He was the son of Charles Erswell, a superintending architect who worked for the United States government. He 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 set up shop as a cabinet builder. His first job was the construction of a stage and equipment for Frank O'Brien's Sublett Hall. He remained in the city through the 1873 cholera epidemic and was engaged primarily during that time in building coffins as well as providing the services of an undertaker.
He continued in that trade through the 1880s, adding furniture, wallpaper, window shades and carpets to his retail offerings. His store occupied a three-story, 75 foot x 100 foot building at 112, 114 and 116 19th Street North. He employed Mark Bradbury as a cabinetmaker, J. W. Diamond as a clerk, Fannie Thatch as a maid, and an African American named Joseph Smith as a drayman.
Over the following years, Erswell invested successfully in real estate. He and his wife, the former Katie Smith, had five children: Maud, Nelly, Edward Jr, Henry and George.
- City Directory of Birmingham and Gazetteer of Surrounding Section for 1884-5 (1884) Volume II. Atlanta, Georgia: Interstate Directory Company
- Dubose, John Witherspoon (1887) Jefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama: Historical and Biographical Birmingham: Teeple & Smith, Publishers; Caldwell Printing Works.
- Edward E. Erswell at Findagrave.com