The story of Hickory Hill begins with the man who built the residence. His name was John Hart Crenshaw and he had a plan to make a lot of money from the misery of others. During the mid-1800s, it was illegal to own a slave in the state of Illinois, but a technicality allowed slaves from other states to be leased for work. The work needed to complete the excavation of salt mines was horrific. No man wanted that job. During this time, Crenshaw owned a few salt tracts and looked towards this loophole in the law to make a fortune.
Hickory Hill was constructed in 1842. Crenshaw thought of a way to get workers for his salt mines. He decided that he would simply kidnap free blacks and force them to work for him. He also turned a profit from then selling these slave back to southern slave owners. After the completion of the house, Crenshaw created a few additions that would let him conduct his brutal business affairs. He installed a carriage door, which opened into the house, allowing the hiding of slaves in his attic without anyone knowing. During the night, this is where the slaves stayed, often enduring heartless torture. It is also thought that an underground tunnel existed, where slaves traveled from the basement to the river.
To add to the sordidness that this man sought to achieve, he decided it more profitable to create his own line of slaves, creating a sort of assembly line of procreation. Based on physical attributes and strength, he chose a slave that would mate with the female slave, producing future slaves in the process. This “chosen one” was referred to as “Uncle Bob” and is believed to be the father of close to 300 children and lived to be more than 100 years old.
Unspeakable events occurred in the attic of Hickory Hill, which consisted of among other things: cells and corridors. Small rooms were built, where bars covered the windows. Slaves were shackled to the floor, which were bolted to the boards by iron rings. It got quite hot and dry in the attic, for there were only two windows in the area. A whipping post was placed in the attic to punish “unruly” slaves. Numerous slaves lost their lives to the hands of Crenshaw and his employees.
Crenshaw was taken to trial in 1842 for selling a free family into slavery, but not enough evidence was produced. He was taken to trial once more in 1846, which ironically was the same time period where Crenshaw suffered an attack by one of his slaves. An axe cut through his leg as a result. His slave trading was put to an end and the mill was torched. Crenshaw passed away in 1871 and was laid to rest at the Hickory Hill Cemetery.
Several years passed and the house was opened to the public as a tourist attraction. Odd events were known to occur within the house. Strange noises were reported to have come from the attic area. The sounds of crying, whimpering, as well as the rattling of chains have also been documented. At this point, no one has been able to spend a full night within the attic area. Fear spread regarding the home when an article writer visited, taking sick that same night and dying hours later. The room that he visited was avoided for years to come.
Two former soldiers claimed to have sighted ghosts during the late 1960s. A small fire even took to the place, which prompted the owner to cease visitations after nightfall. It wasn’t until 1978 that a reporter was allowed to spend the night in the house. He admitted to hearing a lot of strange noises, but he was able to spend a full night within the old slave quarters. Hickory Hill has since been closed down.