Edward Erswell

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Edward E. Erswell (born July 5, 1846 on the Atlantic crossing; died January 28, 1910 in Birmingham) was a cabinet maker and undertaker in early Birmingham.

He was the son of Charles Erswell, a superintending architect who worked for the United States government. His mother, the former Mary Ann Snow, died in 1847. Erswell grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and attended public schools there before going on to Baldwin University in Berea, Ohio. He left school after six months, though, to join a wagon train crossing the plains. He made it as far as Fort Kearney, Nebraska before sickness forced him to return east. He pursued a variety of activities over the next several years, including stock trading, book sales, patent medicines, and some time at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

He then settled on the trade of cabinet and furniture making and went into business in Winchester, Virginia. When his partner left him, Erswell began working with a touring stage magician from Baltimore, Maryland named "Professor Collins". The tour prospered and Erswell received permission from the United States government to "secure a party of Indians" from the west to exhibit at fairs in the south.

Erswell came to the infant city of Birmingham in the spring of 1872 and married the former Catherine E. "Kitty" Smith of Elizabethtown, Kentucky that same year. He set up shop as a cabinet builder, taking on the construction of a stage and equipment for Frank O'Brien's Sublett Hall as his first contract. He founded the Erswell Company and remained in the city through the 1873 cholera epidemic, engaged primarily during that time in building coffins as well as providing the services of an undertaker. His undertaking business was located on 2nd Avenue North. In 1878 he took on George Bube of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as an assistant in the business and manufacturing and selling furniture. By 1883 his three-story retail store at 114 19th Street North displayed a wide selection of fine furnishings, carpets, and wallcoverings. Its upper floor also served as a meeting hall, and as home of the Well-Known Social Club, which later reorganized as the Estelle Social Club. Erswell rebuilt it in brick in 1890. The hall hosted wrestling matches in 1891.

Over the following years, Erswell invested successfully in real estate such as the development of the 50-room St Nicholas Hotel. He was president of the Woodlawn Cemetery Company. He was also active in Mineral City Lodge No. 74 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. He served as Grand Patriarch of the Birmingham Encampment No. 21, and as treasurer of the Grand Encampment of Alabama. Erswell sold his undertaking business, then located at 2019 3rd Avenue North, to R. G. Green in 1902. In 1904 Erswell was elected Commissioner of Drennen Park, but resigned from that position in 1905. Police broke up a fight between Erswell and Llewellyn Johns on the corner of 20th Street and 3rd Avenue North on the afternoon of June 29, 1905. Both were issued bonds to appear at the police court.

Edward and Kitty Erswell had five children: Henry, Edward, George, Nellie Gertrude and Maude Estelle. The couple outlived all five, but did welcome two granddaughters, Aileen and Catherine, the daughters of Samuel and Nellie Kirkman, both born in 1895. Erswell's great-granddaughter Jane married Standard Oil executive Charles Wrightsman. Their art collection became the basis of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Wrightsman Galleries.

Erswell died at his home at 909 21st Street South near Quinlin Avenue in January 1910 in the course of a long illness. His funeral, officiated by Willoughby Claybrook, was held at the Episcopal Church of the Advent, and he was buried in the Erswell vault at Oak Hill Cemetery.


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