While standing on the third floor of Norristown's historic Selma Mansion, with the wallpaper of what used to be a child's room peeling around you and the floorboards squeaking beneath your feet, you can peer east out of a window toward the heart of the borough and imagine what it might have been like in the late 1700s. And if you believe in the supernatural, you might just turn around and ask the spirit standing behind you.
It was 1783 when General Andrew Porter, a veteran of the American Revolution and various expeditions against Native Americans, retired to his farm in what was then Norriton Township to live out the rest of his life in peace. In 1794, he would erect the three-story Federal Style mansion as the centerpiece of his nearly 160-acre property, which sat high on an incline above the rest of the town. The vantage point was so great the home and property were named Selma, a Gaelic word that roughly translates to "highest point."
Evidence of life in the 19th century can be found throughout the home. The mansion is split into thirds, with the northern two portions for the families who resided there and the southern third for the servants. Sturdy doorways section off the two parts on every floor, and it's clear which side was better maintained; the servants' stairs creak a little more, the paint on the walls is just a tad more faded. Bake ovens -- or fire places -- exist in the basement, and literal doorbells hang in the kitchen above, with wires traceable to the front and back entranceways where guests would have once summoned the home's caretakers as they prepared meals.
And evidence of the paranormal exists as well, according to Lisa Terio and Steve Foersch, founding members of the Pennsylvania Underground Paranormal Society (P.U.P.S.) paranormal investigation team and volunteers with the Norristown Preservation Society, which cares for the property. According to the couple, who have been investigating the paranormal for over a decade, the bells still ring from time to time and the houses' occupants still move up and down the hallways, whispering names and messages to whoever is close enough to hear.
"We've had cameras shut off, batteries instantly drain, seen shadows move, heard footsteps and piano notes when there was no piano -- just about everything you can imagine," Foersch says.
The great success of the Porter family
Foersch and Terio say they used to drive past the mansion quite a bit after moving to Norristown around the turn of the millenium. Already volunteers at Fort Mifflin, the pair had a strong interest in history, preservation and the paranormal. They just so happened across a webpage for the mansion and found that it had a connection to Fort Mifflin.
"James Madison Porter, a son of General Porter, raised a garrison for the War of 1812 at Fort Mifflin," says Terio. "We like volunteering in restoring historical landmarks, so we contacted the [Norristown Preservation Society] and introduced ourselves."
Foersch and Terio would learn more about the rich history of the home. General Porter actually had four sons: Richard Porter, who became president judge of the 3rd judicial district; David Rittenhouse Porter, named for family friend David Rittenhouse, who served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1839-45; George Bryan Porter, who was appointed governor of Michigan territory by President Andrew Jackson; and James, who went on to serve as Secretary of War under President John Tyler and was the primary founder of Lafayette College in Easton.
Additional Porter family descendants include General Horace Porter, said to be the author of the account of Robert E. Lee's surrender at the Appomattox Court House, and Eliza Parker, mother of Mary Todd (Lincoln).
The great tragedy of the Knox family
In 1821, the Porters sold the property to the Knox family, who ran into greater misfortune than the previous occupants. According to the Preservation Society, records show that that the family of Thomas Knox, the son of original owner Andrew Knox, was nearly wiped out sometime in the mid-18th century. Terio and Foersch say records show Knox lost three of four children, along with his wife Sarah Ann, within a few months' time, most likely of yellow fever or a similar illness.
It was also during this time that Knox would begin to sell large portions of the property, many of which would ultimately develop into what is now the West End of Norristown.
But the legacy lived on through surviving daughter Ellen, who married Joseph Fornance, the son in a prominent family in Norristown. Their son, also named Joseph, would take a wife Ruth, who became the last living inhabitant of the Selma Mansion until her death in 1982. Although the vacant home was then offered to local, state, and national historical societies, it ultimately fell into the hands of Ruth's sister when no one took ownership.
"Ruth's sister was greedy and wanted money," says Foersch, citing an interview with a former caretaker of Ruth. "She was able to get the contents of the house and had a huge yard sale in 1984, where dozens of Civil War uniforms were basically given away."
The property eventually passed to a local developer who built apartment buildings around the property and used the Selma Mansion as a selling point. The Norristown Preservation Society was formed to take care of the property and ultimately purchased a 99-year lease from the developer, Foersch said.
Fast forward to 2011, when Foersch and Terio approached the society to volunteer and help restore the property. On April 30 of that year, the couple held their first major clean-up day and that night they found their first evidence that members of the Porter, Knox and Fornance families still reside in Selma Mansion.
"We had no idea if the home was [paranormally] active or not and it was pretty astounding as far as some of the things we caught," said Foersch.
"I captured a [voice], saying 'John,'" Terio says. "But nobody knows who John is-- there never was a John Porter."
Terio began to do a little more research, and found records at Lafayette College showing that James Madison Porter had written letters to someone named John Ewing Porter. Terio says with a little more digging, she found that General Porter had a son named John, who took his mother's maiden name of Ewing after a falling out with his father, and used it to write to his brother.
P.U.P.S. further researched noises they would hear while investigating, including a strange electronic buzzing noise.
"By interviewing Ruth's companion, who took care of her while she was bed ridden, we found that Ruth used a buzzer to summon her when she wanted to eat or use the bathroom," Foersch says.
The team was able to locate the long, wired device Ruth used to press to activate the buzzer, along with the actual buzzer. However, there was one catch: the wiring had been severed, leaving the buzzer completely disconnected, so it couldn't possibly make a noise.
Since the group's determination that spirits still occupied the house, dozens of investigations have been conducted by P.U.P.S. and other paranormal groups. The laughter of children, a disembodied male voice saying what sounds like "I'm dead," the unexplainable smell of roses, and running footfalls and slamming doors are just some of the things captured or reported by investigators.
Upon Patch's visit to the mansion one Sunday night, Terio and Foersch conducted an impromptu two-hour investigation. With the exception of cars passing by and a late football game on a nearby field, all sounded relatively quiet. But a review of electronic recordings revealed something else: what sounds like a grunting noise, a few indistinguishable whispers and perhaps even a voice saying a reporter's name.
Compared to the wealth of evidence offered online it was not one of the more successful investigations, but not completely empty either.
Foersch and Terio take pride in thinking of how connected the home is with Norristown and surrounding areas. The pair help the Preservation Society host a number of public events throughout the year, including this Friday’s ghost tour night and an all-day paranormal event on Saturday. Interested residents can simply show up to the house for a guided tour. While the mansion has been decorated for Halloween, its haunted nature and rich history offer something for everyone.
In addition, Foersch and Terio says the society is always grateful for new volunteers or donations, and offers tours and overnight investigation opportunities throughout the year.
“We need the community’s help,” Foersch says. “We really need to restore this property to what Norristown, and Montgomery County, deserves.”