Ida Wood was a wealthy socialite who lived in a luxury hotel, but the doors to her suite hid filth, hoarding, and a labyrinth of lies.
When 93-year-old Ida Wood opened the door of her suite at the Herald Square hotel in New York in June 1931 crying for help for her dying sister, it was the first time she’d left her room in nearly a quarter of a century.
Hotel staff claimed Ms Wood called out, “My sister is sick. Get a doctor. I think she’s going to die!”
The hotel manager and a doctor rushed to suite 152, where Ms Wood’s sister Mary Mayfield lay dead on the sofa. But, as the men looked around the room, they were shocked by what they saw.
Suite 152 was a hoarder’s paradise, crammed with hundreds of mouldy boxes, yellowing newspapers, wooden trunks, garbage, hundreds of old cracker boxes, and rotting food wedged beside priceless works of art and jewellery.
And so began a fascinating journey for lawyers to unravel the mystery of Ida Wood, the frail old lady who checked into the Herald Square hotel and stayed there for 24 years. Hotel maids knew not to bother with suites 551-552. The only signs of life they ever saw was when, very occasionally, a frail old hand would emerge to pass out sheets for washing, or to accept the groceries they’d have delivered each week — eggs, bacon, evaporated milk and crackers.
With Mary’s death and the discovery of the filth and hoarding in the room, Ida was moved to another room downstairs while lawyers were brought in to investigate. Who was the reclusive old woman? How did she come to be surrounded with so much wealth? Why did she live with such mess and grime?
It wasn’t long before Ms Wood’s sensational story became public and the labyrinth of lies, enormous riches and fraud began to unravel.
It was 152 years ago this month that Ms Wood married one of New York’s wealthiest and most highly regarded businessmen. Where did her life go so wrong? Newspapers jumped onto the story, that the woman who claimed she was “broke” was actually a wealthy former socialite who hid herself from the world in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
The discovery of the Aladdin’s cave of treasure at the Herald Square made headlines around the world: “Recluse, 93, hoarding millions defies treasure searchers.”
The story of Ms Wood is strange and absolutely fascinating, full of deception and trickery, squalor and false identity. Her story resulted in one of the most sensational inheritance cases in American history. And the irony? That on her sister’s death, the most fascinating part of Ms Wood’s story was just beginning.
NEW YORK’S RICH AND POWERFUL
When Ida Mayfield, 19, launched herself into the New York social scene in June 1857, she claimed to have grown up in Louisiana. She had several eager suitors, but there was only one man that caught her eye: Benjamin Wood, 37, publisher of the New York Daily News and the brother of the Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood.
According to Joseph Cox, author of The Recluse of Herald Square the fact that Ms Wood was married to his second wife did nothing to deter her from chasing him. Ms Wood knew that he was rich and powerful, and she was hopeful that her good looks and slender figure would be enough to capture his attention. Her chase began in earnest when she heard on the grapevine that he had multiple affairs. So she penned him an incredibly forward letter (this was not what ladies did in the 19th Century)
May 28, 1857
Mr. Wood — Sir,
Having heard of you often, I venture to address you from hearing a young lady, one of your “former loves,” speak of you. She says you are fond of “new faces”. I fancy that as I am new in the city and in “affairs de coeur” that I might contract an agreeable intimacy with you; of as long duration as you saw fit to have it. I believe that I am not extremely bad looking, nor disagreeable. Perhaps not quite as handsome as the lady with you at present, but I know a little more, and there is an old saying — “Knowledge is power”. If you would wish an interview address a letter to No. Broadway PO New York stating what time we may meet.
According to Cox, Ida had her heart set on being Mr Wood’s new mistress. She also knew that she had no chance of meeting him because she was not in the social circle of the New York’s rich and powerful. By sending such a forward letter, she had nothing to lose.
The letter clearly did the trick because Mr Wood agreed to meet Ida who told him she was the daughter of Henry Mayfield, a Louisiana sugar planter, and that her mother was a descendant of the Earl of Crawford.
Mr Wood quickly became besotted with the dark-haired beauty and it wasn’t long before she was joining him at social events among New York’s elite. She was said to have met Abraham Lincoln and danced with the Prince of Wales when he visited New York in 1860.
It’s not known if Benjamin’s wife Delia knew about his long-time mistress but, when she died in 1867, he married Ida. (Ida was said to have given birth to a daughter, Emma, before the marriage but that was not quite the truth.)
The Woods’ marriage was hardly sunshine and happiness, thanks to Benjamin’s addiction to gambling. He spent hours gambling away his fortune at his favourite club and, one night, he even wagered The Daily News. That night, luck was on his side and he didn’t lose his most important asset.
Mrs Wood, who’d had enough of her husband’s gambling, feared his wild habits would mean they’d lose everything. So she made a smart deal with him. Some might say it was ingenious. If he refused to stop gambling, then he must give her half of his winnings and pay her whenever he lost.
Her savvy deal with her husband meant that, eventually, all of his property and businesses were signed over to her. She wisely invested her “winnings” into shares and stocks. He didn’t always lose though; according to Cox, one night he spread $104,000 dollars across their bed and asked her to count it.
When Mr Wood died in 1900, the New York Times wrote, “Mr Wood possessed no real estate and that his personal property was of small value.”
The Panic of 1907
A year after her husband’s death, Mrs Wood sold The Daily News to the publisher of the New York Sun for more than $312,000. (She had also helped edit and publish the newspaper).
Then, in 1907, she grew increasingly paranoid about losing her money in the Financial Panic (also known as the Banker’s Panic) and hurriedly withdrew all her money from the banks. According to Cox, Mrs Wood walked out of the bank with about $1 million stuffed into a shopping bag. She sold all her properties as well as valuable items such as oil paintings tapestries, furniture and sculptures.
According to Cox, all we know of Mrs Wood’s story from there is that she checked into the Herald Square Hotel (presumably with her daughter and sister). As she approached the reception desk and was asked how long she’d be staying, she told the hotel staff she wasn’t sure, but that her stay might be extended if the suite was to her liking.
And that’s where she remained until she was forced to step outside again on the day of her sister’s death. When she opened the door to the world, the world came rushing in.
A STRANGE PUZZLE
In the days following Mary’s death, dozens of people visited the Herald Square. Lawyers began piecing together the strange puzzle of Mrs Wood’s life and, even as she was telling people that she was poor and had nowhere to live, it soon became clear she was a very wealthy woman. But who was she?
More clues emerged as the rubbish was cleared away: trunks filled with expensive jewellery, fine lace from Ireland, Venice and Spain, dozens of gowns, necklaces, bracelets, watches, tiaras and uncashed gold certificates. In an old shoebox was $257,000 cash, and $520,000 pinned to a pocket of an old dressing gown.
There were also dozens of uncashed dividends cheques, gold certificates dating back to the 1860s. A diamond necklace worth $41,000 was found stashed in an old box.
As for Mrs Wood, her personal hygiene was said to be dreadful as she hadn’t bathed in several years. She did, however, take care of her face; smothering her skin in petroleum jelly every day.
When lawyer Morgan O’Brien first laid eyes on her, he told Cox that it was easy to tell she had once been incredibly attractive.
“Her complexion in spite of her age, was as creamy and pink and unwrinkled as any I have ever seen. It was link tinted ivory, her profile was like a lovely cameo,” Mr O’Brien said.
Interesting note: Along with hundreds of jars of petroleum jelly, it was clear Mrs Wood had a thing for Cuban cigars and snuff from Copenhagen.
(As for her “daughter” Emma, it was revealed that she was actually Mrs Wood’s younger sister who had lived in the hotel suite until the late 1920s before dying of an illness in 1928.)
THE BATTLE FOR IDA’S MONEY
According to the New York Times, presumptive relatives and their lawyers came out of the woodwork, trying to make a claim on Mrs Wood’s fortune. Some even offered to care for her. It was all too much for the 93 year old and she died in March 1932.
At the time of her death 1130 people were arguing that her money belonged to them.
Given that the US was in the midst of the Great Depression, it’s difficult to blame them for trying.
Cox, who was with the New York Public County administrator and wrote his book about his experience on the Ida Wood case, had the job of searching for the proper heirs.
His search took him several months, from mouldy boxes of moth-eaten documents in a hotel suite to a cemetery in Massachusetts, to a bakery in Ireland where Cox finally uncovered the truth.
THE TRUE STORY
“Ida Mayfield” was really Ellen Walsh, born in England and raised in Massachusetts. Her father, Thomas Walsh, wasn’t a sugar planter from Louisiana but a poor Irish immigrant. Her mother grew up in the slums of Dublin.
When Mr Wood was a teenager, she ran away from home and took the name “Mayfield” because she thought it sounded nice. Then, her younger sister Mary took the surname too. Emma Wood, who Ida told people was her daughter, was actually her sister, who died in hospital a decade before Ida’s death.
As for Ida’s husband Benjamin Wood, it’s believed he was well aware of Ida’s true identity, but, as an act of true love, he never gave away her secrets.
THE REAL WINNERS
The hundreds of Woods and Mayfields who were determined to get their hands on Ida’s cash were left bitterly disappointed. A sensational New York trial found that because Ida died with no direct heirs, her fortune must be inherited by ten living Irish relatives who received around $93,000 (more than $1 million today). Given that the inheritance was handed out during the Great Depression, we can only imagine how Ida’s relatives felt to receive such a staggering amount of money.
Even though Ida’s life had been built on a foundation of tall tales, her reasons for doing so were about raw ambition. In creating a completely fabricated past for herself she was much more than a creative con artist.
In the end, the fact that her true relatives managed to profit from her fortune means that there was a happy ending after all, even if it was only of the financial windfall kind.