Old Slave House

Amy Musser


The Reverse Underground Railroad is a little known piece of Illinois history. Southern Illinois had a dark side during the antebellum period in which the Underground Railroad ran both north and south. Although neither the northbound nor the southbound had any legal claim to their actions, the southbound Underground Railroad ran purely for criminal profit not to lead slaves to freedom.  There is evidence that these criminals used the secret signs and signals of the Underground Railroad to attract slaves into the holding cells. Another aspect of the reverse Underground Railroad is the kidnapping of free blacks, which is largely unknown because the victims could not do anything to protect themselves or take legal action making the kidnapping legal.[1]In addition, slave catchers and bloodhounds were used to track down runaway slaves without the authorities ever being notified.[2]

Near Equality, Illinois the last known Underground Railroad station in the country still stands. Though known as The Old Slave House, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as The Crenshaw House (in 1985) before this it was known by the family as Hickory Hill[3]. It served as a stop for the kidnapping networks in the Reverse Underground railroad.  In September 2004, the National Park Service recognized the Old Slave House by naming it as a member of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program[4]. This listing may be a misclassification because it was not part of the actual network to freedom but just the opposite.

The Old Slave house is the only standing example of architecture in the area, being designed from the beginning to have secrets. There are no architectural records to show that there were other houses built explicitly for this reason in the Southern Illinois area.  The Old Slave House was built by salt maker John Hart Crenshaw between 1838 and 1842.[5] This unique family home had horror stories about the third floor since the beginning of the 20th century. The home is thought to be haunted; the third floor of the home has 12 rooms or cells running along the 50-foot long hall under the eves of the roof. In the 1930�s there were accounts of iron rings, or staples, set in the floor for chains. These chains, rings, and staples were removed before WWI probably for scrap metal.[6] Stories about the house seem to indict Crenshaw of kidnapping and link his home to other kidnapping rings in Illinois at the time. The Old Slave House was not only a part of the reverse Underground Railroad, but also a home for the Crenshaw family up until the Civil War.  Crenshaw was a wealthy man who owned salt works and controlled much of the land in the area. His influence was over not only the salt works but over everything surrounding them as well.

The earliest known official accounts of the Old Slave House were published in 1921. This record describes the house as �... a large two- story frame house conspicuous for its many large windows� The attic is said to have been reached by a narrow stairway. Along each side of the attic hall just under the sloping part of the roof there are bunks arranged... just as the beds are situated in a Pullman car.[7] These stories were also collaborated by the Joseph Edward Dempsey family who lived in the house from 1893 to the mid 1920�s. Later descendants verified that chains had been present on the third floor.[8]

The Crenshaw family kept great secrecy around the happenings in the Old Slave House. Crenshaw was �said to give elaborate parties on the lower floors with the profits he gained from the terrified slaves he kept imprisoned in the upper part of the building.�[9] A newspaper clipping from the 1930�s states that Crenshaw used his home and plantation as a decoy, only operating the house as an Underground Railroad station to �capture the poor unfortunate runaways and resell back to slavery.�[10]  

Crenshaw�s infamous involvement with �slave napping� began with the kidnapping of Maria Adams and her children. She had been an indentured servant but was kidnapped along with her children in late 1841 or early 1842.They were sold to a father and son team of slave traders( Lewis and John G. Kuykendall,) who took them to Texas where they could be sold into slavery.[11] Crenshaw was indicted by the Gallatin County Grand Jury, but the petit jury acquitted him because the states attorney could not prove that Crenshaw or Kuykendall ever moved the family out of state. In addition, Kuykendall never appeared in court and the prosecutor did not have any witnesses to testify against Crenshaw.[12] There is also evidence in Crenshaw�s favor, in that Maria and her children may have owed indentured servitude to Crenshaw, but the evidence is mostly against him such as accounts from writers of the time.

 In 1842, Samuel D. Marshall wrote an account of the kidnapping in his book Negrophobia, �The Negros were stopped and kept in confinement for several days before being taken away. When Kuykendall comes for them, it is late at night. The Negros with their aged Mother, were handcuffed, or tied and put in the wagon�. The laws have been violated, humanity has been outraged, and all through the act of John Crenshaw.�[13] Records also exist in Gallatin County for a transaction between Kuykendall and John Crenshaw for $2000, which would have been about the right price for 7-8 children at $200 apiece and Maria at $400-$600. Although Crenshaw was probably involved in this kidnapping episode, there is no conclusive proof of wrongdoing.[14] About two years after the probable Adams� kidnapping according to a turn of the century account from an interview with the victim, �� a group of men kidnapped 10-year-old Peter White of Equality and three other younger children, and sold them into slavery in Arkansas�� The children were supposedly saved by Walter White.[15] 

In 1934, the house was owned by the Sisk family who furthered the White-kidnapping story as it related to the Crenshaw family by installing the first set of interpretive signs in the Old Slave House. One sign in particular, that pointed out Crenshaw as Whites kidnapper, and that Peter White and three other children had been held in the third floor attic area of the house.[16] George Smith, Historian and professor from SIUC interviewed White in 1903, and told the kidnapping story in an article on the salt works, in a textbook on Illinois history, as well as in a large multiple volumes set on the history of Southern Illinois. According to Smith the kidnappings happened in 1844, he gives details about his age but never gives a specific name to the kidnappers.[17] George Smith seems to have purposely left the Crenshaw family out of the local history concerning the salt mines, or any other topic that listed the Crenshaw�s as more than an important family. He also did not include easily obtainable published information, which included the Crenshaw�s as industry leaders in the salt works. Smith interviewed many older residence of the area and looked over records, including letters that claimed Crenshaw had been the kidnapper.[18] There were never any indictments in the Peter White kidnapping. This could be because Crenshaw�s brother in law, J. Houston and his business partner Edgar Bogardis, were part of the grand jurors in 1844.[19] There doesn�t seem to be any evidence for this to be the case against Crenshaw in 1842, at least which can be traced back to him through name.[20] After Crenshaw was acquitted once again in, the Adams case he continued with the salt works even though he was forced to give up the lease to the state owned salt works in 1846 after not paying taxes for seven years.  By 1847, he owed $15000 on his bank mortgage.[21] Despite this, he continued to work with the salt works until 1849 when business became unprofitable.  The closing of the salt works, according to a Union general �� had let loose a large number of rough operatives, white and black. Gambling, drinking, horse racing, and gun fighting prevailed, the slavery question came to the front as it had done once before, and kidnapping became common along the border of the slave states��[22] This just adds to the evidence against Mr. Crenshaw and the Old Slave House. Crenshaw was most likely in some way connected with multiple kidnappings from 1820 to the 1840�s.The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Civil War probably made it more risky for free blacks to not end up kidnapped and sold into slavery of some sort.  In 1859 the Illinois State Journal in Springfield  wrote that Southern Illinois is full of ��ruffians, who do nothing else but lie in wait for free Negros, and who, when they catch one, make sale of him and pocket the money..�. [23]  

Crenshaw was able to keep himself out of the history books for years due to his use of alias, John Granger, or just mispronunciations of Crenshaw. Often during the time official records such as deeds used correct spelling but written records such as census used whatever they thought they heard. The two names were only linked because of a document written by Crenshaw�s lawyer Henry Eddy that started with the name John Granger. It was crossed out and made to say Crenshaw.[24] Early on in the initial research of the Old Slave House in the mid 1990�s researchers were given a tip in Methodist church records that �John Crenshaw, as well known by the sobriquet of Granger�[25]

Once the identities of Crenshaw and Granger were known to be the same an individual, two more kidnapping cases became known involving Mr. Crenshaw. In both cases, Crenshaw did not actually physically kidnap either of the free blacks but purchased them and sent them on their way back to slavery.[26] Through out the historical documentation Crenshaw is painted as a shady evil character with unusual methods, in one instance Crenshaw was accused of �� dumping a barge load of wild hogs onto the island, causing the runaways to stay near the shoreline where that could be spotted and easily recaptured by his men�the hogs attacked and tried to eat them.�[27] Some members of Crenshaw�s own family remember hearing horror stories about �� Crenshaw forcing his children to watch when he whipped slaves, and in general the racism and physical abuse that had passed down the generations�Crashaw used the slave women sexually.�[28]

Many of Crenshaw�s relatives deny these stories and �speak of his being a good Christian man, and that possibly the stories grew out of jealousy of his power in the area and also out of his trial for kidnapping slaves. Later attempts to capitalize on the Old Slave House are just bizarre attempts to lure tourists.�[29] Many people in the church community refused to believe that Crenshaw could have been capable of these atrocities against humans because if his great standing in the Methodist church, which was most likely because slavery was still legal, although Methodists were generally anti slavery, the church wouldn�t have taken much of a stand against it. As well as the fact, that Crenshaw was a man with money that he most likely gave freely to the church.

There are numerous other examples of slave kidnappings in the area of Southern Illinois as well as around the country. Jesse Torre, an abolitionist, wrote in 1818 about a station on Washington, D.C. He was able to get up to the third floor attic area where he met and talked to blacks in the attic many of which were kidnapped slaves.[30] There is also evidence that the Cannon-Johnson gang if the Eastern Shore if Maryland, used attics, basements and hidden rooms in two different houses to hold kidnapped blacks.  This evidence comes from a woman named Lydia Smith who had been held in at least five different houses, including the Johnson house in the attic, as well as in the home of the Cannons. [31] All architectural evidence of these houses has been lost, historians must rely on stories, and accounts alone unlike the Crenshaw house which still stands to share its secrets.

Jon Crenshaw died at the age of 74 on December 4, 1871 and was buried in Hickory Hill cemetery located to the northeast of the Old Slave House.[32] Mr. Crenshaw was able to run his illegal business under the nose of those around him without them knowing for sure what was happening. Although the lore and legends of the area may have been hyped up in order to, gain tourism money it still stands that the Old Stave House itself still exists with evidence of what used to be done there. The Crenshaw family made a name for themselves both in their own time with the salt worked and in modern times in infamy. The remaining evidence in the architecture of the house speaks for itself and helps add credence to the stories told which surround it. The Old Slave house is a piece of forgotten history that is slowly being brought back to life through research.



Primary Sources

Gallatin County (IL) Deed Record N. 163.

Gallatin County, IL. "Deed Record B. 200 E. 426-427." Jan. 12, 1835.

Gallatin, County. Gallatin County Order Book, 1840-1846. Carbondale, IL: Illinois Regional Archives Depository, March 9, 1844.

Henry Eddy, Benjamin Edwards, Ninian Edwards, George Leviston, and A.G. S. Wight. "Letters to Gov. Thomas Ford, Charles Adams and others." Executive Clemency Files, Illinois State Archives, Dec. 8, 1846.

Lusk, D.W. Politics and Polititions: Anecedotes and incidents 1809-1889. Springfield, IL: Illinois State Register, reprinted in the DEcember 1996 Springhouse (Herod, IL), 1889.

Marshall, Samuel D. Negrophobia. Shawneetown: Illinois Republican, April 18, 1842.

Torrey, Jesse. A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States: With Reflections on the Practibility of Restoring the Moral Rights of a Slave, without Imparing the Legal Privileges of the Possessor;and a Project of a Colonial Asylum for Free Persons of Colour: . Philadelphia, reprinted St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Privatly Published. Reprinted Scholorly Press., 1817, reprinted 1970.

Unknown. Memoirs of the Lower Ohio Valley. Madison, WI.: Federal Publishing Co., 1905.

�. "Unknown newspaper clipping ." Unknown, thought to be from Works Projects Administrators. Unknown, c. 1930's.

 Secondary Sources

 BIBLIOGRAPHY Baldwin, James. "Letter to the Editor." Springhouse, April 1997: 14.

Bonnell, Clarence. "The Lore of the Illinois Ozarks." Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science: Illinois State Academy of Science, Winter 1921: 56-57.

DeNeal, Ronald L. Nelson & Gary. "John Crenshaw, a mystery solved." Springhouse, Feb. 1997: 23-25.

Harris, Norman Dwight. The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois and of the slavery agitation in that state, 1719-1864. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg & Co, 1904.

Illinois, Federal Writer's Project of the Works Projects Administration for the State of. Illinois, A Descriptive and Historical Guide. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurh & Co. 437, 1939.

Kesley, Carol Wilson 19-37 and Wm., Thomas Shipley, B. Lundy, and John Adams Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg. "Reports of the American Convention of Abolition Societies on Negros and on Slavery, their appeals to Congress, and their Address to the Citizens of the United States (Part I)." The Journal of Negro History 6, no. 3 (July 1921): 326-328.

Metzger, John. The Gallatin County Saline and Slavery in Illinois. Masters thesis, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois U at Carbondale, 1971.

Musgrave, Jon. Slaces, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw: The Real Story of America's Reverse Underground R.R. Marion, IL: IllinoisHistory.com, 2004.

National Register of Historic Places. May 29, 1985. http://nrhp.focus.nps.gov/natregsearchresult.do?fullresult=true&recordid=1 (accessed 03 2009).

National Underground Railroad: Network to Freedom. http://www.nps.gov/history/ugrr/list.htm (accessed 2009).

Ragsdale, Fred Peterson. The Contact Tree. Vol. 184. Chicago, IL: Adams Press, 1993.

Smith, George W. A History of Southern Illinois: A Narrative Account of its Historical Progress, its People, and its Principle Interests. Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing Co., 1912.

Wilson, Carol. Freedon at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

Wilson, James Harrison. Under the old flag. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1912, reprint 1971.



[1]  CITATION Car94 \l 1033 (Wilson 1994)

[2]  CITATION Lus89 \l 1033 (Lusk 1889)

[3]  CITATION Nat85 \l 1033 (National Register of Historic Places 1985)

[4]  CITATION Nat09 \l 1033 (National Underground Railroad: Network to Freedom n.d.)

[5]  CITATION Gal35 \l 1033 (Gallatin County 1835)

[6]  CITATION Mus04 \l 1033 (Musgrave 2004) Ed Burtis Interview. May 18, 2002. Conducted by John Musgrave at the Saline Creek Pioneer Village and Museum. Harrisburg, IL

[7]  CITATION Bon21 \l 1033 (Bonnell 1921)

[8]  CITATION Mus04 \l 1033 (Musgrave 2004) Ed Burtis Interview. May 18, 2002. Conducted by John Musgrave at the Saline Creek Pioneer

Village and Museum. Harrisburg, IL


[9]  CITATION Fed39 \l 1033 (Illinois 1939)

[10]  CITATION Unk0s \l 1033 (Unknown, Unknown newspaper clipping c. 1930's)

[11]  CITATION Hen46 \l 1033 (Henry Eddy 1846)

[12]  CITATION Mar42 \l 1033 (Marshall April 18, 1842)

[13]  CITATION Mar42 \l 1033 (Marshall April 18, 1842)

[14]  CITATION Har04 \l 1033 (Harris 1904)

[15]  CITATION Geo12 \l 1033 (Smith, A History of Southern Illinois: ANarrative Account of its Historical Progress, its People, and its Principle Interests 1912)

[16]  CITATION Mus04 \l 1033 (Musgrave 2004)Phone interview with George M. Sisk in 1996

[17]  CITATION Geo12 \l 1033 (Smith 1912)

[18]  CITATION Bal97 \l 1033 (Baldwin 1997)

[19]  CITATION Sur44 \l 1033  (Gellatin March 9, 1844)

[20] (Gellatin, March 9, 1842)

[21]  CITATION Gal1 \l 1033 (Gallatin County (IL) Deed Record N. 163 n.d.)

[22]  CITATION Jam71 \l 1033 (J. H. Wilson 1912, reprint 1971)

[23]  CITATION Mus04 \l 1033 (Musgrave 2004)

[24]  CITATION Ron97 \l 1033  (DeNeal Feb. 1997)

[25] Written on August 11, 1873 by a friend of Crenshaw

[26]  CITATION Mus04 \l 1033 (Musgrave 2004)

[27]  CITATION Rag93 \l 1033 (Ragsdale 1993)

[28]  CITATION Mus04 \l 1033 (Musgrave 2004) Melissa Galloway- Theiss, March 28, 1997 Letter to Jon Musgrave

[29]  CITATION Joh71 \l 1033 (Metzger 1971)  Interview with the sister of late Crenshaw descendent William T. Lawler

[30]  CITATION Tor \l 1033 (Torrey 1817, reprinted 1970)

[31]  CITATION Kes21 \l 1033 (Kesley, et al. July 1921)

[32]  CITATION Unk05 \l 1033 (Unknown, Memoirs of the Lower Ohio Valley 1905)