Selling the ‘spooky’ factor

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To put an old house together again, you need to draw crowds

By Rusty Tagliareni

The Selma Mansion is looking a little rough around the edges, but given that fact that it came into this world well over 200 years ago, it could surely look worse. Today, shepherded by passionate members of the Norristown (PA) Preservation Society, the old mansion is slowly coming back from the brink.

It was constructed in 1794 by Andrew Porter, a man whose name you may not know, but you have surely heard of the branch of the armed forces he helped to found: the United States Marine Corps. The history of the old Selma mansion ties deeply with our own national history, and Andrew Porter is the first in a long line of names that came from Selma. Andrew’s sons all went on to be of great influence in their times: the four Porters became a judge, two governors, and a Secretary of War. Andrew Porter’s granddaughter Eliza Parker married Robert Smith Todd, whose daughter, Mary Todd, became the wife of Abraham Lincoln.

The home changed hands in 1821 and the Knox family passed it down through a couple generations until it came into the hands of Joseph Fornance, husband of sole surviving Knox daughter Ellen. When widow Ruth Fornance passed away in the 1980s, she intended that house be donated to the county. Neither the county nor the township wanted it, though, and an estate sale liquidated the artifacts from the once-proud home. A developer bought the land and quickly began erecting apartment buildings on the estate’s perimeter. After plans to convert Selma into a rec center fell through, the developer began weighing the possibility of leveling the old mansion, to make room for new construction or possibly additional parking for the complex.

With the wrecking ball winding up, a group of concerned citizens banded together to form the Norristown Preservation Society with the sole purpose of saving Selma ( They were able to purchase the old house and surrounding parcel of land from the developer in the 1990’s. The group immediately began work on the house – a monster of a job, with a house of this age and size. Selma now has running water and electricity, coming a long way from the cold dark stone shell it was when the society gained possession. The carriage houses are restored, a new porch has been added to the back. The ornate two-story front porch has been disassembled and is safely stored away awaiting future funding to have it restored and re-attached.

Aside from historic property grants, a large bulk of the funding comes from the popular ghost tours and after-dark paranormal investigations held in the old mansion. In its current state, many may find the house more than a bit spooky, especially on a chilled autumn evening. Instead of running from this image, the Norristown Preservation Society has embraced it.

Lisa Terio, founder of the Pennsylvania Underground Paranormal Society, and member of the preservation society, said that they go through great lengths to ensure that the investigations are done with tact. “Besides,” she said, “the spirits love the company.”

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