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Historic Portraits, Including 1 Of Susan B. Anthony, Discovered In Attic

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

And now the best kind of story - about hidden treasure found in an old attic...

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Attorney David Whitcomb bought a building in Geneva, N.Y., to expand his law practice and invited his friend Patrick (ph) for a tour.

DAVID WHITCOMB: While we were on the third floor, which is vacant, standing there talking, we were looking up at the ceiling. And there's the drop ceiling. It's kind of falling apart in parts. And we were kind of poking at the one spot. We assumed what we were going to see is the roof.

PFEIFFER: It was a concealed room sealed by drywall and lost to time.

WHITCOMB: We piled a couple chairs up so I could stick my head up there. And now these chairs are kind of teetering, and my friend's holding them, and I'm climbing them up. And I've got my cellphone camera light out. And I stick it up, and I pull it eye-level. And once I can focus my eyes, what I'm looking at is photo frames, these gorgeous gilded, you know, turn-of-the-century photo frames. They don't make them like that anymore.

MARTIN: What he had found was a hidden portrait studio from the turn of the 20th century - antique backdrops, equipment, glass negatives and prints, mostly of area locals, not all of them unknowns.

WHITCOMB: Everything's dirty. And we peel back, and there's a picture of a woman holding a book. I took my hand, and I brushed some of the soot off. And I remember we both stood back and were puzzled. And I looked, and I said, does she look familiar to you? And Patrick says, yeah, she does. I mean - I said, is that Susan B. Anthony?

PFEIFFER: Susan B. Anthony is a familiar citizen of upstate New York. She is, of course, one of the country's first leaders of the movement for the rights of women, the suffragists. [see POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION below].

MARTIN: Whitcomb Googled photos of Anthony to be sure.

WHITCOMB: And we find that image. And it's in the Library of Congress.

MARTIN: The man who made the image was photographer James Ellery Hale. Much of the secret stash bore his name. Whitcomb found other Hale pictures of famous area residents like suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

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

PFEIFFER: But Whitcomb said the most valuable find was probably the glass negative for that legendary image of Susan B. Anthony.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that Susan B. Anthony helped organize the women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. She did not organize that convention.

POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this report used the word "suffragette," a word that can have a negative connotation. It has been replaced with "suffragist."] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 10, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of the audio of this report incorrectly said that Susan B. Anthony helped organize the women's rights convention in Seneca Falls. She did not organize that convention. Clarification, previously posted Feb. 9: An earlier version of this report used the word "suffragette," a word that can have a negative connotation. It has been replaced with "suffragist."