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Underground Railroad Research Forum

The Old Slave House


I see someone just provided a link on the mailing list to a ghost hunters' site on the Old Slave House located just outside the village of Equality.

For more authentic information you can check out .

The blog on the front page contains some of the latest information on our effort to get this important historic site reopened. There's more on the history of the site at .

The Old Slave House, to the best of our knowledge, is the last remaining station of the "Reverse Underground Railroad" still standing in the country.

While other such kidnapping stations must have existed, this is the only one we have found still around. John Hart Crenshaw had this house built in the 1830s. We've found solid evidence of his kidnappings starting in the 1820s and continuing into the 1840s with suggested evidence for his involvement in kidnappings in the 1850s. Interviews of men and women who conversed with Robert "Uncle Bob" Wilson, an ex-slave, in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, indicate that he was used as a stud slave at the house, probably in the mid to late 1850s. Wilson died on April 11, 1948, in Elgin, Illinois, at the age of 112.
I just had the opportunity to find his grave last Thursday.

Crenshaw sold his house in 1864 during the Civil War and three or four other families lived in it until the Sisk family moved inside in 1913. In the 1920s after the "hard roads" or concrete state highways opened, tourists began visiting the house wanting to see the third floor where 12 tiny rooms off a central hall lend credence to the old stories of victims imprisoned there.

In 1930 the Sisks began charging admission, initially as a way to
discourage tourists. It didn't work. By the 1940s they had already hit a record of 300 visitors in one day.

Efforts begun during the war to get the state to purchase the site. Those efforts went nowhere. A consultant in the late 1950s visited the house and determined it didn't have the "dignity" to become a state historic site. He called it a sordid tale of "slaves, salt, sex & Mr. Crenshaw."

In 1996, the third generation Sisk owner of the site retired and closed the home to tourists as an effort began to get the state to purchase it again.

In 2000 the state bought the property but the agency involved has failed to secure any operating funds. Today the site remains mothballed and closed to the public with the previous owner living there as an unpaid security guard hoping for a day that he can leave the house for a new residence.

Open it NOW! Friends of the Old Slave House, an ad hoc support group,
organized last summer and secured endorsements from various units of local governments and organizations for a plan to turn the site over to a new regional non-profit group to operate using admission fees as the primary financing tool. Based on old attendance records and admission prices there's enough funding potential for this to work.

Our goal this spring is to either get the legislature to fund the site -- which is doubtful due to the state's gaping budget hole, or authorize this 'Plan B' that we have proposed.
Basically, to do something, since waiting until next year is not a
reasonable option when there are legitimate alternatives on the table.

I was a reporter for The Daily Register of Harrisburg, Illinois, when the site closed and was responsible for the newspaper's coverage of it. After it closed I joined with two other local researchers determined to uncover what really happened at the site. With the previous owner's support and unprecedented access to his family's old records as well as what we have found at other various locations, we've proved that the basic stories of the house are true.

While the Sisks, who relied almost solely on oral traditions for their
research, sometimes made mistakes with their interpretation of the house, it was usually just a matter of degree.

Lincoln's visit to the house probably took place in 1840, not 1858. Also, it was not Crenshaw's son William who served as Stephen A. Douglas' campaign manager, but Crenshaw's son-in-law Charles H. Lanphier who was the editor of the Illinois State Register,
Douglas' mouthpiece in Springfield; and that Crenshaw probably never relayed advice to Lincoln during the Civil War, but Crenshaw's brother-in-law Edmund Dick Taylor, a rich Chicago Democratic businessman who had supported Lincoln against Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and had acted as a courier or agent for Lincoln between Washington and Cairo, Illinois, where Gen. Grant had his headquarters in the early days of the Civil War.

The story of the Old Slave House is a story of slavery in Illinois and the opportunities and dangers residents of African descent faced in what would become the Land of Lincoln. It's the story of Crenshaw and the saltworks that provided Illinois its first major industry and its reason for slavery.

It's also the story of "Uncle Bob" and the things he said he was forced to do. In short, it's the story of "Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw", and God-willing, it will reach a bookstore near you sometime later this summer.


Jon Musgrave

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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