What Would You Do if You Found a Suitcase Full of Someone’s Family Photos?

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what-would-you-do-if-you-found-a-suitcase-full-of-someones-family-photosIn 2005, my two remaining grandparents passed away within two weeks of each other. My parents travelled back to the UK for the funerals and returned with a large collection of photos, documents and a couple of small mementos. Among my mother’s family papers was a key that unlocked the door to her past: her parent’s marriage certificate. She finally knew her paternal grandfather’s first name.

Inspired to dig further back into our roots, she got to work. After years of family history research, she’s gathered an incredibly detailed collection of genealogical information and preserved many beautiful photographs of our ancestors. As my mother has cornered the market on our family artifacts, I don’t have many photos of my family prior to my grandparent’s generation, although that wouldn’t be your assumption if you saw my office.

Those stacks of black and white photographs that have spilled across my desk? The sheets of negatives next to the oversized scanner? Oh, those people aren’t my family.

The stacks of photos in my office are the product of rummaging around at yard sales, thrift stores and antique malls. My collection includes anything from vintage postcards to hundreds of Kodachrome slides to binders of abandoned photos and negatives. The number of artifacts doubled in size ten years ago when I hit the ephemera jackpot.

I picked up a small suitcase for $10 in an antique mall. Inside the case were over 500 artifacts from one man’s life – letters, poems, photos, negatives and scraps of song lyrics written on vellum. I had discovered a true treasure. I kept these artifacts encased as they were for the next decade, occasionally bringing them up for air on slow afternoons. But mostly, they sat inside the suitcase, waiting for me to return to them someday.



In 2015 I decided it was time for the mystery man to be let out of his silk-lined case for good. Armed with a name and an army serial number, I embarked on a treasure hunt to discover the identity of the man from the suitcase and uncover the story of the things he left behind. After purchasing a film scanner, I spent a weekend restoring hundreds of medium format negatives that had been shuffling around in the suitcase for years.

Through my research, I identified the man from the suitcase. He died in 1995, leaving behind his wife of 56 years who died nine years later. They had no children, and their surviving relatives are very distant, but the more I researched his family, the closer they became to me.

what-would-you-do-if-you-found-a-suitcase-full-of-someones-family-photos-2Over the last eight months, I have visited his family home, witnessed 1940’s Paris through his camera lens, and wept by his grave. His story is still unfolding; I run to the mailbox each afternoon to check for his military records. While I wait, I research the souvenirs from the suitcase, which range from a playbill from Glenn Miller’s last public performance before his disappearance to a guidebook of wartime Paris. The man from the suitcase had become a member of my extended family, and I felt it was my familial responsibility to preserve his stories, just as my mother had preserved our own. So that’s why I started a special site for the mystery man, whom I now considered a member of my family. It’s a home for all the research, artifacts and photos from the suitcase.


It’s been an incredibly rewarding journey. Not only have I learned more about the early 20th century than I ever expected, I have found a wonderful community of genealogists and history nerds who are more than willing to come along with me on this journey, ready to lend a helpful hand when I hit the infamous ‘brick walls,’ which I do from time to time.

Meet John Paul Jones, the man from the suitcase…

John and Typewriter

Now, I fill the time that goes by waiting for more stories from the suitcase to bubble to the surface by sharing other items from my personal collection of postcards and found photos in the Outside {the Suitcase} series on my blog. Handling these seemingly random artifacts serves as a constant reminder that the sometimes cryptic, occasionally awkward, and often amusing snippets of the past were once as alive and vital to their creators as my own emails, journals and vacation photos are to me.

As rewarding as it can be, there is a melancholy side to the work. An unfathomable number of stories are abandoned in antique malls, estate sales and, often times, trash piles. I understand how it happens, but it doesn’t make my heart ache any less.

If you have family treasures in your possession, keep them safe for a future generation. They are sacred; they are precious and they become so fragile, so quickly without the proper care.

Neither my sister or I plan to have children. My parents will never be grandparents, and although that doesn’t change my mind, I already grieve for the collapse of our family stories, the fading of our photographs. The precious photos we have, my Nan’s ceramic zebras I inherited, my Grandma’s charm bracelet…where will they go? Who will want them? Who will care for them?

Perhaps I will put them in a suitcase; to lie dormant until they become a part of someone else’s extended family.

HeadshotAbout the Author: Born and raised in the UK, Becci moved to North Carolina when she was 13. Aside from being an awesome time to be really different, years 13-21 were mainly involved in some version of theater. After graduating in ’02, she worked in the Performing Arts Administration industry for 10+ years before becoming a project manager for a non-profit software company. In 2013, she and her Gentleman Caller excused themselves from the daily routine and decided to travel around the world for 12 months. You can read all about our adventures on their travel blog, 365 Days on the Road. Becci is based in Nashville with her partner, two dogs and an ever-expanding vinyl collection.


Becci says:

June 8, 2016 at 12:35 am

Many thanks to save family photos for featuring the man from the suitcase!


Rachel LaCour Niesen says:

June 15, 2016 at 12:36 am

It was our honor!


Jeanne insalaco says:

June 25, 2016 at 10:36 am

Hu Becci, i so enjoyed reading this. And you tell it with sych passiin that pulls you In WANTING even mire:


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judy malone says:

December 21, 2016 at 4:23 pm

still reading, and wish the Man in Suitcase would become a Movie! Have loved all the stories from the first find at the Antique Store in Nashville.


Rachel LaCour Niesen says:

January 9, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Me too!!


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