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Kidnapping and slavery in Southern Illinois: The Maria Adams story

Editor's note: This is the second in a short series about The Crenshaw House and its history.


Finally, in 1996, Ron Nelson, a historian from McLeansboro, found a name and historical evidence to go with the years of legend about what may have taken place at the mansion near Equality and Junction that original owner John Crenshaw called Hickory Hill.

What he discovered was that Adams was sold by Crenshaw, along with several of her children, in the spring of 1842, to slave runners who transported them into the Territory of Texas. Adams was an indentured servant in Crenshaw's employ as a cook.

While Illinois entered the union as a mostly free state, indentured servitude was legal in Illinois at this time, a process by which a person worked for a number of years in exchange for money or land. Contracts for servants could be sold, but only within the state. 

Crenshaw was charged and tried for kidnapping in the case, and was acquitted by a Gallatin County Grand Jury. Records of that trial included little information about the black people he was alleged to have illegally sold.  

“Up until that point, no one knew what their names were,” said Nelson, who, in the months and years that followed, unearthed additional records about other free black people living in southeastern Illinois who were likely sold into slavery by Crenshaw for a profit.

“It had never been published before, and in trial transcripts, none of the blacks were mentioned by name," he said. "That’s what opened that case back up.”

A major breakthrough 

Over the course of the prior 70 years, thousands of people had toured the home in Gallatin County known to locals as The Crenshaw House or The Old Slave House. Visitors were told stories about Crenshaw's illegal activities with regards to slavery. The most sobering part of the tour was to the third floor, where the narrative held that slaves -- both those forced to labor in the nearby salt mines and those he sold to southern state slave owners -- had been kept in tiny bar-covered cells and tortured. Leg chains and what was described as a whipping post were on display, though those items did not date to that era.  

Even as people continued to flock to the site, questions were raised at various times about the historical accuracy of the regional lore on display at The Old Slave House. It was owned by various members of the Sisk family dating back to 1913. The home first opened as a tourist attraction in 1926, according to a 2002 state report by historian James Cornelius.  

So Nelson's discovery of records explaining what happened to Maria Adams represented a major breakthrough. It meant there was truth to the stories being told about slavery in Southern Illinois. It lent credibility to the history of the home, and bolstered efforts by owner George Sisk to sell it to the state. 

The state did just that five years later, in 2001.  

There are still differences of opinion about how Crenshaw went about that illegal activity, and whether people were kept on the third floor. Next week as part of this series, the newspaper will review findings by SIU's Center for Archaeological Investigations. 

But that aside, because of the initial work of Nelson and others who followed, there is little dispute today among historians that Crenshaw very likely played a role in what later became known as the Reverse Underground Railroad, that is, selling free black people into slavery to "station" in the south.

The infamous index card 

The index card in the Illinois State Archives that led to Nelson’s discovery read, “Crenshaw, John, Murdered.” Nelson said he discovered that card while doing research at the C.E. Brehm Memorial Public Library in Mount Vernon after church. He is friends with Sisk, he said, and Sisk had asked him if he would look into verifying stories about the home through historical documents.  

It was November 1996, and Sisk had just closed the home to the public the previous Thursday, having decided he was ready to retire. Nelson said the card piqued his interest because he knew that Crenshaw was not murdered, and had died of natural causes in 1871.

So curious was he about the index card that Crenshaw drove the following day to Springfield. At the Illinois State Archives, he asked what the card was about. Nelson said he was told it was part of the clemency files for Gov. Thomas Ford, the eighth governor of Illinois.

“He (Gov. Ford) pardoned three black men for attempted murder of John Crenshaw,” Nelson said. “I asked if they had the files. They said ‘yes.’”

Maria Adams’ story unfolds

It was in those files that Nelson, who is a retired Baptist preacher, learned the harrowing story of Maria Adams. It is believed that slave runners came to get Adams and her children at night from Crenshaw’s home. Jon Musgrave, in his book, “Slaves, Salt, Sex & Mr. Crenshaw,” cites an April 1842 article in the Shawneetown Republican newspaper about the sale of Adams and seven or eight of her children to a man named Lewis Kuykendall, who transported them south. 

At trial, Crenshaw’s lawyer argued that Crenshaw could not have known of Kuykendall’s plans to take them out of state, and that his in-state sale of the contracts was legal. But the newspaper article casts doubts on Crenshaw's claimed ignorance of the plan.

The article cited by Musgrave reads: “Now is there a man in this community so soft as to suppose that Crenshaw did not know where the negros were going, and with what intention they were bought? If it had been an honest and legal transaction; would K. [Kuykendall] have come in the night? Would the negros have been tied, for the purpose of taking them a few miles? No, no such thing. The laws have been violated, humanity has been outraged, and all through the act of John Crenshaw …”

The truth emerges

Musgrave cites additional research in his book that Kuykendall and his son, John, are known slave traders visiting Southern Illinois from the independent Republic of Texas, where Adams and her children likely were taken. Crenshaw is given $2,000 for Adams and the children, according to Musgrave’s book.

Nelson and Musgrave, who in 1996 was a reporter for the Harrisburg Daily Register and was assigned a story about Sisk closing the home to the public, have worked together over the years to tell the story of Crenshaw, and his home and victims. At the time, they teamed up with Gary DeNeal, and published various articles on their findings in his Springhouse Magazine. 

A plea for clemency

While Crenshaw was not murdered, the story behind the odd index card is that Crenshaw, a few weeks after the conclusion of his kidnapping trial, was approached by one of Adams’ children who was not taken, and another man carrying a rifle, in Hardin County. The two men demanded that Crenshaw tell them where they could find Maria Adams, and he would not.

One year later, Musgrave’s book states, a Hardin County Grand Jury convicted those two men, as well as Adams’ husband, Charles Adams, even though he wasn’t there that day, of assault with intent to murder. They were sentenced to the state prison in Alton.

Crenshaw had likely engaged in kidnapping before, but he made a strategic error when he sold Maria Adams. Maria and husband, Charles, were well known and well liked in the area, Nelson said. Maria was a top-notch cook and beautiful seamstress, he said. They had connections in high places. 

A letter-writing campaign later ensued, asking Gov. Ford to set the men free. Public sentiment at the time held that Crenshaw had likely committed the kidnapping even though he was acquitted, and the sentences for those who confronted him were therefore too harsh. There were several influential people who were writing those letters, including two sons of former Gov. Ninian Edwards, who was governor of the Territory of Illinois just prior to statehood, and Illinois’ third governor after statehood. One of the sons, Ninian Edwards, Jr., was a brother-in-law of Abraham Lincoln, according to Nelson. 

The reason the Edwards family got involved is that Charles Adams had worked for Gov. Edwards as an indentured servant, and Edwards had promised to free Charles and his wife Maria in 1834, according to a 2002 report by historian James Cornelius. It was likely a wedding gift, the report states. But Edwards sold the contract for Charles Edwards – and Maria Adams’ contract along with it because she insisted on going with her husband – to a Col. A.G. S. Wight, who is believed to have in turn sold the contracts to Crenshaw, Cornelius’ report states.

Some of the children who were kidnapped and sold were never indentured, Nelson said.

A final act in office 

The three men were pardoned as an ongoing act by Gov. Ford on Dec. 8, 1846, and set free about one year before the end of their sentences, according to the Cornelius report.

But it is not clear, Nelson said, what became of Maria Adams. There may have been a rescue effort to find her and bring her back home, but there's no evidence that was successful, or even took place, Nelson said. 

But because of Nelson's efforts, her story is no longer buried by history. 

Musgrave, whose book is available, as of this November, in a third-edition paperback, said Nelson's discovery of the details of the Adams' case is what set into motion the events that led to the state's eventual purchase of the home. In mid-2000, the General Assembly approved spending $500,000 for the home and 10 acres, and the sale was completed the next year.  

“The house was open 70 years based on folklore, but this was the first solid proof Crenshaw was a kidnapper, and it wasn’t found until four days after the house closed to the public,” he said.

Though now state owned, the home remains closed, as it has been for the past 20 years. When it was purchased by the state, the idea was that it would be opened as a museum and interpretive teaching tool about this somber piece of Southern Illinois history.

But there are no plans for the cash-strapped state to do so anytime soon, leaving its future in question.

Said Nelson: "Even if the house disappears, and it would take something strong to destroy it because it's well built, the story will not go away."


On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​


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