A lawyer looking for a new office stumbled upon a trove of historic photographs when he discovered a secret attic in the three-story building he bought last December in Geneva, New York. Among the finds in the hidden trove was a rare portrait of suffragist Susan B. Anthony.
David J. Whitcomb, 43, was changing a light bulb on the building’s third floor when he realized the ceiling looked strange. That was because it was a drop ceiling, installed decades ago to convert the space into an apartment unit. Whitcomb spotted an access panel, climbed up on a stack of chairs, and peered inside with a flashlight.
“The first thing I saw was a whole bunch of picture frames stacked together and these frames are gorgeous. They’re the turn-of-the-century, they’re gold, gilded, and they shone really bright and I was like ‘Oh my God,’” he told CNN. “I lowered myself and said ‘I think we just found treasure.’”
The building’s two previous owners knew nothing of the hidden space, meaning it had been boarded up some time before the 1960s.
Papers in the stash featured the name of James Ellery Hale, or J.E. Hale. The Geneva Historical Society connected Whitcomb to its former president, Dan Weinstock, who explained that Hale was a photographer who lived in the town from 1892 to 1920. He moved his studio to Whitcomb’s building sometime after 1900.
Born in 1850, Hale had photographed President Grover Cleveland’s fiancé Francis Folsom in 1885, as well as many other early suffragists, displaying their portraits at the 1907 New York State Woman Suffrage Association in Geneva.
The Anthony photograph was taken in 1905, the year before her death. The Susan B. Anthony Memorial Association used it as her official portrait after Hale gave them the rights to the image. A clipping of a newspaper article featuring the same photo is part of the collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Whitcomb found pieces of the glass negative used to print the photograph, but fears the part featuring her face has been lost. He is hoping a local photographer can help develop images from some of the 50 intact glass negatives in the trove, which also includes burlap sacks full of hundreds of prints, images of Geneva sports teams, cameras, and props and photo backdrops Hale would have used in his shoots.
The collection also features at least two other prominent early women’s rights leaders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Smith Miller. Most of the photographs’ subjects have yet to be identified.
Whitcomb has consigned his find to One Source Auctions & Antiques in Canandaigua, New York, where the trove was appraised at $100,000. The Anthony photograph alone could fetch between $10,000 and $50,000
“It’s a very uncommon find, especially this being the main photo of Susan B. Anthony on file at the Library of Congress,” the auction house’s Aaron Kirvan told the Rochester .
“What’s amazing is that this material sat in this building for over a century, forgotten,” Whitcomb added. “Someone just dry-walled over this attic and it was lost to history until we discovered it, and it’s telling a very interesting story.”