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Dating back to 1794, Norristown’s Selma Mansion captivates patrons of preservation and the paranormal in the Philadelphia suburbs.
When someone backed out of Selma Mansion’s 2019 Psychic Fair, it left an opening in the late Mrs. Ruth Ryder Fornance’s bedroom on the third floor. So Sabrina Pasquariello filled in with her singing bowls, stirring a whoosh felt throughout the massive 1794 estate. Other experienced psychics on hand were dumfounded by the swell of energy. Theresa Sayres was one of them, and she started shaking. “You need to get grounded out,” Bill Freeman told Sayres before taking her outside to do just that.
The veteran clairvoyant is vice president of the Norristown Preservation Society, which owns the mansion. “When you deal with the spiritual world, you can’t protect yourself from all that could happen,” says Freeman, a retired Philadelphia corrections officer.
For the past four years, Pasquariello and Dee Kilpatrick have hosted the Psychic Fair as a one-day event. This year, it will run for two days—Oct. 9 and 10—as a fundraiser for Selma Mansion, former home to the Porter, Knox and Fornance families, including relations to the parents of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd.
When Ruth Ryder Fornance died in 1982, she willed Selma to the state, county or borough, but none were willing recipients. So its contents—rumored to have included crates of unopened Civil War uniforms stored in the wagon shed—were auctioned off. Formed in 1983 to prevent the destruction of the mansion, the Norristown Preservation Society bought the house for $40,000, payable in annual installments of $5,000. It cost considerably more with legal and other expenses. “Our purpose was preserving not just Selma but the entire town,” says NPS board member Gale Bresnehan.
As Selma Farms, the estate once occupied 248 acres. When a 44-acre entrance was sold in 1902, that was whittled down to just two acres at the corner of Selma and West Airy streets. The gate pillars remain and are maintained by a neighbor. “The original purpose was to consider it as a house museum,” says NPS president Russell Rubert. “But the general consensus was that house museums aren’t sustainable. So we decided to make it our house.”
Rubert doesn’t give much credence to paranormal activity, but he acknowledges that the fair and other events have paid for utilities and improvements at the mansion. Selma now has a heating system and one working bathroom. Last year, a grant paid for a $40,000 cedar shake roof, and another will fund the historical replacement of the mansion’s windows.
Vendor fees for the fair are $25. Pasquariello and Kilpatrick accommodate 30 vendors inside and 15 outside. There are gallery readings, walking meditations, workshops, lectures, and jewelry and crafts for sale. Anthony Sokol lectures on Hindu spiritual hand movements. “I’m a prep for the spiritual work,” he says. “It’s all religions, all spiritualities.”
The Psychic Fair generates about $1,500 in a single day for Selma. “We’re the cheapest place around for haunts and investigations,” Freeman says.
Selma continues to run on private funding (much of it from NPS board members) and profits from events, T-shirt sales and public grants. Freeman and others have experience in construction, which helped with replacing staircase balusters burned in the fireplaces by squatters in the 1980s, among other things. “We want to restore it level by level,” says Freeman. “That’s a ways down the line.”
Pasquariello was part of an early group that rented Selma to learn how to conduct paranormal investigations. “It’s how and why I feel in love with it,” says Pasquariello, who has experience as a healer.
She met Kilpatrick, who once ran a spiritual shop inside the Power House Antique & Flea Market in Collegeville. The two hit it off. “We thought, ‘Why not do a psychic fair?’” says Pasquariello.
The pair didn’t expect immediate success the first year. There was a kindred event in Phoenixville, and Freeman hosts Serving History Through the Ages at Selma. The latter tends to draw the industry’s TV personalities as guests. Pasquariello and Kilpatrick, meanwhile, aim for a more local flavor. “Regardless, it’s exhausting when we’re done with all that energy in the house,” says Kilpatrick. “People want to believe. We actually love when skeptics come in.”
Is Selma haunted? “Of course,” Freeman says. “Anyone who’s come here has never been disappointed.”
Kilpatrick grew up two blocks from Selma. “We’ve all had experiences,” she says.
“Hauntings?” poses her husband, Bill Dude. “Yeah—but it depends on how you define haunting.”
No doubt, Kilpatrick loves Selma. When she returned for the first time after the pandemic closure, she hugged the front door frame. Freeman has the same affection for the place. “Everyone who comes in here feels Selma and says it’s their place,” he says. “It belongs to everyone.”