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A mysterious old photograph in Cambridge is identified, and an old epidemic echoes forward to today

This old photograph was found in a crawl space at Juliette Kayyem's home in Cambridge.
This old photograph was found in a crawl space at Juliette Kayyem's home in Cambridge.Juliette Kayyem

The old photograph turned up in an odd place in Juliette Kayyem’s home.

Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said it was tucked away in an attic space in her Cambridge home.

“It was totally intact,” Kayyem said in a telephone interview. When she looked at the man in the photo, “it looked like there was an interesting story there.”

She was right: The photograph would be the key to unlocking the secret history of her Cambridge home, and a tragic death that occurred there over a century ago during the Spanish flu pandemic, which claimed the lives of more than 600,000 people in the United States in 1918 and 1919.

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It all started with the discovery of the photo, which was hidden away in a crawl space and may have never been found if it weren’t for a water leak.

“On Friday, we had to open up the ceiling of my son’s 2nd floor bathroom due to water damage,” Kayyem, who’s also a former Globe columnist and a onetime gubernatorial candidate, wrote in a series of tweets. “Our house, built around 1840, is beautiful but old and cranky. Above the ceiling, we found a small attic space on the 3rd floor, cut off by previous owners with new closets. There we found, amongst the debris, a photo of a distinguished man leaning on a railing, a red tinted drape and chair behind him."

On the back of the photo, written in pencil, were the words “Annie McCue Cambridge." She shared the photo on Twitter, in the hopes of finding out more about the mysterious man in the picture. The image caught people’s attention and quickly became a crowdsourced research project.

It didn’t take long for Twitter users to solve part of the mystery. Thanks to the crowdsourced investigation, Kayyem learned that a woman named Annie McCue lived in her house from 1917 to 1919. She was married to Charles McCue, a salesman who served on the school committee. Their daughter, Elizabeth Letitia, died during the Spanish flu pandemic.

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“Letitia died in January 1919. In our home. The funeral was also held here," Kayyem tweeted.

The girl was 19, according to her death certificate.

“She died in the 3rd wave of Spanish Flu pandemic, just as it began to die down," Kayyem tweeted. "Her death certificate simply says cause: Influenza.”

Kayyem posted a copy of an obituary that appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle on Jan. 18, 1919, and that said then-Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge was “one of the first to send a letter of sympathy.”

Soon after their daughter died, the McCues moved to a house on Prentiss Street.

Thanks to sleuths on social media, Kayyem was then led to Annie McCue’s great-grandniece, Margie Bogus, who lives in Connecticut. She identified the man in the photo as Annie McCue’s father.

“I’m pretty sure he’s Annie’s dad....Henry George Joseph Davies,” Bogus said in an interview with the Globe.

Henry George Joseph Davies was born in England and came to the Boston area in 1852. He worked as a pressman and printer and lived on Western Avenue in Cambridge for many years, she said.

Elizabeth Letitia was his granddaughter. When she became ill and died at such a young age, she said, “it was quite a shock to the family.”

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Bogus had originally thought that Letitia died of pneumonia from tuberculosis. But thanks to the crowdsourced investigation that kicked off when Kayyem posted the photo on social media, Bogus learned the real reason why Elizabeth Letitia died: she’d caught the influenza virus.

Bogus said when she saw her death certificate posted on Twitter, it all made sense.

“It was a big thing when Letitia died,” Bogus said. “We always knew that she died young.”

And when Kayyem found herself staring at the front page of the New York Times on Sunday, reading some of the names of the nearly 100,000 victims who have died from the coronavirus pandemic, she thought of Elizabeth Letitia, who died in her home just over a century ago.

“I’m probably supposed to give meaning to this now: the irony of a modern family, stuck at home during this pandemic, finding a picture of a family that suffered during the last one," she tweeted. "If you believe in karma, you might find it here.”

The man in the photo offered Kayyem a glimpse into one family’s life during the influenza pandemic of 1918, and the unspeakable loss that they endured when their daughter got sick and was taken from them too soon.

“Maybe there isn’t much more to this except that I live in a rambling and cranky old house that has seen much since it was built in 1840. Our home. The McCue’s home. The two pandemics that unite us," she tweeted. "And the house that still stands.”

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Kayyem ended the Twitter thread with this: “To Annie and Letitia McCue. Thanks #goodtwitter for the detective work and story. Be safe all. And #WearAMask. The end."


Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.