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History's Headlines: Selma Mansion

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Maryann Burser believes in ghosts. Not that she thinks every spooky-looking old house is haunted. But there is one she knows is haunted, an historic Norristown property known as Selma. “I know that it is because I have heard them,” says Burser, a member of the Norristown Preservation Society,  standing in the hallway of the 223 year old Federal Style mansion built by Andrew Porter, one of the first members of the U.S. Marine Corps and a close personal friend of George Washington.

Porter’s children included Pennsylvania Governor David Rittenhouse Porter and George B. Porter, the territorial governor of Michigan. Another son, James Madison Porter, was among the founders of Easton’s Lafayette College and briefly Secretary of War under President John Tyler. Andrew Porter was also the great-grandfather of Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife.

It was the NPS that saved Selma several years ago when it was almost torn down. And the years have not been kind to this gem of a house that sits on a highpoint, once the focal point of a 144 acre estate. The society is currently trying to raise funds to restore Selma to something like its former glory. “When the last occupant of the house died in the 1980s, it was emptied of all its furniture and it was sold,” said Burser. “Even the family papers of the prominent people who lived here were scattered.” The paranormal aspects of Selma’s history have been used as a fundraising venue. Several events of this type have been held there.

In 1794, long before it had ghosts, the site of Selma attracted the eye of Andrew Porter (1743-1813). Born on his nearby father’s farm in what is now Norristown, he was educated in English and the sciences. In 1767, he took charge of a boy’s school in Philadelphia. Porter was teaching there in 1776 at the outbreak of the Revolution. He was among the first men to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps. Some sources call him the founder of the Corps, others that he was among the founders. Porter served briefly aboard the USS Effingham, a 32 gun frigate named for an English nobleman Thomas Howard, the earl of Effingham, who resigned his commission rather than serve in an unjust war against the Americans. The ship was later scuttled to keep it out of the hands of the British.

Washington transferred Porter to the artillery. He saw fighting at the battles of Princeton, Brandywine, Trenton and Germantown. At that last battle he was among the few in his artillery unit that survived. In 1781, according to Burser, at Washington’s request Porter was put in charge of the artillery at the battle of Yorktown in 1781 that virtually ended the war. After the war Porter returned to his family and began to farm. From 1784 to 1787 he also served with a special commission that helped establish the border between Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio, acting as the surveyor. On August 8, 1793 Porter wrote a letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson from Selma, complaining about the presence of a French frigate on which one of his runaway indentured servants was found hiding.

Porter was probably occupying the farmhouse that sat on the future site of Selma, one built in the 1740s. Starting in 1794 be began to build the current Selma house around the older dwelling. It was built in the stately Federalist style. As George Washington was then serving as president in the nearby capital city of Philadelphia, it is more than likely he visited his friend Porter. Later named Surveyor General of Pennsylvania, he died while serving in that post in 1813 and is buried in Harrisburg.

It was Porter’s son James Madison Porter (1793-1862), later the founder of Easton’s Lafayette College, who is most closely associated with the Lehigh Valley. Born at Selma he was Andrew Porter’s youngest son. After studying law in 1818 J.M. Porter was appointed Deputy Attorney General for Northampton County. Over the next forty years he established an extensive legal practice and made his home in Easton. In 1824 Porter was the leader of 200 Northampton County militia who traveled to Philadelphia from Easton to take part in the celebration surrounding the visit of Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette to America.

Traveling down the Delaware in flat bottomed Durham boats, the militia were presented to Lafayette. In his 1932 history of the college David Skillman describes their meeting this way (Lafayette spoke accented but accurate English, which he supposedly learned from Alexander Hamilton who was also on Washington’s staff and knew several foreign languages):

“Porter, Porter, I remember that name. Any relation to Captain Porter whom I met at Brandywine?

“Yes sir, his son,” replied Porter.

“Well, sir,” the general replied, “I bless you for your father’s sake. He was a brave man. He had with him a young man, a relative I think, whose name I have forgotten. They fought very nearly together.”

“Was it Parker?” asked Porter.

“That was the name,” said Lafayette.

“He was my mother’s brother,” Mr. Porter explained.

“Ah, indeed; well, they were very good soldiers and very kind to me when I was wounded. Farewell, young gentlemen, I wish you well for their sakes.”

The men marched back to Easton where Porter headed the drive to create a college which in part at his urging was named after Lafayette.

Porter was selected by President Tyler to be Secretary of War in 1843. He served only nine months, resigning in January 1844 when Congress refused to confirm him for political reasons. This may have saved Porter’s life. A month later an explosion of an experimental cannon on the USS Princeton killed the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy who were standing behind it.

With the death of Andrew Porter’s wife Elizabeth in 1821 Selma was sold to Thomas Knox, a former shipping merchant from Savannah, Georgia. His son Col. Thomas Knox then took over the property following his father’s death.

In 1847 tragedy struck the Knox family when his wife and three children died in an epidemic. Burser has also smelled cigar smoke where no one is smoking a cigar and doors slam when they are all closed. She believes the ghostly children she hears laughing are the spirits of Knox’s children. “They are friendly spirits, not a thing like you see on television,” she says.

In 1853 Colonel Knox sold off 44 acres of Selma for development.

Ellen Knox, the Colonel’s surviving daughter and her husband Joseph Fornance, a prominent attorney, moved into Selma in 1879 and lived there into the 1920s. With their passing the property passed to their son Joseph Knox Fornance and his wife Ruth Ryder Fornance. He died in 1965 and she lived into the 1980s. The home’s contents were offered to the state, Montgomery County and the Borough of Norristown but found no takers.

Burser, her husband and the other members of the NPS are hoping that with time and successful fundraising Selma can once more be recognized for the historic property that it is. “This house wants to live,” she says.  

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