A man named John Hart Crenshaw set up a sort of a reverse “underground railroad” in 1842. Back then, slavery was against the law in Illinois. However, a law stated that slaves could be leased from other states to work in dangerous salt mines. Crenshaw took major advantage of that.
He kidnapped free slaves and forced them to work in his salt mines. He also sold these people back to slave owners in the south. Crenshaw kept slaves locked up in the attic and some say he brutally tortured them. Crenshaw devised another plan, this one to create slaves of his own. He selected a slave for his size and stamina and set him to breeding more slaves with the females that could bear children. This man, known simply as "Uncle Bob" was said to have fathered as many as 300 children. He lived until the age of 112 and died in 1948.
The attic at Hickory Hill was a chamber of horrors. A dozen cells opened off a wide corridor. They were small rooms with bars on the windows and with iron rings where shackles could be bolted to the floor. The attic had only a small window at either end, so the air was stifling. A whipping post was also constantly in use and many of the valuable slaves were said to have died at the cruel hands of Crenshaw and his men.
In 1842, Crenshaw was brought to trial for selling a free family. Unfortunately, the case could not be proven until after the trial when it was too late. One of Crenshaw’s slaves attacked him with an ax, severing his leg in 1846. His slave trade days were over and his mill was burned to the ground. He died in 1871 and he and his wife were buried at Hickory Hill Cemetery.
Years later, the house was opened as a tourist attraction and was no stranger to strange occurrences. Tourist were reporting hearing strange noises coming from the attic. . .noises that sounded like cries and whimpers, and even rattling chains. Some say no one could spend the night in that house especially after an exorcist named Hickman Whittington wrote an article about the house in a local newspaper in 1920. He was in perfect health when he came to visit the old mansion but took ill later than same night and died just hours later.
In the late 1960's, two soldiers who had seen action in Vietnam ran screaming from the house after being surrounded by ghostly shapes. A year or so later, the owner stopped letting people in the house after dark. A small fire had accidentally been started by a lantern. In 1978, he finally relented and a reporter from Harrisburg named David Rodgers was allowed to spend the night. Despite hearing a lot of strange noises, he managed to beat out 150 previous challengers to become the first to brave the night in the former slave quarters.