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A Long Story

Ghosts in the Attic

of the Old Slave House

The story of Uncle Bob's ghost begins more than 150 years ago, back before the Civil War, in the times of forced servitude and slave labor, in the darkest days of American history.

It was a time when the sound of coins being counted brought joy to the master's cold heart, when the slap of a whip and the wails of women and children broke the stillness of the evening.

It is a story of greed and power and torture and suffering. It is the story not only of Uncle Bob's ghost but of the spirits of all those who suffered in the cold dark attic of the Old Slave House near Equality.

The house, known also as Hickory Hill, was built in the 1830s by a man named John Hart Crenshaw, who had made a fortune by mining salt along the Saline River. He was a wealthy and influential man, well connected, it is said, to the power brokers in the fledgling state of Illinois.

The state prohibited slavery, but its developing industry needed a labor force and so allowed the importation of slaves from southern states. Crenshaw leased slaves from owners in Tennessee and Kentucky to work in his salt works, and his wealth grew. As did his lust for more.

Looking to eliminate the middle man, historians say, Crenshaw began kidnapping free black men and women, putting some of them to work in his salt mines and selling others into slavery. Looking to eliminate the trouble of kidnappings, historians say, Crenshaw soon began to breed his own stock of workers. Hickory Hill, his stately columned mansion, became the centerpiece of his terrible and corrupt operation.

While the family lived downstairs, on the lower two levels, the third floor was a slave quarters. They were surreptitiously herded up the narrow stairs to the attic and forced to live there in barred rooms no bigger than barn stalls. They were sometimes chained to the walls and a whipping post and ``taught'' the rules before being sent out to work in the salt mine. Here, also, is where Uncle Bob lived and plied his trade. Chosen for his strength and virility, Bob was put to work as a stud. It is said he sired more than 300 children.

But times and public sentiment finally caught up to Crenshaw. He was accused and formally charged with kidnapping a free black family in Illinois. He was not convicted, but his political power had drastically eroded. His mill eventually was burned to the ground and the Civil War brought an end to the slave market. He died in 1871, and his house passed into legend.

It's difficult to say when the ghost sightings, or stories, started. But people were soon reporting strange sounds and unexplained lights and gusts of wind up at the house. For years it was considered haunted. Psychic investigators probed the house as early as the 1920s, but no explanation satisfied all.

The house became a historical museum and a tourist attraction, while doubling as a private residence. But all the while, the ghost stories persisted. The most notable story concluded that no ``white man'' ever had been able to spend an entire night on the third floor.

Many had tried, by some counts as many as 150. Everyone who had taken the challenge had fled, some claiming they'd seen ``forms'' and felt the swirling of spirits around them. In the 1950s two Marine war veterans tried to spend the night, but their kerosene lamp blew out and they felt the walls shake and they heard voices and moans and they bolted downstairs and ran frightened into the night.

How much of this is true is difficult to say. Ghost stories have a way of exaggerating themselves. But there are enough of them to make you wonder. Even owners of the house admitted as recently as 10 years ago that they themselves don't spend much time ``up there.''

Two successful attempts to spend the night were made, however, both by reporters.

The first was made by a television announcer, who made a well-publicized ``event'' out of it. He lasted the entire night alone up there while an entourage of coworkers and friends waited outside, sometimes laughing and howling at the moon to keep their adventurer on his toes. Perhaps for that reason, no specters were witnessed, and the announcer emerged the next morning ready to proclaim that there were no ghosts in the house.

The second successful attempt was conducted just before Halloween in 1981 by a copy editor for The Southern Illinoisan. He brought no friends and no backup support. He was armed only with a Thermos of coffee (to keep him awake), a Bible (just in case), a bag of Oreos (because he liked them), an empty pot (because of the absence of facilities), and a healthy dose of skepticism.

The wind blew through the cracks of the house and the wind rattled the windows on either side of the hall-way that split the room lengthwise. The moon and starlight cast eerie shadows down the hall and into the cubicles that once housed the slaves. But he saw, heard and felt nothing that might be construed as supernatural.

He left the house the next morning tired and hungry and just as skeptical as he was the evening before when he was locked up with Uncle Bob and the gang.

Do these two attempts debunk the ghost legend? Perhaps not. Both may have been tainted, the first by tomfoolery and the trappings of a media event, the second by the thick walls of skepticism.

But ghosts or not, it is said that every building has a character of its own, that each house has a soul. How many times have we heard someone say, ``If these walls could speak ...'' Well, perhaps they can and we are simply not listening correctly.

If it is true that each house has a spirit of its own, then it would be an especially rich spirit that lives in a structure such as the Old Slave House, as steeped in history as it is. The feet of heroes and villains had trod upon these floorboards. Strong-willed women and giants of men had breathed the air in these very rooms. The privileged had laughed and the oppressed had cried under this same roof.

It's under new ownership now and closed to the public. But,

ah, the stories the walls could tell, the souls they must have known.

Editor's Note: The feature ran in The Southern Illinoisan

on September 15, 1996. It revisited a story written

almost 15 years earlier. The writer spent a very long night

alone on the third floor of the Old Slave House on Oct. 28, 1981.

He lived to tell the tale.

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx


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