After finding a letter to Santa written by a little girl in 1907 while renovating his fireplace, a man spent 17 years trying to learn more about the author.
Peter Mattaliano was renovating his fireplace in his New York City apartment 17 years ago when he came across something interesting.
"As I'm bringing bricks out, I find this little blue envelope written to Santa Claus in Reindeer Land," Mattaliano told CBS News. "And I open it up. And here's this letter from -- from Mary."
The letter was written by a 10-year-old girl named Mary McGann in 1907. When Mattaliano read the letter, he knew he needed to learn more about the girl who wrote it.
Mattaliano was struck by the end of the letter in particular, when she tells Santa, "My little brother would like a wagon that I know you cannot afford."
"She doesn't ask for anything for herself and then says, 'Please, do not forget the poor,'" Mattaliano said. "I mean, you know, the spirit of Christmas, that generosity and maturity -- she's 10."
"This is a family that couldn't afford a wagon, and she's writing, 'Don't forget the poor,'" Mattaliano told The New York Times. "That just shot an arrow through me. What did she think poor was?"
In the years after finding the letter, Mattaliano tracked McGann down using census records and genealogy websites.
McGann lived in Manhattan with her brother and mother, who was widowed when Mary was a child. The family moved from midtown Manhattan to the Upper West Side in 1920, according to the Daily Mail. Eventually, Mary married a man named George McGahan and worked as a stenographer. The couple never had any children of their own.
In 1979, she passed away in Queens, New York, at the age of 72.
Mattaliano tracked down Mary's grave site in Flushing, New York, but the tombstone only displayed her husband's name. After spending years learning about Mary, he thought she deserved to be acknowledged and attempted to find out how he could have her name added to the tombstone.
Because Mattaliano is not related to McGann, he wasn't able to authorize the addition of her name to the tombstone.
Brian Dempsey, who lives near Dublin, Ireland, read an article about Mattaliano and McGann in his local paper, and recognized her last name as his mother's maiden name. After doing some research, he learned that he was a distant relative of Mary's.
"It clicked," Dempsey told CBS News. "I know that. Amazing."
Dempsey helped Mattaliano authorize the alteration of the tombstone. Finally, 37 years after her death, Mary's name was memorialized.
"I mean, look at it -- it was obviously meant to be here," Mattalino said, standing next to Mary's grave.
Mattaliano says he plans to visit Mary McGann's gravesite every Christmas to remember her holiday spirit, and that he still re-reads the letter every now and again.
"Anytime things seem to be going south I still take a look at the letter," he said. "And I say, 'All right. OK.'"
He added, "It's the Christmas spirit personified."