Wayne E. Robbins has seen plenty of mold, leaks, and faulty wiring in his 27 years as a home inspector, but he still wasn’t prepared to find bondage equipment hidden in an elderly woman’s closet. He came across the paraphernalia while inspecting walls after a Melrose estate sale.
“She must have been a lively person,” said Robbins, who runs Pro-Tech Consultants, serving (usually G-rated) properties throughout Greater Boston.
“That’s one of the things I love about my job, beyond working with people and helping them,” he said. “Properties often tell a story. Sometimes, the story is a little bit sad. Other times, it’s interesting. And sometimes, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”
There’s even a Facebook group devoted to these weird encounters — “Things Found in Walls — And Other Hidden Findings” — that has 500,000-plus followers.
Arlington’s Lindsay Whitacre thought she was doing the right thing by not keeping her mouth shut when her husband, Andy, found a rusted, unloaded gun in a crawl space during a 2019 basement renovation of their 1926 side-entrance Colonial.
“It was right there with some old Werther’s Originals wrappers,” Whitacre recalled. “Andy told me: ‘I found a gun. Should I leave it there?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, what?’ I told him that it looked like a 1930s revolver, and he asked me when I became an arms historian.”
The couple decided to call the police, and the switchboard operator panicked.
“The next thing you know, the police car came careening down the street and did a half-spin turn,” Whitacre recalled. The officer helped the couple dispose of the gun, which they’re certain was used to commit a crime.
“It was carefully hidden,” Whitacre said.
But perhaps not as well hidden was the stash of 20 vintage Playboy magazines Newton’s Eydie Balsam unearthed during a 2006 home renovation. They were found, in all places, tucked into the walls of a kids’ bathroom. The photos were tame by today’s standards but bizarre nonetheless, given the length someone went to conceal them.
“I don’t even know how they got there,” Balsam said. “We took down the plasterboard, and they were in the joints. The fact that our contractor didn’t steal them and gave them to us was pretty impressive, because I’m sure they’ll be worth something someday.”
The family took the stash when they relocated to Washington, D.C., and then back to Massachusetts.
“We later moved to another Newton center-entrance Colonial but didn’t find any Playboys,” she said.
The discovery was especially peculiar because Balsam also discovered a speakeasy-style hideaway behind a bar in the basement. Did somebody, once upon a time, bring a touch of hedonistic fun to her sedate Newton cul-de-sac?
In Concord Center, Jennifer Jacoby discovered a seductive but atrophied girdle in the rafters of her root cellar, accessed through a bulkhead. Her home was built in 1870 not far from the railroad tracks, and many houses on her block were once reportedly owned by widows and spinsters who took in boarders off the nearby train.
“I thought, ‘Was the spinster having an affair?’” Jacoby said with a laugh.
Jacoby, who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and was unaccustomed to such Hawthorne-style intrigue, began to contemplate the history of corsets and girdles. She dated the garment to post-1920.
“It was fun to live in one of the old houses of Concord. “It was like owning a piece of history,” she said.
Homes tell stories, said Carol Rio, a longtime metal detectorist who often works with town historical societies. Now retired to New York state, Rio lived in West Bridgewater for 42 years, where she would detect in residential yards about twice a week, with the permission of homeowners. She usually unearthed coins, monogrammed and ordinary spoons (“I figured kids would take them out and dig with them, because we never found forks and knives”), brooches, harmonica reeds, clock parts, Colonial-era shoe buckles, and buttons.
“To me, it’s interesting to hold something in your hand that someone owned 100 or 200 years ago,” Rio said. “It’s like touching history.”
Of course, some things are better left in the past. While still in Massachusetts, Rio detected an ornate container buried outside her 1800s farmhouse.
“The container said ‘Prophylactics,’” she recalled.
It’s fortunate that she never met Audrey Massart, a photographer in Rhode Island. Massart’s 1910 Colonial was reportedly owned by a state senator, but the most important resident was a 7-year-old girl named Elizabeth Tiffany. How did she know? One day, Massart was in the yard and noticed what looked like a tombstone, lying flat on the ground. She used her photography and lighting skills to make out an etching.
“I could see it said, ‘Elizabeth Tiffany,’ who was seven years old. It makes sense because there was a Tiffany Street nearby,” she said.
Massart doesn’t think that the little girl was actually buried in the yard — and she never believed that the home was haunted, although her sister never felt comfortable visiting. (Massart has since moved out.)
Superstition compelled Newton’s Julie Sherman to hang onto a black silk crepe mourning coat, which she unearthed in one of the dormer windows of her 1874 Mansard in Newton Highlands, originally owned by the local postmaster. Sherman made the discovery while redoing the third-floor offices of her graphic design business, J Sherman Studio.
With an eye for art, she brought it for evaluation and restoration at Museum Textile Services in Andover, where conservators classified it as dating from the latter half of the 19th century. It was carefully boxed with MTS paperwork, and now she keeps the preserved treasure beneath her bed.
“I feel like it must be protecting us,” she said. “We learned later that concealed garments can protect houses and bring good luck.”
To keep the concealed-garment thread going, she stuffed her own trinkets into the windows as a time capsule. Nothing risque, though.
“When someone redoes the roof in 100 years, they’ll find a Boston Strong T-shirt along with my daughter’s pacifier and her favorite pacifier clip,” Sherman said.