Friday, August 19, 2005

The Tale of the Lost Corset

It was a dark and stormy night – well, ok, it wasn’t, but it could have been. I had been working on rewiring the house for more than 3 months now and was nearing the end. I started on the third floor and worked my way down to the first floor. Most of the ceiling fixtures on the first floor no longer worked. When the house was wired during construction in 1895 it was wired only for light fixtures because there was really nothing to plug in at that time. The house had four circuits and over the years a short had occurred in one of the first floor circuits and the fuse blew as soon as you screwed it in. This was the circuit that operated the lights in the butler’s pantry.

When I bought the house there were only 4 outlets installed in the walls. These were added in the 1920s – one per apartment. The rest of the outlets in the house were fed by conduit that snaked through the house along the baseboards. Very attractive. I had to cut many, many small square holes just the size for an electrical box so I could add outlets to each room. I think I ended up adding close to 40 outlets to the house. I did this without disturbing the plaster. I got very good and cutting the hole and then fishing the wire through the walls. The walls, of course, are only about 4 inches in width. You could normally only reach your hand in there a few inches past the wrist before your arm would be wedged in there and would go no further.

This was early on in my ownership of the house. It was still very much 4 apartment units and had a lot of bad mojo in it. There was still a lot of ratty carpet and funky stuff in the attic. The whole house still had a very weird vibe to it. Near the end of it’s life as apartments the house had become a notorious drug den with frequent arrest and ODs. It was not the pleasant house it had once been, nor soon would be again.

At any rate, I was in the butler’s pantry adding a few outlets. It was getting late in the afternoon and the butler’s pantry has no windows. I had a flashlight and one of those mechanics lights with the hook on the top. The butler’s pantry has bead board going 48-inches up the walls. I cut a hole in the wall for an outlet box and then measured carefully from the outside wall. I then crawl under the house, find the proper spot and drill a hole. I then fish a wire up through the hole and pray that I’m in the right spot. It all had become very routine at this point. I go back in the house and reach in the hole hoping to find a wire and expecting to hit the wall on the other side, but instead the hole opens up into a large cavity. My arm just kept going in.

I should add at this point that I had watched Nicole Kidman in The Others just a few nights earlier and that had sort of spooked me. When my hand did not hit a wall it sort of spooked me again. I’m in this funky, darkened butler’s pantry with my arm in a dark hole in the wall. I pulled my hand out as quickly as I could. It came out covered in spider webs and black dust. I shined the flashlight in the hole and could see very little at first. After a few minutes I could see that the cavity was about 8 to 10 sq ft of floor space. The house was still a bit of a mystery. I started to look up and around trying to get my bearings and figure out where I was and what was on the other side of this wall. It was the kitchen. I went in to the kitchen and that wall also had bead board. Something didn’t make sense here.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the back stairs ran in that wall between the butler’s pantry and the kitchen. This cavity was under the back stairs, but there was a closet under the back stairs. I opened the closet and it was painted white and actually quite clean. One of the few places in the house I could say that about. However, the closet only went in about 6 feet or so with some shelves at the back and the stairs occupied much more space.

I went back to the hole and looked in some more with the flashlight. Now I saw something. It looked like a bottle. Next to the bottle there was a shoe and it looked like a bone sticking out of the shoe! Was there a body stuffed in the wall and then boarded up!?! Now I really got spooked and by this time it is getting really late. I haven’t eaten dinner and really tired from all the crawling around under the house. I really just wanted to get out of that butler’s pantry.

That night I didn’t sleep well at all. I couldn’t stop think about the possibility that there was a murder in my house and decomposed body under the stairs. How come it didn’t stink? How long has it been there? The next day I couldn’t take it any more. I pried off a few pieces of bead board to expose the cavity. There was no body. Whew! I did find a corset, a woman’s shoe (with a piece of wood sticking out) and a glove all from the same period, a mans starched cuff, some receipts from local businesses, a cigar wrapper, orange peel, and a wrapper from a woman’s face powder can. The wrapper unfolded to about a standard sized sheet of paper. It is covered with text and graphics with testimonials from Queens, Empresses and the social elite of Europe. I also found a bottle of Cod Liver Oil that still has some in it.

The question remained: Who did all this stuff belong to and how did it get there? After doing a lot of research on the house I learned a lot. The house was turned in to a boarding home by Phyllis Petch after she and Thomas were divorced. The Petch’s were the original owners. The dining room, butler’s pantry and scullery were turned in to an apartment for Phyllis and the four bedrooms were rented out to boarders. The 2 parlors and the kitchen remained as common areas. The first partition was added to the kitchen to separate it from Phyllis’ apartment. The closet under the stairs ended up on Phyllis’ side of the partition. She must have kept her belongs in there and at this time it did not have the shelves at the back of the closet and the closet extended to full depth of the space under the stairs.

In 1919 Phyllis sold the house and a few years later it was officially cut up in to apartments. At that time the shelves were added to the closet and those few trinkets that were out of reach in the back were boarded up for the next 85 years until I cut the hole in the bead board and discovered the cavity. So it would seem it all belonged to Phyllis and judging from the size of the corset and shoe, she was a petite little thing.

And that, my blogging friends, is The Tale of the Lost Corset. And be sure to tune in tomorrow for The Million Dollor Mystery! - I'm serious.

The Museum of Petch


StuccoHouse said...

How cool is that?! Its so funny to me that they would just put up a wall and shelving and leave that stuff laying there rather than sweep it out. Pretty soon you can start charging admission to your museum...and maybe finance your future projects from the proceeds.

Suzanne said...

Great story, Greg!

deb said...

thank you, greg! that was fab!

Anonymous said...

oh i missed this one! fascinating, thank you.

Kristin said...

I missed this story, and I'm so glad I finally found it (thanks to the links in your 2007 recap post). Such a cool story! You always find the best stuff.

Debbie said...

That is so amazing!! What a great find! I keep imagining that I'm going to find some treasures in my old house some day. There has to be some hidden spaces somewhere!

I have been reading your entire blog the past few days. You are a gifted writer; thank you for sharing!

Greg said...

Thanks for the comment, Debbie. I'm glad you like it.