Changing Landscapes People and Places in the Mill Creek Valley Lower Merion c.1870-c.1920

Seth Humphreys



In 1794, Jonathan Robeson built a paper mill on a corner lot in the Mill Creek area of Lower Merion. This corner lot, intersected by two major roads, would change hands multiple times before Seth Humphreys, an ambitious miller, purchased it in 1862. Forty years before Humphreys bought the property, the paper mill was converted to a woolen mill and renamed “Fairview Woolen Mill.” Milling was in Humphreys’ blood; his father had been the head of the wool-drying department in the Wetheredsville Woolen Mill in Baltimore County, Maryland. Through hard work, Seth owned his own mill by the age of thirty-six and would live there for the rest of his life.[1] The Fairview Mill remained prosperous through multiple fires and personal tragedies until 1912 when Seth’s son, Enos, died in a tragic railroad accident and the mill was sold to miller A.L. Hoskins.[2] In 1914, the property was absorbed into the property of millionaire James Crosby Brown.

Fairview Mill

While prosperous within the Lower Merion community, the Humphreys did not lead lavish lives. They were a modest family who devoted a lot of their time to the Lower Merion Baptist Church. Considered among Philadelphia's "greatest hives of industry," Fairview remained prosperous throughout multiple economic downturns, always turning out a positive profit. Purchased by Humphreys in 1862, the mill was completely rebuilt in 1877. However, on April 5th, 1877, the new building was destroyed by fire with Seth receiving nearly $16,000 from various insurance claims.[3] After re-building the mill for a second time, Seth concentrated on the manufacturing of carpet yarn, turning out approximately 3,500 pounds of yarn each day.[4] Tragedy struck once more for the mill in 1884 when another fire destroyed the mill The fire’s cause remained unknown but it originated from the picker room and quickly spread to all areas inside the mill, "The shoddy mill of Seth Humphreys on Mill Creek, the Hagey's old property... took fire from some unknown cause, on Saturday morning last, and was entirely consumed."[5] In addition to fire, storms and heavy rain also wreaked havoc on the mill over the years. In the late spring of 1884, a massive storm wiped away a few minor buildings on the Humphreys property.[6]

fairview mill.png

A selection of photos of Fairview after a storm in 1903. Copyrighted by newsbank.

The Life and Times of Seth Humphreys

Born to Enos and Charlotte Humphreys on December 25th, 1827, Seth and his family moved to America when he was seven, coming across the Atlantic on the Memnon and docking in New York City on December 19th, 1833.[7] The family of eight lived in Baltimore County, Maryland where Seth remained until 1851 when he moved to Pennsylvania to work at the woolen factory of Alfred Jenks & Son. AJ & Son manufactured different kinds of woolen machines and it was here where Seth gained an in-depth knowledge of the wool trade.[8] After being so closely linked to the wool trade for his entire life, it was not surprising that Humphreys would later own and operate his own woolen mill.


Photo of Alfred Jenks & Son Factory, Courtesy of World Digital Library


On September 11th, 1853, Seth married Martha Wagenseller, the woman he would be married to for almost half a century.[9] Martha was a descendant of John Jacob Shrack, a popular figure in Montgomery County who immigrated to America in 1717. Shrack opened a tavern after arriving in Pennsylvania and one day, a German customer tripped up the large stone steps in front of the tavern’s door. Shouting loudly in German, “Verdamt die Treppe” which translates to “Damn the steps” in English, the area surrounding the tavern became known as “Treppe”, eventually turning into “Trappe”. The town of Trappe still exists today, located about twenty miles from the town of Ardmore.[10] Although Seth did not have deep ties to Montgomery County, Martha’s family was one of the first families to settle into the county.


Tombstone Honoring Schrack: First Settlers of Trappe, Courtesy of


Before moving to Fairview Mill, Seth and Martha lived in Upper Darby with Seth working long hours at a woolen mill to save enough money to purchase his own mill. While in Upper Darby, Martha gave birth to three children: Mary, Anna and Clara.[11] After moving to Spring Mill Road, the couple had three more children: Enos, Seth and Mary.[12] As was common in the 19th century, child mortality rates were high and tragedy struck the Humphreys family twice with the deaths of their eldest daughter, Mary, and youngest son, Seth. Mary died on June 12th, 1868 at the age of twelve and is buried at the Lower Merion Baptist Church in Bryn Mawr. Seven years later, the Humphreys would bury six-year-old Seth next to Mary at the Baptist church.[13] Their causes of death are unknown but undoubtedly caused inexplicable suffering for the entire family.

mary ellen grave.png

Both Mary and Seth Humphreys's Tombstone located at the Lower Merion Baptist Church, courtesy of 


A large family in its own right, the Humphreys always housed servants and other workers in their home. Martha was close with her younger brother, John, who lived with and worked for the family.[14] Fairview Mill employed multiple engineers for the factory during its existence. On July 21st, 1888, Thomas D. Sturgis Jr.’s departure from Fairview made the local newspaper.[15] However, this would not be the last time that a Humphreys engineer would make headlines. Just a few months later in December 1888, a former employee, John Ferguson, would cause a media frenzy after committing an extreme act of violence.

After living at Fairview Mill for 37 years, Seth Humphreys died on November 6th, 1899 and was buried next to his children, Mary and Seth, at the Lower Merion Baptist Church. An avid churchgoer, Seth served as a deacon for the Lower Merion Baptist Church and headed multiple church committees during his life.[16] In his will, Seth left $500 and his watch & chain to his grandson, Seth. Out of all the grandchildren, Seth received the largest sum of money and was the only grandchild to receive a personal item from Seth Sr., showing the close relationship the two shared. Humphreys bequeathed $100 to his brother, Enos and to a colored servant, Ophelia Ballard. A bold decision at a time when civil rights issues were beginning to unfold, by leaving money for Ophelia in his will, Humphreys shows that he was a progressive, forward-thinking man. The mill was given to his son, Enos, who continued to run it until his untimely death in 1912.[17]

merion baptist church.png

The Lower Merion Baptist Church. Courtesy of

The Humphreys Children

Anna Humphreys

Born in 1858, Anna was the second child born to the Humphreys and became the eldest after her sister died in 1868. She married Alfred S. Heft, another woolen manufacturer whom she met through her father’s mill. The couple lived in Philadelphia and had three children: Seth, Bessie, and Jacob.[18] Seth Heft was 18 years old when he enlisted in the 6th regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers to fight in the Spanish-American War.[19] He married Flora Frances Buehler and had two daughters, Flora Caroline and Catheryn. Bessie Heft never married and lived with her father for most of her life. Anna’s third child, Jacob, died in infancy. When she was just 29 years-old, Anna died in the 21st ward of Philadelphia, leaving behind Alfred and her two living children.[20]

Clara Humphreys

Clara married Alfred H. Mellersh and together the couple had four children: Marcia, Anna, Mary and Edith. In addition, their household included Ophelia Ballard, the same servant who had worked for the Humphreys when Clara’s father was alive.[21] Clara spent her days keeping house until she died from influenza at the age of 58. She died in her home at 343 Lyceum Avenue in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, surrounded by her family.[22]

Enos Humphrey

After his father died in 1899, Enos inherited his father’s mill. He married May V. Towns and had two sons, Seth and Alfred.[23] Thirteen years after inheriting Fairview Mill, Enos died in a freak railroad accident in Buffalo, NY.[24] In the wake of his death, Mary was unable to keep up with the mill and decided to sell it. As adults, both Seth and Alfred left Pennsylvania to start their own families.[25]

Mary Humphreys

The final Humphreys child, Mary, was born in 1872 and named after her deceased sister. She married Frank C. Marshall, a well-to-do banker with a prominent job in the banking business.[26] They had one daughter named Anna who never married or had children of her own.[27] The family lived in Phoenixville, where Mary would later die from a heart attack brought on by Monckeberg’s arteriosclerosis, a disease that causes severe damage to the heart and kidneys.[28]        

The Ferguson Tragedy

In the early morning of December 16th, 1888, shockwaves were sent through Montgomery County after tragedy struck the Mill Creek community. Two deceased bodies, that of John Ferguson and his wife, Mary, were found in their home near Mill Creek by Mary’s sister, Elizabeth McCall. In the years prior, John had worked as an engineer at the Humphreys mill. After the Ferguson’s son, Walter, showed up on Mrs. McCall’s doorstep earlier that morning with an urgent message for his aunt, Mrs. McCall immediately sensed trouble. Living nearly opposite the Fergusons, Mrs. McCall rushed over to the house and found her sister and brother-in-law both dead from gunshot wounds. The couple’s two other children, Annie and Willie, had been in the house but sustained no injuries. While the deaths caused a news frenzy throughout the county, it did not take long for the police to conclude that John Ferguson had committed an act of murder-suicide, shooting his wife and then taking his own life shortly after.[29]

This heinous crime that left three children orphaned was not as shocking to some of the Ferguson’s close friends who knew John’s character. At least ten years older than Mary, John’s jealousy caused many arguments between the couple and he frequently accused her of calling upon other, much younger men, while he was working at Flanigan’s Mill in Manayunk during the day. Mary Ferguson’s closest friend, Mrs. Murphy, was forbidden from entering the Ferguson household and Mary was no longer allowed to accompany Murphy on trips to the city. John’s jealousy reached a point of mania in the fall of 1888 when he no longer slept in the couple’s bed, choosing to sleep in the hallway outside their bedroom door. After breakfast on December 16th, Mary was cleaning the kitchen when John came into the room and started a heated argument.[30] Their eldest son, Walter, has been sent to his aunt’s house just moments before and John had placed the two youngest children in the sitting room, out of view from the kitchen and soon-to-be crime scene.

The act itself took four bullets from a pistol, with the first two hitting a window and the kitchen floor. John shot Mary from point-blank range in the head, killing her instantly with her body found slumped near the stove. After shooting his wife, he put the pistol against his temple and shot himself. Although their children Annie and Willie were in the home at the time of the shooting, neither of them got up from the sitting room to investigate the noises. While too young to understand the consequences of their father’s actions, thankfully none of the three children witnessed the crime or saw their parent’s dead bodies.[31] The orphaned children were turned over to their maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. CH, who promised to raise them in honor of their deceased daughter.[32] Because of the horrific nature of John’s crime, the Methodist Church did not allow for his body to be buried on consecrated grounds. In addition, the bodies were buried far apart by request of Mary’s family. Mary Ferguson was buried at the Catholic Church of the Holy Family on Jefferson Street in Manayunk. Nearly 600 people came to pay their respects to the mother of three.[33]

As is custom, a full coroner’s report was issued by Coroner Kingkiner which stated, “That Mary Ann Ferguson came to her death by hemorrhage caused by a pistol shot wound through the pulmonary artery, inflicted by her husband in a fit of temporary aberration” and “John Ferguson came to his death by a pistol shot wound through the brain, inflicted by himself in a fit of temporary aberration.” The fatal pistol was given to John’s brother, Robert, who would destroy the weapon, “so that no more harm may be done with the weapon that has already accomplished so much.”[34]

The tragedy garnered wide-spread attention from newspapers in Chicago and even the New York Times. What intrigued readers was the nature of the crime; that a jealous husband could go so far as to murder his own wife and then take his own life. However, jealousy is not the sole reason Ferguson murdered his wife. Working as an engineer at Flanigan Mills, during the six weeks prior to the murders, John had been showing “signs of mental unsoundness, the result, said a doctor to-day who has been attending him, of too close application to his work.”[35] This “mental unsoundness” is an outdated umbrella term for some kind of mental disease, the extent to which no one will ever know for certain. Before his doctor noticed this “mental unsoundness”, John had recovered from a case of diphtheria, a very serious bacterial infection that causes a severe sore throat, headache and extreme fatigue. Only a few years before the vaccination for diphtheria would become widespread throughout America, John was still in the process of recovering from his illness when his strange behavior began. During his recovery he complained of pains in his spine and “queer feelings in his head.” These “queer feelings” got so bad that his employer, Mr. Flanigan, had sent him home a week before the shooting to give him time to rest.[36]

From a 21st Century perspective, it is clear that John Ferguson had suffered from a severe form of mental illness that was misconstrued by the media into “jealousy”. Whether the diphtheria played a role in his final unraveling is unclear, but rarely does diphtheria cause any type of mental illness. Perhaps, as his doctor had stated, John had been working too much as an engineer and needed time off in order to regain balance in his life. This crime, regardless of its causes, shed light onto the possible violence that can occur in even the most idyllic of communities.                                                 

[1] Theodore W. Bean, History of Montgomery County. (Philadelphia: Unigraphic, 1884), google books, 612-619.

[2] Last Will & Testament of Seth Humphreys, County Record Office of Montgomery County, 0C #24003.

[3] “Losses and Insurances,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 6, 1877. Page 2.

[4] “Gossip of Philadelphia Towns,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1896. Page 38.

[5] “A New Siding,” Conshohocken Recorder, July 26, 1884. Page 3.

[6] “For one hour and a half…,” The Conshohocken Recorder, June 1, 1894. Page 3.

[7] New York, Passenger and Immigration Lists, 1820-1850 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2003.

[8] Theodore W. Bean, History of Montgomery County.

[9] Theodore W. Bean, History of Montgomery County.

[10] Rhonda Goodman, “It’s Just A Borough Named After A Bar,”, November 14, 1993.

[11] Year: 1860; Census Place: Upper Darby, Delaware, Pennsylvania; Roll: M653_1105; Page: 706; Image: 711; Family History Library Film: 805105

[12] Year: 1870; Census Place: Lower Merion, Montgomery, Pennsylvania; Roll: M593_1377; Page: 538B; Image:600; Family History Library Film: 552876

[13] Lower Merion Baptist Church, Burial Records,

[14] Year: 1870; Census Place: Lower Merion, Montgomery, Pennsylvania; Roll: M593_1377; Page: 538B; Image:600; Family History Library Film: 552876

[15] “Lower Merion News,” The Conshohocken Recorder, July 21, 1888.

[16] Philadelphia Baptist Association. Minutes of the ... anniversary of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Volume 1872. Philadelphia, 1872. 68pp

[17] Last Will & Testament of Seth Humphreys, County Record Office of Montgomery County, 0C #24003.

[18] Year: 1880; Census Place: Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1180; Family History Film: 1255180; Page: 174D; Enumeration District: 432; Image: 0756

[19] U.S., Spanish American War Volunteers Index to Compiled Military Service Records, 1898[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012

[20] Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

[21] Year: 1900; Census Place: Philadelphia Ward 21, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Roll: 1463; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0461; FHL microfilm: 1241463

[22] Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Collection Name: Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records

[23] Last Will & Testament of Seth Humphreys, County Record Office of Montgomery County, 0C #24003.

[24] Last Will & Testament of Seth Humphreys, County Record Office of Montgomery County, 0C #24003.

[25] Missouri, Marriage Records, 1805-2002 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2007.

[26] George Washington Wagenseller, The History of the Wagenseller Family in America, (Philadelphia: Wagenseller Publishing Company, 1898), 99.

[27] Year: 1940; Census Place: Chicago, Cook, Illinois; Roll: T627_952; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 103-1031

[28] Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014.

[29] The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Murder and Suicide an Engineer Kills His Wife and Shoots Himself,” December 17, 1888.

[30] The New York Times, “The Ferguson Tragedy- Witnesses Tell the Coroner the Story of the Double Crime,” December 18, 1888.

[31] The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Murder and Suicide an Engineer Kills His Wife and Shoots Himself.”

[32] The Conshohocken Recorder, “Murder and Suicide,” December 22, 1888.

[33] The New York Times, “The Ferguson’s Buried,” December 20, 1888.

[34] The Conshohocken Recorder, “Murder and Suicide,” December 22, 1888.

[35] The Daily Inter Ocean, “Made mad by overwork,” December 17, 1888.

[36] The Conshohocken Recorder, “Murder and Suicide,” December 22, 1888.