When Peter Mattaliano decided to redo the fireplace in his NYC apartment, he called his construction-savvy brother to help him bust open the sealed unit. "We were joking that we might find Al Capone's money," Mattaliano tells the New York Times. "Then my brother yelled to me and said, 'You're not going to believe this.'" He had unearthed letters written to Santa, signed by two children named Mary and Alfred. "I want a drum and a hook and ladder," read Alfred's letter from 1905, while a 1907 letter from Mary was stuffed in an envelope tagged for Santa in "Raindeerland." "The letters were written in this room, and for 100 years, they were just sitting there, waiting," Mattaliano says. After poking around on genealogy websites, Mattaliano found that Mary and Alfred were the kids of Irish immigrants Patrick and Esther McGann and the letters were written after Patrick died in 1904.
Those letters presented a poignant picture of a turn-of-the-century family that likely lived in poverty. Most striking was Mary's slightly singed letter, which read: "Dear Santa Claus ... My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best." After her signature, she added, "P.S. Please do not forget the poor." Her words floored Mattaliano. "This is a family that couldn't afford a wagon, and she's writing, 'Don't forget the poor,'" he says. "That just shot an arrow through me. What did she think poor was?" Mattaliano found Alfred had died in 1965, Mary in 1979—both in Queens. The letters, which Mattaliano calls his "most treasured possessions," are now framed on his fireplace mantel—as are the doll and tiny wagon he added this year. "I wanted them to have a Christmas present, even if it was 100 years too late," Mattaliano says. (Read the entire story in the New York Times.)