This composer became an amateur privy-diving archaeologist after buying a magic theater in Old City | We the People
“This is what I love about Philly, you’re never 100% sure what you’re going to get,” Melissa Dunphy said.
Stephanie Farr of The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 2, 2022
Meet Melissa Dunphy, an Australian native and composer who bought a magic theater in Old City with her husband and uncovered a trove of Philly artifacts buried in the privies below it.
• On living in Philly: “In many ways, especially with the swearing thing, Philadelphia is the most Australian of U.S. cities. It’s the only city in America where my potty mouth doesn’t raise any eyebrows. They will match me F for F here.”
• Toilet time travel: “Whenever I’m too anxious to deal with real life, I pick up a bucket of artifacts, transport myself to 250 years ago, and I put myself in the place of the people who dumped things in our privy.”
When Melissa Dunphy and her husband bought a shuttered magic theater in Old City, they thought the fart powder, the gunpowder, a tin of pot, and a stack of risqué adult Polaroids they discovered in the wall would be the strangest things they’d find.
But during renovations to their property on Callowhill Street near Front, the Dunphys discovered two privies that extended well below their property and were filled with hundreds of 18th-century artifacts people had thrown away in the old-timey toilets.
Now when Dunphy — a composer who’s written pieces based on the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; the sex life of Ayn Rand; and the sounds of early dial-up internet — isn’t writing music, she can be found at her kitchen sink, cleaning decomposed human excrement from pieces of broken pottery which she then proudly displays in her home.
And as she does this, she wonders what 18th-century Philadelphians might say to her today.
“I imagine them looking down at me and thinking I’m a complete ... idiot. They must just think we’re insane,” she said. “These are literally things that they threw in the toilet because they didn’t want them anymore.”
For Dunphy, 41, a native of Australia, discovering the history under her unusual house has brought her closer to the city she now calls home.
“I feel like I’m so connected, not just to Philadelphia, but also to this plot of land and this neighborhood,” she said.
Dunphy was born and raised in Brisbane, Australia. Her father was a Greek immigrant, and Her mother was a refugee from China who fled her homeland to escape the Cultural Revolution.
“It was very clear from the beginning that I come from immigrant people, people who are willing to pull up stumps and move across the world for a better life,” Dunphy said.
Her first introduction to music came at age 3, when Dunphy’s mother, who wanted her to be a doctor, put her in piano lessons because she read that kids who study classical music are better at math and science.
“Little did she know that would be the thing I was drawn to more than anything else,” Dunphy said. “Music was an escape, and it was the thing I focused on because it gave me joy.”
Dunphy picked up several instruments including the viola, French horn, and electric mandolin. After attending med school for nine months and realizing her “heart wasn’t it,” she fell back on music, playing with bands and busking on the streets of Australia.
In 2000, she began chatting online with the creator of her favorite website, the Nine Inch Nails Hotline, which was run by “this guy Matt” (spoiler: his last name is Dunphy), who lived somewhere called York, Pa.
After reciprocal visits, she to the United States and he to Australia, they knew it was love.
“I never thought I was the marrying type, but when Matt brought the subject up, I burst into tears and said ‘I love you so much I’ll even marry you if I have to!’” Dunphy recalled.
In 2003, the couple began their lives together in central Pennsylvania, where she got involved in the theater scenes in Harrisburg and Lancaster. When the composer for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream dropped out at the last minute, the director asked Dunphy if she’d step in and write the music.
“I recall it being 2 a.m., I’m at the theater working, and I had an epiphany that ‘this is it — this is what you want to do with your life, this is the path you need to take,’ ” she said. “At 24, I went to Google first and googled ‘How do I become a composer?’ and Google said, ‘You probably need to go to grad school.’ ”
Dunphy and her husband moved to Downingtown and she attended West Chester University, receiving her bachelor’s in music composition in 2009. That year, she enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program in music composition, from which she graduated in 2017.
“I took the full eight years because I got distracted by buying a magic theater,” Dunphy said.
Dunphy and her husband were living in Philly’s West Poplar section in 2014 and looking for a live-work space where they could host intimate performances. They found a small theater with an apartment above it on a residential block in Old City.
When Dunphy toured the property, which formerly hosted magic shows for kids and burlesque shows for adults, there was a mummy with a wizard hat and handcuffs in the lobby, fart powder in the gift shop, and a bed of nails lying about. The theater’s seats were reclaimed church pews and it was rumored the stage was made out of wood from the Divine Lorraine Hotel.
“This is what I love about Philly — you’re never 100% sure what you’re going to get,” Dunphy said.
By the time the Dunphys purchased the property in 2015, only the fart powder remained. They’d later find the gunpowder, the Altoids tin of pot, and the stack of adult Polaroids during demolition.
But it wasn’t until foundation pits were dug for the necessary steelwork that they discovered the two privies. These holes in the ground not only served as toilets, but also as trash cans, a treasure trove of everything from broken pottery and wine bottles to dead animals and tobacco pipes.
When duty called, Dunphy didn’t hesitate to dive into the privies and see what she could find.
“It’s super-duper composted. Honestly, if I didn’t know it was poop, I wouldn’t have guessed it,” she said.
The first privy was six feet deep while the second extended 19 and a half feet down. Between the two privies, they’ve found thousands of pieces of bowls, cups, bottles, pots, and animal bones from the 1700s, many of which Dunphy has painstakingly pieced back together.
Ceramic experts and archaeologists have been impressed by some of their findings, including several pieces of tableware from Bonnin and Morris, the first American porcelain factory. If the Bonnin and Morris bowl they found was intact, it would have been worth $75,000, Dunphy said. In pieces, its value is unknown.
Dunphy isn’t currently interested in selling the items she found anyway. She’s kept every bit and every shard, every tooth and every teapot, hoping that someday, she can create a small museum in the lobby of the theater she and her husband plan to open, which they call the Hannah Callowhill Stage.
The couple also plans to restart their podcast, The Boghouse, about their privy-diving adventures. It ran for 24 episodes in 2019 but took a hiatus during the pandemic.
Despite not having a new episode in years, The Boghouse made it to the top of Apple’s arts podcasts in January after Dunphy tweeted a suggestion from a listener who said, “I think your audience will increase significantly if you clean up your language some,” and captioned it “LMAO no.” Her reaction went viral and garnered support from fellow curse-word aficionados like David Simon and Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Currently Dunphy, who’s an adjunct professor of composition at Rutgers University and a freelance composer, is working on sound design for Theatre Exile’s The Motherf**kerwith the Hat. She’s also writing an archaeology opera for Oberlin Conservatory based, in part, about the story of a woman who died under mysterious circumstances on her property in 1880.
Dunphy knows her life is “a bit like a fever dream,” but said she “wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“We always think things will settle down and become normal,” she said. “And over and over again, it fails to become a normal station.”