John Crewnshaw

“Crenshaw was a wicked man”.  This quote, from the long time resident of Hickory Hill George Sisk Jr., is a common answer when referring to the life and character of John Hart Crenshaw.  Search engines and other sources, however, seem far too very willing to close the door on a case nowhere near ready to be closed.  I, too, am far from complete on my research on Crenshaw, yet deep enough to see two distinct lines of thought on the issue.  One group adamantly believes in the criminal behavior and rotten character of John Crenshaw while the other seems to want to step back from the accusations and attempt to more closely validate sources and more thoroughly understand the context of the times.   Before 1996, the year Springhouse Magazine began its extensive research, very little was known about the life of John Crenshaw.  What followed was a myriad of theories, some beneficial and some unproven and far-fetched.  This objective piece will not dare take sides, but merely state many of the controversial pieces to the Crenshaw puzzle and the evidence, or lack thereof that goes with them.

John Crenshaw
Mysteries/Conspiracies
Early Life
William and Elizabeth Crenshaw migrated from New Jersey to North Carolina where they gave birth to John Hart Crenshaw on November 19, 1797.  After four more children in the Carolinas, the family decided to once again head west.  They settled in New Madrid, Mississippi on March 4, 1807.  Their timing, however, was very unfortunate as New Madrid was host to a series of terrible earthquakes between mid-December of 1811 and early February of 1812.   One observer, the famous ornithologist Audubon, reported that “the ground rose and fell in successive furrows like the ruffled waters of a lake, the earth waved like a field of corn in the breeze.”[1]  Congress enabled anyone whose land had been destroyed by the earthquakes the opportunity to received equal land acres in compensation.  Sources vary on whether or not the Crenshaw’s were able to receive compensation but it appears unlikely because very few people were left in the area to take advantage.  The Crenshaw family had decided to pack up and settle on Eagle Creek, about five or six miles south of the eventual site of the Old Slave House.  Tragedy struck shortly after the move as William passed away on December 10, 1814 leaving Elizabeth Hart Crenshaw to care for nine children.[2]  Of these nine children, the support of the family fell upon John, who just turned 17, and seemingly remained with him during his life.   And so began the professional life of John Hart Crenshaw in the salt business.
Back to Top

Gallatin Salt Business/Other Crenshaw Employment
When Illinois was formed into a territory in 1809, the Salines in Gallatin County were controlled by Governor Ninian Edwards who leased out the springs and collected rent money for the United States.  Statehood for Illinois came in 1818, and the saline was given to the State of Illinois with these primary conditions:  The present system of leasing will be continued, the lands could not be sold without the granted permission from the United States Congress, and that the administration of the saline is carried out by State Legislature.[3]  Crenshaw probably began his career in the salt business by drawing water for Timothy Guard.  In his first few years, he became an expert at drilling wells.  In 1821, Guard was well-known as a main salt producer and Crenshaw was a top employee and an established “salt-boiler”.  Guard, Choisser & Co. put their business up for sale in between 1825 and 1826 in the first of two moves that freed John Crenshaw to become the largest salt producer in the area.  A few years later, a legislature passed to sell about 30,000 acres of the land reserve.  Crenshaw began making very large purchases of land at roughly 75 cents per acre.[4]   John Hart Crenshaw was the new “King of the Gallatin Salines”.  He was always searching for new, cheap land to buy.  He joined Jeptha Hardin in heading down to Tennessee to jointly purchase 3,200 acres of land that had been previously forfeited.  Some believe that John Crenshaw took part in illegal action with slaves in Tennessee under the name of John Granger.  In the census of 1830, Crenshaw owned a steam sawmill at Cypressville, three salt furnaces (of the nine in Gallatin) and 12 blacks.[5]   His wealth was increasing and he was spreading his business to lumber, roads, stores and rails. He used the timberlands he bought from the state for railroad ties, pipelines and houses.  In January of 1831, State Legislature passed an act to authorize John Crenshaw to erect a toll bridge and a mill dam across the North Fork of the Saline Creek.  His sawmill was considered a public utility.  Crenshaw was so important in Gallatin at this point that Jon Musgrave, during a phone interview, called into question whether or not he took over as the ‘Don’ of the organized crime business in Southern Illinois when James Ford died in 1833.   By 1841, salt was not paying as well and big names such as Timothy Guard owed the state a lot of money.  Crenshaw’s name was not on the list of debtors and he made his biggest business deal on December 9, 1840.  He bought all of the salt wells and pipes of Guard and Benjamin White.  Although the magnitude of the purchase is not in question, it is uncertain what the deal did for his wealth.  Crenshaw’s mill now doubled as a general store and even a post office.  On the morning of March 35, 1842, the mill burned down.  It was uninsured and he lost roughly $20,000.  He stopped paying the rent and quit the salt business in 1845 citing “bad health”.  By the mid 1850’s, most of Crenshaw’s time dealt with land deals and raising hay, grain, and vegetables around  Hickory Hill.  According to Dr. James Cornelius, “Crenshaw may often have been ‘land poor’—that is, rich in land but without cash.” [6]
Back to Top


Hickory Hill
Crenshaw, most likely a result of increased income in the early l830’s, decided it was time for a new house presumably in 1834. When workers were removing an old facade in 1986, they found a brick that read ‘1838’.[7]  It is unknown whether the house began or finished construction in 1838.  A second written clue is a penciled notation on a window jamb reading “John Crenshaw Wm Cavin – Galliopolis Ohio Gallia County by Heaven 1842”.  William Cavin, born in Galliopolis and known as a rather important builder and architect, began negotiations in 1833-34 with Crenshaw.  The house was most likely completed around 1842.  The unusual delay of construction could be linked with Crenshaw’s contract negotiations with a railroad that consumed much of his time.  It is a three-story building with wood framing over two layers of brick. The house is square-shaped, about 48’ wide by 44’ long, with a verandah about 10’ deep and supported by twelve 12-foot high pillars, six on each level.[8]  A sixteen foot wide areaway served as the back door until remodeled in 1960.  It was large enough to drive in a carriage and a full team of horses.  There was a roof accessible by an open staircase from the attic.  The attic contained three rooms (nine feet by nine feet) and four smaller rooms.  There appeared to be enough room for roughly 21 people to sleep.  The hallway in the attic runs about fifty feet long with two very large windows on each end.
Back to Top

Mysteries/Conspiracies


Purpose of Attic

What was the function of the attic on the third floor of Crenshaw’s house?  Many sources assume it was to detain kidnapped slaves.  These slaves would allegedly work all day and Crenshaw would force them into the guarded attic at night so they could not escape.  There, they were would uncomfortably share cells and endure physical abuse.  Springhouse magazine shows a picture of what appears to be a whipping post up in the attic.  Take the following account painting a mental image of the abuse:  “Graffiti painted and scratched into wood and plaster scars the surface, but the scars are minor compared to the painful pictures of scars on the former slave's backs that are shown on the first floor”.  This source goes on to state as fact that the smaller cells fit two slaves in order to break insubordination and that they were an early form of "solitary confinement”.[9]   Although possible, evidence regarding the attic needs to be examined much more closely.  To begin, there are many other possible theories to the purpose of the attic.  By the time the house was built, John Crenshaw was making most of his money based on the production of grain and vegetables.  The attic seemed to be a perfect place for storing his goods.  And while there was what appeared to be a whipping post in the room, the rumor of a ball and chain being found in the attic were disproved.  George Sisk, Jr. explained that the ball and chain were found nearby and placed there.[10]  How then, do we know that the whipping post was not merely placed there fifty years earlier except with no one to admit to it?  Another theory given in 1936, by the then oldest citizen in Shawneetown who had resided in the house for two years, was that the house was intended to be used as “a railroad station and hotel and that the upper floor was originally built like a steamboat with a large wide hall and many small doors opening into small staterooms which had berths in them.”[11]  Equally important as competing theories, it is necessary to find potential flaws in the original theory of detaining slaves.  The attic, as documented, would have been a very poor structure for containment.  There were two huge windows on either side and a staircase to the roof.  The slaves could easily climb out of the window and slide directly down the pillars of the house. 
Back to Top

Connection with James Ford and the “Ferry Gang”
“Crenshaw's newly found activities in the 1820s place him as a major criminal at a time when James Ford, the early river pirate, still controlled the gangs that operated along the Ohio River around Cave-in-Rock and along the Ford's Ferry road which ran next to the Lower Lick salt works below Hickory Hill” says Jon Musgrave, expert on John Crenshaw and Hickory Hill and author of Illinoishistory.com.  James Ford was a conman, a pirate, a mafia Don and was leader to his group of criminals, Ford's Ferry gang.  Ford was very familiar with the law in order to exploit it.  He was appointed justice of the peace of the Deer Creek and took oath as sheriff of Livingston Co., Kentucky, on Feb. 7, 1825.[12]  He was rumored to be responsible for bodies floating in the river in the 1820’s.  In a phone interview with Jon Musgrave, he noted that his two sons, also involved in organize crime, were killed in 1833 and that James Ford died that same year.  It was right about that time when John Crenshaw began his rise to wealth.  Musgrave believes Crenshaw may have taken over as the new head of organized crime in that region of Illinois, prompting him to write “There are defenders of John Hart Crenshaw who claim he was a good Methodist.  I'm sure John Gotti is a "good Catholic" as well. An organized crime boss is an organized crime boss.”[13]  It should be noted that other sources also link Ford to Crenshaw in regards to kidnapping slaves.
Back to Top

Kidnappings/Black Laws
Let me begin by explaining some of the laws concerning blacks.  The first Illinois constitution of 1818 permits slaves to serve an indentured servant period for one year at a time.  Other laws, known as the Black Laws, were much harsher.  They allowed owners to hold the Negros or mulatto males until 35, females until 32, male children until 32 and female children until 28.  Census figures show 267 slaves in Gallatin County in 1820, 184 in 1830 and 24 in 1840.  Crenshaw himself held 5 slaves in 1820, 12 in 1830 and none in 1840.  The decreases are in part because of two decisions from the Illinois Supreme Court in 1836.  It ruled that Negro’s who were not indentured within thirty days of entry into Illinois would become free and have residence in the state.  It also ruled that children of indentured servants could not be held as slaves, but did carry out service until males 21st birthday and females 18th.[14]  There is, however, one problem with some legal decisions being passed.  Some of these men, John Crenshaw for example, could not read or write.  If he did not hear of these rulings by word of mouth, there is a chance he never knew of them at all.  Furthermore, if a black man were to tell him of them, very few owners would have listened or believed it.  At this point in time, kidnappings were becoming a serious problem and there was little to deter business men, besides obvious moral obligations, to abstain from the crime.  In order to convict a man of kidnapping in those times, the court had to prove the abduction and that the slave was taken out of the state.  Black men could also not testify against white men and the court only met twice a year.  In these most likely corrupt times, much could be done between the two meetings to make sure cases were simply swept under the rug.  There is much speculation that Crenshaw did participate in kidnapping slaves.  Jon Musgrave states, “John Hart Crenshaw illegally kidnapped free blacks. There's no question about it anymore. Not once. Not twice, but at least three times where we have contemporary documentation.”[15] The first case occurred in 1828 when a black woman names Lucinda was kidnapped and taken to Kentucky.  She identified her attacker as “John Granger”, and according to Springhouse magazine; she mentioned William and Abraham Granger.  Henry Eddy, a famed lawyer who  helped black families against kidnappers, had previously written a legal brief for Crenshaw where he originally wrote “Granger” and then crossed it out and wrote “Crenshaw”.  Also, Abraham and William are two of John Crenshaw’s brothers.  Eddy coincidentally also defended Crenshaw in a counterclaim against Preston W. Davis.  This leads researchers to believe that Crenshaw (and the two other co-defendants Davis and Forrester) had been charged with kidnapping prior to 1828.  Yet another example comes with Peter White in 1844, then a 10 year-old black child in Equality.  He was kidnapped with three other children and sold into slavery.  Peter White was rescued and his descendants, although not confirmed, reported that Peter and others were kept in the attic of Crenshaw’s house.  Lastly, in 1842 was the Adams Case.  Charles and Maria Adams worked for Crenshaw in Equality.  Crenshaw even freed the couple’s eldest daughter when she turned 18.  Crenshaw kidnapped Maria Adams and 6 or 7 of her children, kept them in hiding until Lewis Kuykendall came and was to take them across the Ohio River.[16]  Kuykendall and the victims disappeared and Crenshaw was acquitted.  Henry Eddy Papers show that Kuykendall had an I.O.U. from Crenshaw for $2,000 and that the 6 or 7 children would have been “market price” for illegal slave trade at that time. While the evidence is over-whelming that Crenshaw did commit this act, there is a grey area.  Not until 1845 did the Illinois Supreme Court rule that children of an indentured servant were born free.  Therefore, this case taking place in 1842, the children of Maria Adams were possibly Crenshaw’s possession and he may have legally sold Maria and her under 18 year old children.  Shortly after this case, Crenshaw was confronted on road-side by Charles Adams, Nelson Fox and another man and threatened with weapons.  These men were quickly jailed.  The retribution did not end there.  On Friday morning of March 25th, Crenshaw’s mill burnt down with an estimation of $20,000 worth of damage.  It was said that the act of arson was retaliation from the black population.  One week later, a group of men called the Regulators rode through Equality promising to drive all black people out of Gallatin County.[17]  They were threatening to come back as many times as need be and were not against using violent means. 
Back to Top

Tales of Sleeping in the Attic
There is a legend that says no one could ever spend the night in the attic of the Crenshaw House.  Ghosts of slaves are said to be looming in the third floor after how badly they were abused by John Crenshaw.  In the 1920’s, an "exorcist" from Benton, Illinois named Hickman Whittington wrote an article about the house in a local newspaper.  Whittington was in good health when he visited Hickory Hill, but apparently became very ill after his visit and died shortly after.  In the late 1960's, two soldiers from Vietnam ran in panic away from the house after reportedly being surrounded by ghostly shapes.  In the last known case in 1978, a reporter from Harrisburg named David Rodgers spent the night.  Despite hearing a lot of “strange noises”, he became the first to spend the night in the former slave quarters.[18]  This is one of the many websites dedicated to spreading the “ghost story” rumors from the third floor of the Crenshaw House.  It is just a shame that people inclined to research Hickory Hill via internet run into this far-fetched information very early in their search.  There is a prevailing theme of needing to have a firm grasp on each and every source whether for credibility or understanding viewpoints.
Back to Top

Uncle Bob Wilson
Uncle Bob Wilson died at the age of 112 in 1948.  He claimed to be a “stud” slave held by Crenshaw at Hickory Hill and that he was used to produce mass amounts of children; in fact, over 300 children.  Unfortunately, there is quite a road block in his story.  He was found on the streets of downtown Chicago in 1941 wandering alone, ill and disheveled.  The preceding stories came out after admittance into the Elgin State Hospital, home to 5,000 elderly or mentally disoriented people.[19]  Uncle Bob was very well-liked and told many entertaining stories.  The validity of these stories, however, are in question due to his mental state.
Back to Top

How research began on Hickory Hill?
There was scant evidence and research done on John Hart Crenshaw before 1996, a time when the state of Illinois was ignoring the historical value.  George Sisk had been living there since his childhood in the 1940’s.  Sisk then made a plea to Ronald L. Nelson to help research.  Nelson, along with Gary DeNeal and Jon Musgrave, write in the Springhouse magazine and have been actively pursuing knowledge on the topic ever since.  This spring, they are making another push for the state to either fund the house or as Musgrave called it in a phone interview, enact “plan B”, a non-profit organization to run the house as an educational site and charge admission for upkeep.  The Crenshaw House is rich in Illinois History and should be a story well-known by all.  While historians have many informational gaps to fill about Crenshaw and his house, thorough research is less than a decade old.  The future holds more evidence, more genealogical tracking and far more insight on a house that symbolizes an entire period of our statehood. 

[1] Charles C. Patton, Glory to God and the Sucker Democracy, v.1, 33.
[2] “John Hart Crenshaw and Hickory Hill” Final Report.  19 June 2002, James M. Cornelius, Ph.D. page 66.
[3] ILINIWEK, Richard M. Philips, ed.  V. 10, no. 3.  May-June 1972, page 19. 
[4] Sister Mary Rita, “The Gallatin County Salines” (M.A. thesis, DePaul Univ., 1943), 75-82.
[5]  Patton, Glory to God and the Sucker Democracy, 38. 
[6] Cornelius, “Hart Crenshaw and Hickory Hill”, 105-115.
[7] Cornelius, “Hart Crenshaw and Hickory Hill”, 105-115. 
[8] Patton, Glory to God and the Sucker Democracy, 40. 
[10] Cornelius, “Hart Crenshaw and Hickory Hill”, 95.
[11] Patton, Glory to God and the Sucker Democracy, 40. 
[14] Cornelius, “Hart Crenshaw and Hickory Hill”, 122-126. 
[16] Springhouse Magazine.  What Does the Future Hold for Hickory Hill Plantation?  Jon Musgrave, December 1996.
[17] ILINIWEK, Richard M. Philips, ed.  V. 10, no. 3.  May-June 1972, page 23. 
[19] Cornelius, “Hart Crenshaw and Hickory Hill”, 144.
 

Prev | Home | Next