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Susan B. Anthony’s missing links can be slow to be revealed

Feb 15, 2021

David Whitcomb founds a trove of gilded frames, photos, photography equipment, backdrops and other treasures in a forgotten attic.
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In his only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde tells of a man seemingly impervious to time and travail; it is his portrait, hidden away in his attic, that ages and shows the wear of the world.

The discovery of the remains of the glass negative of one of the most-famous portraits of Susan B. Anthony is Wilde’s story in reverse; the portrait, hidden away in a Geneva attic for decades, does not age. It is the world outside that attic that has changed.

The negative is among the professional detritus of a turn-of-the-last-century photographer, James Ellery Hale. Uncovered last year, it was only this week that the mystery of the attic find has received national attention.

“Why did that attic get sealed up with all of Hale’s stuff?” asks Deborah Hughes, president and CEO of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Home and Museum. “And who knew it was there, and why did they preserve the things that they preserved?”

A negative of Susan B. Anthony was found in an attic in Geneva.
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The attic cache, uncovered after David Whitcomb bought the old building to make room for his law office, includes gilded frames, photos, photography equipment, backdrops and the glass negative to perhaps the most-familiar portrait of the Rochester suffragist. A side profile of Anthony, holding a book. The print is dated 1907, a year after Anthony died.

The find was a timely addition to the week’s Susan B. Anthony birthday celebration; Monday marks the 201st anniversary of Anthony’s birth. The week also included a half-hour virtual fundraising event held Wednesday, featuring keynote speaker Susan Zirinsky, president and senior executive producer of CBS News. Unlike past Anthony galas, which were lunch or dinner affairs, guests had to make their own sandwiches for this one. The link to the half-hour program can be found at susanb.org.

The confluence of Anthony and Zirinsky is not as distant as history would seem to allow. If Anthony were alive today, she seems a likely candidate to be a presence on Twitter and Instagram. Anthony was a media machine in the fight for women’s rights.

“Anthony was a genius in that she said get good press if you can,” Hughes says, “but always keep them talking.”

The talk since then has not been restricted to the suffrage movement.

“What did women think about their bodies, what did women think about pregnancy?” Hughes says. “There are all kinds of topics and areas where we haven’t studied that, we haven’t looked into it. And every once in a while we find a new character and say, ‘Oh, well, did Susan B. Anthony ever meet this person, or interact with that person?’ And we can go back then to her diaries or to the records and find out that, ‘Oh, not only did she know this person, but they corresponded.’ It is still like David Whitcomb found in his attic, there are treasures which are original objects or original documents that shine light on stories that we have not yet heard or been told.”

“Sometimes you don’t find them right away.”

There are always questions. Did Susan B. Anthony own a telephone?

“We weren’t even certain it was a true story,” Hughes says.

Two years ago, Hughes was at the University of Rochester, examining letters exchanged between Anthony and another prominent woman in the suffragist movement, Isabella Hooker.

“Susan would underline things that were important to her with her pencil,” Hughes says. “And my eye caught, on this particular letter, something about a telephone. And I looked down and, right there on this letter that she had written to Hooker, was Susan B. Anthony saying, ‘I bought a telephone and had it installed for Mary in an office off the parlor.’

“Suddenly, I had proof that she had a telephone, when she bought it, and where she put it.

“That’s an example of sometimes the information you have been waiting for appears, and it’s in somebody’s shoe box, or in somebody’s attic, or it’s a comment on a letter that somebody else wouldn’t have thought was important. But it’s the missing link that we’re looking for.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.