As It Happens

Lawyer finds a 'treasure' of old photos, suffragette portraits in a hidden N.Y. attic

When David Whitcomb purchased an office space in Canandaigua, N.Y., just across the street from the courthouse where he practices law, he didn't know how valuable it would be.

Among the turn-of-the-century photos and equipment is a framed portrait of Susan B. Anthony

Lawyer David Whitcomb explores a secret attic of rare turn-of-the-century photographs in his Canandaigua, N.Y., office space. (Submitted by David Whitcomb )

When David Whitcomb purchased an office space in Canandaigua, N.Y., just across the street from the courthouse where he practices law, he didn't know how valuable it would be.

When Whitcomb went with a friend to inspect the three-storey building, he found an attic space that was unknown to the previous owners. 

Inside were stacks and stacks of pictures and photography equipment from the late 1800s and early 1900s — including a framed photo of suffragette Susan B. Anthony, taken a year before she died.

"I think everyone dreams of finding treasure someday," he told told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Whitcomb found stacks and stacks of old photos and photography equipment. (Submitted by David Whitcomb)

The third floor, he said, is an apartment in need of renovation. He was in there, looking at the drop ceiling that hid the building's original infrastructure, when he got curious and peeled back a panel. That's where he found the door to the attic.

"We stacked a bunch of chairs on top of each other. My friend was holding this teetering pile… and I stood up on them. I used my cellphone flashlight and stuck my head up," Whitcomb said.

"Once my eyes adjusted, I saw in the darkness of this room … five or six golden, gilded, turn-of-the-century picture frames. And they were gorgeous."

Upon a closer inspection of the attic, the lawyer says he figures it must have been a photography studio. Along with picture frames and portraits, he found 100-year-old camera equipment, photography chemicals, shipping boxes and mountains of photos. 

The greatest find was this portrait of suffragette Susan B. Anthony. (Submitted by David Whitcomb)

Whitcomb says it wasn't the attic or the photography collection that surprised him, but a portrait he came across at that point. It was of a woman he knew well, having studied U.S. law.

"I brushed it off so we could see it better because everything was covered in dirt and soot. And we kind of stared at it for a second," he said.

"You know, your mind isn't expecting to see something recognisable. You got to kind of recall. I'm like, 'She look familiar?' And my friend says, 'Yes, she does.' I go, 'Is that Susan B. Anthony?' And he's like, 'Yeah, I think it is.'"

In his excitement, the lawyer examined the portrait of one of the pioneers for women's rights in America. 

Anthony was arrested for trying to vote in an election in 1872, alongside the men who let her vote and the poll watchers that let her sign the sheet. The men were pardoned by then-president Ulysses S. Grant, but Anthony went forward with her case.

Her trial took place the following year at the Ontario County Courthouse in Canandaigua, where Whitcomb now works.

"That just makes it all the more special to me because I practise law in that courtroom every day, where she was tried for voting, and she was convicted. And that launched her to notoriety. And she used that notoriety to push the issue of the women's right to vote," Whitcomb said. 

Whitcomb is still working to identify the other photos. He hopes to donate copies to museums and historical organizations, as well as set up an auction. (Submitted by David Whitcomb)

Inscribed on the portrait, along with several other items in the studio, was the name J. E. Hale — a photographer who moved to the town in 1892 and worked there until 1920. 

The trail of photos left behind by Hale show his connection to the women's rights movement. His photos of suffragist leaders were showcased at the 1907 convention for the New York State Woman Suffrage Association, which was held in Geneva. 

In Whitcomb's attic, most of the people in the photos have not yet been identified, but he believes he's also found portraits of suffragist leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Smith Miller.

The area, he said, was a major hub of women's rights movement, with several suffragettes living and meeting there. 

"We're making copies of as much as we can to donate. We're working with local history museums, the Women's History Museum, the Susan B. Anthony House [and the] University of Rochester," he said.

"Ultimately, we're going to have a public exhibition of it leading up to an auction. We're hoping to keep as much of it together as possible."

As for the portrait that set this adventure in motion, the lawyer found out it was taken in 1905 — a year before Susan B. Anthony died.

"Sure enough, we found that photograph is the Library of Congress official portrait of Susan B. Anthony by J. E. Hale."

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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