The Lost Story
Bonnell's account of Old Slave House first in print
By CLARENCE BONNELL
Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science
EDITOR'S NOTE: Clarence Bonnell wrote this in 1920 for publication in the Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science. Years later while writing Illinois Ozarks (published in 1947), he noted he first learned of the stories surrounding Crenshaw's mansion four decades earlier after his arrival in Harrisburg in 1903. At the time of this writing Bonnell taught science at Harrisburg High School. He later also served as vice-principal at the school.
This is titled the "lost story" because few in the area actually read it in the academic journal and those that had forgot about this small portion of Bonnell's larger article. It came out six years before tourists are remembered first coming to the house in sizable numbers. Bonnell wrote this a decade before the Sisk family decided to charge admission in an effort to stifle the growing numbers of visitors. That didn't work. The site became a bigger tourist attraction.
For years critics of the site dismissed the stories told there by stating the family had just made them up for the tourists. Had someone remembered this article recording the stories before there were tourists, the Sisk family could have saved themselves a lot of grief.
On a personal note, as a researcher focusing on the house beginning in 1996, it could have saved us a lot grief if we'd found this and recognized its importance before we did three years of research. Other than the years constructed, Bonnell's source for the story remembered the events fairly accurately. Now, in 2003, nearly seven years of research shows that all of the basic stories told at the Old Slave House are based on real events. In other words, the folklore is really the history even the ghost stories.
Stories come to me of an "Underground Railroad" station about four miles southeast of Equality in Gallatin County. Upon a hilltop, stands a large two-story frame house conspicuous for its many large windows. It is a plain rectangular block of a house, with a well pitched roof having a deck something like twelve feet wide running the entire length. Just under the edge of the deck there are windows corresponding to the ventilators of a railway car. The gables have large window. The attic is said to have been reached by a narrow stairway. Along each side of the attic hall just under the sloping part of the roof there are bunks arranged, bunks just as the beds are situated in a Pullman car.
One man relates that apparatus resembling stocks were seen the rubbish of this attic. The story is that it was built between 1838 and 1844 and was owned by Johnny Crenshaw. Some metal ornaments on the house are said to have come from England. Instead of this being an "underground" station for escaping slaves, so the story goes, this one was once used by a band operating as the automobile thieves of today. A free Negro or one escaping by flight, if found by this gang, was overpowered and conveyed by night under guard from farther north to this station. Another night journey took him to and across the Ohio River where his word was not accepted in court and where undisputed possession was evidence of ownership.
The price that Negroes brought in those days was great enough to justify the risk taken by the captors. Some who have owned this house and lived in it tell this story as true. Others who were children in that day and lived only a few miles away claim no knowledge of such use of the property. This is explained on the ground that great secrecy was maintained by the owners. True or untrue, here is a story to stir the imagination.
The above article also appears on pages 123-124 in the new Handbook of Old Gallatin County and Southeastern Illinois now available from IllinoisHistory.com. The source for Bonnell's original acount is as follows: Clarence Bonnell. Winter 1921. "The Lore of the Illinois Ozarks." Transactions of the Illinois State Academy of Science. Springfield, Ill.: Illinois State Academy of Science. 14:1. 56-57.