Haunted Hickory Hill (The Old Slave House)
by James Goodridge
Chicago’s Hull House “Devil Baby” is high on the paranormal scale with its strangeness but Hickory Hill or The Old Slave House has a more horrific legacy. Located in the southern part of Illinois, Hickory Hill was once a tourist attraction but has been closed since 1996. Using his wealth, John Hart Crenshaw along with his wife, Franchine, constructed the pseudo-Greek house overlooking 30,000 acres of land. He was the owner of a mill and furnaces that converted water from salt springs into salt, which was in high demand to settlers headed west and the United States government. He was a man of means.
The house, built in 1834 had a carriageway unique for its time, where a wagon could be driven right into the house. But why? Crenshaw in his greed engaged in what was a reverse underground railroad in Illinois, a free state. The harshness of working in the salt works didn’t appeal to free white men and leasing slaves from Kentucky cost money, so Crenshaw—with the help of night riders—embarked on kidnapping free black families in the state and any fugitives that crossed the Ohio River. A secret tunnel from the Saline River that connected to the Ohio River helped Crenshaw in his noxious enterprise. Soon, the demand for slaves to be shipped back down south increased. How could he keep up?
Imagine yourself a free young black women arriving at night to Hickory Hill. You’re taken up narrow stairs to the attic, where there are twelve small cells with wooden bunks, iron rings to chain you to the floor, and bars across the windows. The cells were stifling hot during the summer, freezing cold during the winter, and manic to melancholy all year round. Chained to the bunk you have a sense of foreboding—then terror—as the cell door opens and a massive human frame is standing there in the doorway.
Uncle Bob was a slave Crenshaw kept for the sole purpose of forced breeding like a prized bull. It is said that he sired over 300 children. The same house a state representative named Abraham Lincoln attended a ball in 1840. Crenshaw’s evil bonanza began to recede when in 1842 he was arrested for kidnapping Maria Adams and her eight children who were sold off and taken to Texas. Crenshaw was not convicted of kidnapping, winning this and other charges over the years. However, a small bit of revenge did kiss Crenshaw in that persons unknown burned down his mill and a slave enraged at Crenshaw beating another slave, overtook to him with an axe, hacking his leg off.
In the late 1920’s famed exorcist Hickman Whittington armed with his “secret text bible” entered Hickory Hill intent on ridding the place of as he stated, “Shades of negro slaves.” Instead, it was said, he went running and screaming out of the house and dropped dead a few hours later. Further research revealed Whittington did not drop dead. In fact, in 1938 he tried to murder his wife. Whittington died in Anna State Hospital in 1940. After the Civil War, Crenshaw sold Hickory Hill to a German family. He died in 1871, followed by his wife ten years later. It was when Hickory Hill was sold to the Sisk family in 1913 (some sources date the sale as 1906) that paranormal incidents started. Voices mumbling from in the walls, shadows walking just out of view, the yelling of the name Janice, whimpering, and phantom screams in the night have unnerved visitors.
Over the years out of the 150 people that tried to spend the night in Hickory Hill only to escape the place before dawn, David Rodgers a reporter from WSIL-TV Harrisburg is one that stayed. On Halloween night, 1978, although Rodgers said he heard “noises” in the attic, the night was uneventful. Setting the Whittington episode to the side, something of a paranormal nature must been present for over 150 people to not stay the night.
Sadly, the pre-ghost horror story of those slaves can be found in many an African American family. In my family, there is a story that has been told through the years of one of my ancestors who was sold among a group of slaves to a new plantation in Georgia. While being transported, she became ill being it was a rainy southern winter day and the slaves were made to walk along behind the overseer’s wagon. After some time, she passed out along the side of a muddy road. Pressed for time and seeing her as damaged goods, the overseer got down off the wagon got a hand full of mud. He then shoved it down her throat, suffocating her to death. I only hope somehow her spirit gained some type of revenge.
Sources: Haunted Ohio Blog, Troy Taylor’s America’s Most Haunted, Haunted Heartland by Beth Scott & Michael Norman 1987 Warner Books, and Wikipedia.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York James is new to writing speculative fiction. After ten years as an artist representative and paralegal, James decided in 2013 to make a better commitment to writing. Currently writing a series of short Twilight Zone-inspired stories from the world of art (An occult detective short story, The E.E. Just Affair) with the goal of producing compelling stories. His work has appeared in BlackSciencefictionSociety.com, Genesis Winter 2015 Issue, AfroPhantoms.com, Horroraddicts.net, and a non-fiction essay in Apairy Magazine #8 2016 a Metro Philadelphia arts and literature magazine. You can also hear an interview with Mr. Goodridge on Genesis Science Fiction Radio air date 12/2/16 on YouTube.