(CNN)David J. Whitcomb had no idea that the Geneva, New York, building he bought in December 2020 for his law office even had an attic, so he was doubly surprised to find the treasures that have been stashed there for nearly 100 years.
A long-forgotten attic hid a photography studio and a famous portrait of Susan B. Anthony
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Whitcomb and a friend noticed that the ceiling on the third floor looked odd after going up to change a light bulb.
They saw an access panel and stacked up some chairs so that Whitcomb could climb up and see what was inside, illuminated only by the tiny flashlight on his phone.
"The first thing I saw was a whole bunch of picture frames stacked together and these frames are gorgeous. They're the turn-of-the-century, they're gold, gilded, and they shone really bright and I was like 'Oh my God,'" he said. "I lowered myself and said 'I think we just found the 'Goonies' treasure.'"
They returned the following day and spent about 12 hours going through stacks of pictures, frames, glass negatives, and photography equipment from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
One of the things they found was a framed portrait of suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony that was taken by photographer James Hale in 1905 -- a year before her death.
Anthony campaigned tirelessly for women's rights, including the right to vote, and was arrested in 1872 for voting in an election.
Hale 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. A clipping featuring the photo is in the collection at the Library of Congress.
Whitcomb said they found mail and other documents with Hale's name on it and pieces of the original glass plate negative used to print the photo, broken at some point over the years.
They haven't yet 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 is still hoping to find the rest of the negative, but he fears that it might be lost for good.
Most of the people in the photos are not identified, but they believe they've found portraits of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Smith Miller, who were also leaders in the women's rights movement.
They also found pictures of local sports teams, men in military uniforms, and a large burlap sack that was filled with hundreds of prints that appeared to have been thrown away.
Whitcomb found a photographer in Geneva who is going to try to develop prints from many of the glass negatives that they found.