained as a rabbi. Rabbi Priesand was born in Cleveland in 1946, where she aspired as a teenager to become a rabbi. She attended the University of Cincinnati and received her Bachelor's Degree in 1968. After that, she won admittance to the rabbinic school at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Keep in mind through all this dreaming and all this schooling, that there was no such thing as a female rabbi in America. Rabbi Priesand was dogged by skepticism everywhere she went. No one believed that her dream would ever come true. But in 1972, she was ordained within the Reform movement. She quickly secured the position of assistant rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City. She left there in 1979 because they would not promote her to senior rabbi. Rabbi Priesand was rejected by several temples, but finally became a senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Elizabeth, N.J. Three years later she became rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J. and remained there until her retirement in 2006.

Old Slave House (Suggested by: Andrea Ward)

Whether one calls it the Crenshaw House, Hickory Hill or the Old Slave House, one thing is certain about this house that sits on a hill in Southern Illinois. The horrifying history of its past certainly lends itself to a negative energy that backs up the claim that this is one of the most haunted locations in Illinois. Not only were slaves brutalized here, but an operation known as the Reverse Underground Railroad did a good job of thwarting the work of the Underground Railroad. This may surprise some as Illinois was a free state, but that did not stop the actions of evil men. The hauntings that have been experienced at this place are negative and chilling. Join me as I share the history and hauntings of the Old Slave House.

I just spent a few days in Charleston, South Carolina. The slave trade in South Carolina was alive and well for more than a century and Charleston was a key place of trade in human slavery during the 1800s. Slave auctions were held downtown near the Old Exchange Building. Feeling the pain and suffering of these auctions is expected in places like this in the south. Hearing stories of painful events connected to slavery in the north is not as common and that is probably why the stories about the Old Slave House in Gallatin County in Illinois are surprising.

Gallatin County was organized in 1812 and was named for Albert Gallatin, who was the Secretary of the Treasury at that time. Equality is a village within that county and it became the county seat. One draw of the village was the nearby salt works. Native Americans called it the Great Salt Springs and used the salt until the French came and began extracting it in 1735. The tribes in the area retained control though, but finally ceded it to the US government in 1803. The government would lease out the extraction of the mines with the requirements that a certain amount of salt be produced. If this didn’t happen, the lessee would have to pay a penalty. Work in the salt mines was nasty and grueling. Most men would not do it, which led to the use of slave labor. Anti-slavery treaties were in place in Illinois, but an exception was made for the salt mines. As we know, money talks. There were 239 slaves on the 1820 census in Gallatin County. In 1838, many of these slaves would call the mansion John Crenshaw built home.

John Hart Crenshaw was born in November of 1797 on the border of the Carolinas. His family went all the way back to the founding of the country. They eventually moved west to Missouri until the big earthquake in 1811 destroyed their home. They decided to make the move to Illinois and started a farm on the east side of Eagle Mountain where there was a salt well. They called it Half Moon Lick. It was shortly after the move that John’s father died, leaving him as eldest son to care for his mother and six siblings. He ran the crude salt refinery at Half Moon Lick. Perhaps it was this part of his life that turned him into the cruel and evil man he would become. Crenshaw would become worse than just a slave owner. He would use his influence and money to kidnap free slaves, force them into breeding, slavery and send some back to the south. The slaves that he owned would be locked in chains, a sound that would rattle through the ages and can still be heard today by those that venture into the abandoned home branded with No Trespassing signs.

In 1829, the government decided to stop leasing their salt mines and offered the men who were producing the salt a chance to purchase their holdings. The individual operators were given the opportunity to purchase their holdings and Crenshaw did just that. He would eventually buy up several thousand acres of land and build a sawmill and three salt furnaces for processing. His fortune grew and one thing that gave him a lot of pull in the county was that he paid one-seventh of all of the taxes collected in the state. So his activity was basically ignored. As an example of his influence, Abraham Lincoln visited the house in September of 1840 when he was a state representative. He was attending debates in Equality and had been invited to a ball being held at the Crenshaw House. The second floor had a space that could easily be converted to a ballroom. Mr. Lincoln spent the night in the Southeast bedroom of the Crenshaw House. He more than likely slept on the floor because the Crenshaws did not have a big enough bed for him.

Now it may not be that people just turned a blind eye to Crenshaw’s kidnapping and illegal slave trade. Crenshaw was a man of the church and a successful businessman, so many would not have even suspected. Perhaps they knew he was working black people as slaves, but they did not know that the third floor of his home was a barred chamber of horrors. Nor that he was hiring out men to kidnap free blacks. But I seriously doubt it because he was charged with kidnapping in 1828. The case involved the kidnapping of an indentured servant named Frank Granger whom he sold into slavery in Kentucky. Following that, he kidnapped a free black woman named Lucinda and her two children. He took them to Kentucky as well and sold them. This was before he built Crenshaw House, but still.

Crenshaw House was begun in 1834 and finished in 1838. The mansion was built in the Classic Greek style and was three stories tall. The front porch featured large columns, cut from the hearts of individual pine trees. These columns framed the large verandahs. There were thirteen rooms on the first and second floors. Each one had a separate fireplace. Crenshaw furnished the house with lavish European artwork and furniture. He had the third floor reinforced with thicker walls and had over a dozen cells installed. They each had metal rings and chains and were about the size of a horse stall. And even more horrifying were the whipping posts installed at both ends of the hallway. Keep in mind that Crenshaw was married with five children and the family living quarters were on the first and second floor. There was little light or air up here either. And don’t let the small number of cells make you think he had few slaves. These were just mainly for the purpose of running what would be called the Reverse Underground Railroad. At one time, Crenshaw had around 700 slaves or indentured servants. Some of those servants were white people.

The Reverse Underground Railroad was exactly what it sounds like. Just the opposite of whisking black slaves to freedom. This was capturing free slaves and selling them off to southern states. Kidnappers physically abused and psychologically terrorized their captives. One of the goals of the beatings was to cause such fear so that a free black person would not try to claim their free status. Once kidnappers sold their victims into slavery, the free blacks chances of ever being believed were diminished and their chances of being free again were gone. Even when owners heard the truth about a slave that they had bought actually being a free man who had been kidnapped, he would ignore this so as not to lose his investment. And even if a kidnapper was brought up on charges, it was nearly impossible to prove that a slave had been free. And keep in mind that in many places, blacks could not testify against whites. Only a white person could confirm a black’s freedom and most feared repercussions or persecution for helping a black person and sending a fellow white person to jail.

Crenshaw had several hired men that he used to make sure none of his slaves escaped, but he also used them to help kidnap free black people. They would smuggle them across the Ohio River to Kentucky. They used a secret wagon entrance on the back of the house to bring in covered wagons carrying the kidnapped blacks. A set of stairs carried these people to the third floor. There they would be whipped, raped and tortured. Some even died from the treatment. When they couldn’t find enough free blacks to kidnap, Crenshaw started a breeding program using a black slave named Uncle Bob as a stud. You see, pregnant women sold for more at the auction. Legend claims that Uncle Bob sired 300 children.

Crenshaw was again charged with kidnapping in 1842 in the case of Maria, his cook, and her seven children. He was found not guilty. But things still started to go south for Crenshaw. People started talking and wondering about his methods. His sawmill mysteriously burned to the ground. And the market for salt changed and it became less profitable. His empire was going to crumble. Several civil court actions were brought against Crenshaw. His business holdings began to drop after salt deposits were discovered in both Virginia and Ohio. these deposits were more profitable than those in southern Illinois. And then there was the slave revolt. Why it took as long as it did, I don't know. Slave owners used to fear to keep their slaves in check and perhaps that is what kept the slaves, who clearly outnumbered the night riders, overseers and other men that Crenshaw employed, from revolting. But revolt they did and in the attack, Crenshaw was hit with an axe and lost one of his legs. It is believed that the revolt was fueled when Crenshaw beat one of the female slaves in the fields. After the attack, most of the slaves were sold off and the salt mine was closed up. Crenshaw sold the Old Slave House during the Civil War and moved to a farmhouse closer to Equality. He not only farmed there, but got into lumber, railroads and banks. He died on December 4, 1871 and was buried in Hickory Hill Cemetery.

In 1906, the Sisk Family bought the Old Slave House. When they entered the home, they saw the awful secret the Crenshaw family had been hiding. The cells and chains were still on the third floor. Soon word got out and people flocked to the home wanting to see the horrors within. By the 1920s, the Sisks had themselves a real tourist destination. People would catch a meal in town and hear from the waitress all about the house on the outskirts of town where actual slavery in Illinois had taken place and that the Reverse Underground Railroad had a home at this place. The Sisks would accommodate all these visitors and give them a tour. Eventually, they figured out that they could make some money with this endeavor and by 1930, they were charging admission. they started advertising that for just a dime, or a nickel if you were a child, you could tour the place where "Slavery Existed in Illinois."

Eventually, George Sisk passed away and his son inherited the property. He continued to run the museum, but in 1996, George Sisk, Jr. retired and closed the museum. In December of 2000, the Sisk family sold the house to the state of Illinois for $500,000. In 2004, the National Park Service named the Crenshaw Mansion as part of the Underground Railroad National Network to Freedom program. It has been estimated that renovations would cost $7 million to get the museum opened up again and the state does not have the funds. So the house sits basically abandoned. But the house is not quiet. This property has enough negative energy absorbed into it to feed the spirits of many angry and mourning spirits. There are said to be a number of ghosts on this property.

The disembodied sounds of moaning and cries of pain have been heard here dating all the way back to when the Crenshaws still lived in the house. When the house was open, as many as 150 people tried their hands at an overnight stay on the third floor. These people were trying to debunk the locallegend that no one could spend the entire night in that space. An exorcist named Hickman Whittington visited the house and planned to put the ghosts of the house to rest. His plan didn't work and a legend claims he died after spending the night in the attic. I could find no proof of this. Two Vietnam veterans, challenged to stay overnight in the attic, ran out of the house screaming in fright. They said they fled because they were surrounded by ghostly shapes and non-human figures. These reports caught the attention of famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. They visited the house and in a 1978 tabloid, described their visit to the house as “the most demoniacal place” they had ever visited.

Only one person was able to last the entire evening and that person was David Rodgers, a reporter from a local TV station (WSIL-TV). He did this in 1978 and reported that the attic area was full of strange noises. These noises resembled cries, whimpers and even the rattling of chains. This lined up with reports tourists had been making for years. Rodgers also captures several EVP and claimed that he felt queasy the entire evening. He did not experience some of the more scary elements of hauntings that others have like being brushed by unseen figures or feeling the icy touch of an unseen hand.

The slave quarters seem to emit negative feelings that are felt even by people who are not sensitive to such things. These are feelings of intense fear, sadness and of being watched. Joy Neighbor's reports on her blog A Grave Interest, "I have a friend who went there several times in the 70's. She also mentioned the feelings of fear and despair that seemed to fill the attic. She said on one trip, someone/thing touched her arm and hair - and she was "outta there!"

Another story comes from someone going by the initials TM, "I visited the house in the early 90's not realizing what it was, we had small children and needed a place to pull over and let the kids stretch. When we pulled up to the place we were the only vehicle in the parking lot. I had a brand new video camera and wanted to try it out so I immediately began filming, as I panned upwards and noticed a woman in a black woman in a white dress and bonnet staring out of the 3rd story window, then she rotated 90 degrees in a floating motion and drifted back toward the center of the house. We then walked up to the front door and met with a man and woman who greeted us and informed us there would be a tour starting again in 30 minutes, I asked if we could join the tour that was going on right now? She said the only two people in the house were her and her husband. I said, "How did you get down from the 3rd floor so quickly then? I told her I filmed her as I was walking up the stairs. She looked at me and said, " I don't go up there any more", long story short, I prodded her into telling me why, She said she encountered a little slave girl up there and it was between her and the stairway, thus trapping her until it left. I am glad I filmed the place, it was incredible and had a lot of old guns , knives and history which was explained on the film and to the rest of the tour. There were creepy stories such as the owner of the home in the 1800s was so mean that his little kid was screaming out side and the old man lost his temper and grabbed the kid by the feet and bashed his brains out on the oak tree out front.. Just for crying too loud. I never believed in ghosts before we happened by this place, but believe me, it will make a believer out of you. On the video I still have here you can here my little boy stating every few minutes,, "Dad can we get out of here?" .. The place really gets to you, and after the house tour we went out back and checked out the tool shed which had wares of the era, along with a human skull of one of the slaves. I showed this film to several people and none of them could explain the floating lady at the beginning of it. If it ever opens back up check it out, I know it's still in tact because we were with the kids competing in high school rodeo a couple of years ago, and the kid camped next to our rig currently lives close to there and he mows the property for the guy who takes care of the place, he said even the old cave is still there that leads to the river."

Today, "Do Not Trespass" signs are plastered around the property and on the house. A caretaker lives in the home to keep trespassers out, but otherwise the house just sits. It seems a shame that such an educational piece of property would sit unused. The lessons that could be learned and the truth about a vile part of Illinois history would be out there for all to see. Most people probably are not aware that a reverse Underground Railroad even existed. The Old Slave House is a key part of that history. And the disturbing energy left behind may find comfort in the empathy of visitors. Perhaps if there are unquiet spirits here, they would feel as though they could leave because their story has been told. Are there spirits still hanging out at the Crenshaw House? Is the Old Slave House haunted? That is for you to decide!


  1. I visited this place with my father, who grew up in the area, during the early 90s. To this day, I still recall the chills and anxiety I felt walking up to that third floor. It’s a truly terrifying place.

  2. Hello. I'm the cousin of George Sisk Jr. My blood line, aunt, Janice Stiff-Sisk. When I was young, I've spend many nights and days at the Crenshaw House, when it was a museum. I even had my birthday there.
    I do believe that this story is very true. Yes, I"ve had scary times there, too. I could here noises in the night and somes my aunt would always would say that those are the sounds of the house,..."settling down for the night."
    The reason I am writing now is because, I believe that there are many true stories to be known. Before I rest, I ask you,...."Where is my family, now?' (George Sr., Janice Stiff-Sisk and George Jr. Sisk?")
    Uncle Bob, really didn't have a choice.