When David J. Whitcomb bought a Geneva, New York, building in December 2020 for his law office, he didn’t even know it had an attic, created at some point when an apartment was renovated on the second floor. He found it after noticing a ceiling access panel. Climbing up a rickety stack of chairs to open the panel, Whitcomb’s phone flashlight revealed a dusty room filled with late 1800s, early 1900s pictures, equipment, frames and props, all used by turn-of-the century photographer James Hale.
In the jumble of curved grimy glass and dirty gold-gilt frames were the stern visages of 19th century women, pictures of local sports teams, men in military uniforms, and a burlap sack filled with prints that appeared to have been thrown away. One portrait stood out: A side view of a serious older woman reading a book. The woman was suffragette Susan B. Anthony (whose 201st birthday is February 15, 2021). Hale took the picture of Anthony in 1905, a year before her death. He gave the copyright to the photo to the Susan B. Anthony Memorial Association, which selected the picture as her official photograph and sold prints and postcards to raise funds.
Whitcomb found mail and other documents with Hale’s name and pieces of the original glass plate negative used to print the Anthony photo. They haven’t found the section of the negative with her head, but one piece shows the flag pin she wore on her left side in the portrait. Whitcomb hopes to find the rest of the negative, but he fears it might be lost. Most of the people in the photos are not identified, but Whitcomb believes they’ve found portraits of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Smith Miller, who were also leaders in the women’s rights movement.
Whitcomb is working with a local auction company, One Source Auctions, to empty the attic and to start the job of cataloging its contents.