When it came time to write Every Hill and Mountain, the third book in my “history mystery” trilogy I needed another old house for Abby Thomas and her friends to “time-surf” in. The software only works in old houses “with soul,” and I figured what better house than “The Old Slave House” in Equality, Illinois? My parents were from Equality, and although I was raised elsewhere, I grew up hearing whispered stories of what went on at that old house.
The mansion was built in 1843 by John Crenshaw with the fortune he acquired from the blood, sweat, and tears of the slaves who worked his salt mines. Yes, you heard me right. Slaves lived and died in the free state of Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. Crenshaw was also a slave catcher and kidnapper of free Blacks. He confined his human cargo on the third floor of his own mansion as part of a reverse Underground Railroad, or as my character John calls it—a “perverse” Underground Railroad. Crenshaw was perverse, all right. He kept a slave named Bob Wilson as stud on the third floor, breeding untold numbers of slave women and selling their children down south.
The Real Man on the Third Floor of The Old Slave House
Bob Wilson was an enormous man whose ancestors were from the Mandingo tribe in Africa. Slave traders went specifically for Mandingos because of their size and strength. In my book, I blended his story with several other true slave accounts. For example, I had Ned born to parents Charles and Maria. The real Charles and Maria “belonged” to the illustrious governor of Illinois, Ninian Edwards, who according to Musgrave pledged a “sacred vow of Honor to my servant Charles and Maria his wife that if they should continue to conduct themselves as good and dutiful servants that I shall let Maria go free at the time that the said Charles’ time of service expires agreeable to his indentures and at a convenient season I will execute such further writings as will effectuate this promise according to the true intent and meaning…”
When Edwards got into financial difficulty, he forgot his “sacred vow” and sold Charles and Maria to John Crenshaw, who later sold them down the river just before their indentures were completed. Their son Nelson and a friend stopped Crenshaw at gunpoint and demanded to know where he had taken them. The two ended up in Alton prison for their efforts but were later granted pardons and released.
It was such a sad story, and indicative of the plight of so many southern Illinois black “indentured servants. Bob Wilson’s story is sad too.
Not much is known of his early years, but we do know he was born January 12, 1836, in Richmond, Virginia and that because of his physique (and because the majority of his offspring were males) he was in demand as a stud on several plantations in seven states during the 1850s. Crenshaw must have seen Wilson on his travels and decided to buy him. Clues suggest he paid $5000 for him. He arrived at Equality at age 24 in 1859. Crenshaw’s neighbors apparently caught on to what was happening on the third floor of his mansion and disapproved. According to a diary kept by one of Bob Wilson’s daughters, he left Hickory Hill due to a scandal, “one that white folk may not want told.” (Musgrave 396). Wilson ended up back in Virginia later in 1859 and then in 1862 enlisted in the Confederate Army. He somehow ended up on the Union side as the personal servant to a Northern general. After freedom came with the Emancipation Proclamation, Bob Wilson did a variety of work. Among other occupations, he was a farmer, railroad brakeman, and itinerate preacher.
He was admitted to the Elgin, Illinois Veterans Hospital in 1940 at the age of 105. He was well liked. One of the nurses said he was “one of the sweetest, polite and most interesting person I have ever known.” (Musgrave 400) He loved to have people to talk to, and he was formally interviewed several times.
Wilson wasn’t proud of his past, sometimes describing himself as a “nigger’s nigger,” a derogatory term Blacks called the studs. (Crenshaw wasn’t the only one to breed human beings.) Some people wanted to grin and joke with him about his past, but Wilson made it plain when they did that he hadn’t wanted to do what he did. He hated mistreating girls of his own race. Musgrave quotes Wilson:
You just don’t know what that is. They’d bring you a girl or have one called to where you were at and you had to take her in a room and everything. If she cries and screams, and whatever, you didn’t have any choice.…I hated it. (390)
He often told people he had fathered over 200 children (some said 300). I wonder if he said it wistfully, not boastfully. Bob Wilson died in Elgin Hospital, April 11, 1948 at the age of 112. I never thought I’d sympathize with a rapist. But after reading his account, I saw him as just one more of John Crenshaw’s victims, and that’s how I portrayed Ned in Every Hill and Mountain.
In spite of this grim subject, Every Hill and Mountain is an uplifting book that showcases God’s redemptive power. There is no one, no matter how be-fouled by sin, beyond Christ’s reach. And that’s good news, indeed!