Trove Of Antique Portraits, Including 1 Of Susan B. Anthony, Found In Attic

by Ryan Benk

“Oh my God, I think we found the Goonies treasure.” 

That’s what David Whitcomb thought late last year when he discovered what appeared to be a secret attic of a building he’d just bought in Geneva, N.Y. There, he found century-old photographs and equipment — and a mystery. 

Whitcomb, who had just purchased the historic building to expand his law practice, remembers that he had invited a friend over for a tour. 

“While we were on the third floor, which is vacant, standing there talking, we were looking up at the ceiling and … the drop ceiling is kind of falling apart in parts and we were kind of poking at the one spot,” Whitcomb tells Morning Edition. “We assumed what we were going to see was the roof.”

From the outside, Whitcomb said, the building didn’t seem to have an attic. No one — not the sellers nor the owners before them — had any idea one existed, Whitcomb says. But there it was — a concealed room, sealed by drywall and lost to time.

They piled up chairs so Whitcomb could stick his head through the hole in the ceiling. Shining his cell phone’s light around the space, he said, he saw stacks and piles of “gorgeous, gilded, turn-of-the-century photo frames.”

What he’d found was a hidden portrait studio from the turn of the 20th century: antique backdrops, equipment, glass negatives and prints, mostly of area locals — though not all of them were unknowns. One was a portrait of a woman in profile, holding a book. She looked familiar, like Susan B. Anthony, he says. When he Googled her, it was the image that came up. The 43-year-old attorney had come across one of the most famous photographs of the legendary suffragist taken a year before she died.

“It’s in the Library of Congress,” Whitcomb says.

Anthony is a familiar citizen of upstate New York. She lived in Rochester for many years where she organized for the rights of women. Anthony was also famously arrested in Rochester for voting in 1872. Suffragist history runs deep in the area with the first national women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., about a half hour’s drive from Whitcomb’s new law office in Geneva. 

In addition to Anthony, Whitcomb found what is believed to be a portrait of fellow suffragist, and Anthony friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Many of the items in the attic bore the name James Ellery Hale, a photographer who had a thriving business in the late to early 1900s to about 1920, Whitcomb says. He later learned his new building once housed Hale’s studio. But the attic storage above the third floor is still a mystery. He says no one is quite sure how the stash ended up there, much less why the attic entrance was plastered over.

Whitcomb isn’t sure what will happen next to the collection. He enlisted the help of a local auction company to help clean and catalogue his findings, the most precious of them being a piece from that Susan B. Anthony portrait’s glass negative. He hopes, COVID restrictions allowing, much of the collection can go on display somewhere by the summer.

“We were just blown away by the volume of stuff,” he says. “The amount of material up in that attic was insane. It was like going on an Easter egg hunt and opening every Easter egg as you go and you find gold.”