What’s Up with the Susan B Anthony Photo?

July 16th, 2021

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

As many of our supporters are aware, a discovery was made at 37-39 Seneca Street a few months ago by David Whitcomb, a lawyer from Canandaigua who purchased the building. In the attic several photos, negatives, glass plate negatives, framed pictures, and photography gear were found that we presume were created and belonged to James Ellery Hale.

Susan B. Anthony (woman seated reading a book)Hale was a photographer in Geneva from around 1892 to 1920.  In 1905 he was chosen by Elizabeth Smith Miller to take pictures of her visiting friends, including Susan B. Anthony. When Mr. Whitcomb found the items, he contacted us in December to find out the story behind them. I shared information about Hale and why Susan B Anthony’s portrait would be related to him, after which he made an appointment with a staff member to view the collection. I also referred him to Dan Weinstock who had written an article about the official Anthony portrait in 2015 and had done more research on the subject.

Our Curator John Marks met with Mr. Whitcomb to view the items and found that there were many photos of people (individuals and some groups) that were all unidentified. On top of the time, cost, and space I would need to process, house, and research possible identities of those in the photos, all the items were covered in 100+ years of grime and would require hours of cleaning by professionals (which can get very expensive).

Given these factors, John said that Historic Geneva might be interested in the group photos since there is a possibility to identify them through yearbooks or newspapers. After careful consideration, we made the decision to not take the items for several reasons.  First, we do not collect unidentified portrait photos due to lack of space and the probability they will never be identified. Second, Mr. Whitcomb was interested in selling the Susan B Anthony photo, but given that it was mass produced and is not a significant part of Geneva’s history, purchasing her photo was not a priority for us.

We are aware of the media attention the story has received.  While we understand the importance of saving history, as the Archivist and Curator for a small institution, sometimes John and I have to make the hard decision of turning down a donation that a larger institution is better equipped to care for. We will continue taking care of Geneva’s historical documents and objects with your continued support.

Historic Geneva tells the stories of Geneva, New York.  Discover  these stories online and in person through the Geneva History Museum, Rose Hill Mansion, and Johnston House.

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