We live in a cookie-cutter house in Watertown. Houses like ours, a poor man’s Arts-and-Crafts bungalow, are all over New England. A man named William Laughton built ours about 100 years ago using a Sears, Roebuck & Co. kit. Our beloved neighbor, Mr. B., who knew everything, said Laughton was in the hardware business and had a little money, so he added sweet flourishes, like pocket doors between the dining and living rooms.
But I fell in love with the house even before I saw the interior. The front porch is deep, the roof is slate, and a little garage in the driveway sports those same blue-green tiles. The house has had only four owners in a century. The Murphys bought it from a man named Horace Hartshorn, the second owner, and I purchased it from Mrs. Murphy after her husband died. He was a Watertown firefighter and they had raised five kids there. I didn’t have enough money, so I bid low and accompanied it with a letter telling Mrs. Murphy how much I loved the house. If houses have personalities, which I think they do, this one would be described as happy, I said.
As new owners, you beat a path to the hardware store for all sorts of things. One day my boyfriend and I decided we couldn’t stand the fluorescent light flickering in the basement. Down it came early one Sunday morning. Handy boyfriend, now husband, affixed the new one to the ceiling.
A little brown paper bag, like the penny-candy ones we filled as kids, fell on his head. It was balanced on rafters above the light, a place where you store skis. In the bag was a thick stack of bills. He came running into the kitchen. There was $5,000, more cash than either of us had ever seen, all in $20 bills. We dropped it into the freezer. If a robber broke in, he’d never look there, we thought.
I called Mrs. Murphy and asked to stop by with her mail. In her sitting room, I told her that her husband left something in the house, and I gave her the bag. She became very emotional.
“Where could this have come from?” she wondered out loud.
“You told me that when he wasn’t in the firehouse, he drove a taxi. Maybe he saved the tips,” I offered.
“When he made a little money, he took me and the kids for ice cream. If he made more, he took us for spaghetti,” she said.
The next day, an acquaintance said, “Haven’t you ever heard of finders keepers?” I was terribly offended and hardly spoke to him after that. Curious, I called real estate lawyers to ask who would have kept the money.
It’s complicated, it turns out. If the sellers realized soon after the closing that they left cash behind, one attorney said, they would have a claim to it, but at some point if the sellers do not come back to the buyer about it, “then one might presume that the money had been abandoned.”
Another said that if the house has had many owners, and if, say, when I moved in I discovered that several appliances were broken and needed to be replaced, I might have kept the money with a clear conscience.
The stove hardly worked and cold drafts came in through the windows and doors that winter and still I didn’t consider the money mine.
The wise Mr. B. wondered why we hadn’t checked the serial numbers on the bills. Perhaps the money belonged to Partridge and even the Murphys didn’t know it was there.
I didn’t hear from Mrs. Murphy for months. She wrote to say that her husband had collected $20 a week for room and board from each of their children after they finished high school and were still living at home. The money, she said, totaled what each would have paid.
She started a scholarship in my name at the local Hibernian Club.
Later, a contractor told me that he routinely finds money in old houses, often tucked into the walls under several layers of wallpaper.
Whose money is it, I asked.
He wouldn’t say.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story should have said that there were four owners of the house in one century.