The Story of Ida Wood
It was March 5th, 1931 in a dirty hotel suite that could only be described as a “hoarder’s dream”, that a 93 year old women sticks her head from an opened door and beckons a maid to fetch a doctor, her sister had fallen ill. Up until this point, to the recollection of the hotel manager and staff, they had never met the occupants of suite 551 and 552, even though hotel records showed that they had moved into the Herald Square Hotel in 1907.
The suite door had rarely been opened and most exchanges took place through a small crack opened only when linens needed to be washed or upon receiving the occasional grocery request of evaporated milk, crackers, coffee, bacon and eggs. From time to time they would ask for fish, which they ate raw or Copenhagen Snuff and Havana cigars. The lady of the suite also had a penchant for petroleum jelly which she obsessively rubbed into her face everyday. The gruff old woman was around 5’2’’ and weighed in at a light 70 pounds, almost deaf and bent over with age, Ida Wood’s, still had the remnants of a beautiful woman despite the lack of personal hygiene. As the doctors, lawyers and eventually the coroner entered and exited the suite, the mystery of Ida Wood and her newly deceased sister starts to unfold.
Ida first came to New York at the age of 19 in 1857, she was very savvy and some might say she had the ambitions of a social climber. As an Immigrant from England, Ida had thus far lived a life of poverty and as a result she began really interested in all the societal news and gossip. It was around this time she came across a 37 year old businessman and politician named Benjamin Wood, the brother of current New York Mayor Fernando Wood, caught her attention so she took it upon herself to write him a letter:
May 28, 1857
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 P O New York stating what time we may meet.
Now hold on! This is 1857, this is like the early 19th century version of a booty call or tinder hook up. This woman has balls! Of course Mr. Wood wanted to meet her right away…you can’t use the words “agreeable intimacy” and not expect a swift response. Well, naturally upon their meeting when he saw that she was indeed “not extremely bad looking” hot, Ida, whom at that time was going by Ida Mayfield, became Mr. Wood’s mistress…for the next 10 years. Now, Ida had told Benjamin that she was the daughter of a wealthy Louisiana Sugar Planter, Henry Mayfield and Ann Mary Crawford a descendant from the Earls of Crawford which is a very prestigious earldom in Great Britain.
In 1867, Benjamin Wood’s wife died and he immediately married Ida and they had a daughter named Emma. Know one seemed to care that Emma was 10 at the time of their wedding. Ida maintained that they had secretly wed 10 years earlier in a private ceremony and that the 1867 wedding was just a vow renewal. How sweet. But giving that Ida was his mistress for 10 years and during that time she was his date to numerous social affairs such as dancing with the Wales in 1860 and meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1859, I have a feeling that their social circle was minus a few scruples. Besides, Benjamin was a powerful man and the owner of the New York Daily Paper so I am assuming people left it be.
Ida enjoyed a lovely Fifth Avenue lifestyle. behind closed doors, the Woods’ marriage was a little less than perfect. Ida being a miserly saver and Benjamin a bit of a gambler. He didn’t always lose, one night he woke Ida from her sleep and spread 100,000 dollars across their bed and asked her to count it. Benjamin would also often write Ida letters apologizing for his bad habits, but Ida was a smart woman and she decided to wait outside the gambling clubs for him and when he left with his winnings she would instantly demand her share. If he lost, she charged him. The deal was she would not interfere with his gambling as long as he complied with her demands and he did. When he died in 1900, he had no estate because everything he owned had been signed over to Ida as payment for his gambling addiction. Boom! Let that be a lesson.
After Benjamin’s death, Ida took over the New York Daily News, but she wasn’t very good at running a paper so she sold it a year later for 340,000 dollars and began traveling the world with her sister Mary and daughter Emma. During one of her return trips to New York, she ran into an old banker friend who shared with her his concern for America’s financial situation. This encounter completely freaked Ida out so she went to the bank and withdrew all of her money and moved with her sister and daughter into the Herald Hotel.
Let’s fast 24 years and we are back at the Herald Hotel, Ida’s sister Mary has just passed and as people begin passing in and out of the rooms, looking around and digging through the piles of trash hoarded all over, they start to find money. 247,000 dollars in 1,000 and 5,000 dollar bills was found tucked in a shoe box. There were large trunks all stuffed with cash and expensive fabrics, exquisite jewelry and gold certificates ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 dollars dating back to 1860 just lying around. A couple of noteworthy artifacts discovered was a gold headed ebony stick, which was a gift from President James Monroe, also known as the 5th president of the United States and a letter from Charles Dickens to Benjamin Wood.
Word traveled of the recluse from Herald Square and people just started coming out of the wood work, Benjamin’s children from his first marriage, supposed nephews and estranged family members started showing up with lawyers and they decided the best way to help and maybe even protect her was to have her declared incompetent and so they did. Shortly after the court proceedings they moved her to the next floor down and began the processes of cleaning rooms 551 and 552. She was a tough old bird…and occasionally she would open the window and yell for help that she was being held against her will and other times she would drift in and out of consciousness awaiting to succumb to old age. It was in March 1932 at about the age of 93 that Ida finally passed and the search for an heir began.
After her passing the excavation of her two rooms continued with some really interesting discoveries. One being a will she had drafted in 1889 that left all her assets to her sister Mary and her daughter Emma. Mary, as we know, had died a year earlier and Emma had passed back in 1928 at the age of 71. Neither ever having had any children so in steps The New York Surrogate Court which deems the will invalid and entrusts the city’s Public Administrator, Joseph A. Cox with the task of finding the rightful heirs to the Ida’s estate.
Ida was a hoarder and a miser and among the discoveries of cash and jewels, there was also a lot of paper. She kept everything. First Cox, came across two undertaker’s receipts, one was made out to Thomas Walsh for the burial of a young boy in Massachusetts 1846 and the other receipt was for the burial of Mr. Thomas Walsh himself in California in 1864. The next discovery was a document from the Catholic Church where Ida and Benjamin had been married in 1867, but the name registered was of an Ida Ellen Walsh Mayfield. Also, along with the marriage certificate was a letter form a Catholic priest referring to Ida as Ida Ellen Walsh. There was also a letter from 1866 stating that Ida had sent money to the House of the Guardian Angel in Massachusetts for the care of Michael Walsh, a minor at the age of 14. The name Walsh was a new addition into the mix as Ida had only been known as Ida E. Mayfield Wood.
Cox decided to check out the older of the two undertaker receipts, the one for the young boy in Massachusetts. The caretaker of the cemetery took him to an overgrown area of the cemetery and after some poking around found a headstone that read “Erected by Ann Walsh in memory of her husband Thomas Walsh who died in San Francisco 1864 aged 54 years….now Ida’s mother Ann’s name was Ann Mayfield not Walsh, but perhaps she married a Mayfield after Thomas’ death. People back then died and married all the time, so it’s likely. There was another name on the headstone and that was of Lewis Walsh aged only 13. Cox began to pursue the Walsh family connection and met a woman who remembered the family and told Cox of the drowning death of Lewis and how after Lewis died the Walsh clan moved away from Massachusetts.
Cox, still with no know relatives enlists the help of another attorney involved in the case and he decides to run a story in The Boston Globe with a few photos from Ida’s apartment. Hundreds of tips came in, but there was only one that seemed credible . A woman named Katherine Sheehan of Salem Mass. recognized her grandmother in one of the photos and was able to give great detail regarding their family history. Cox headed off to Ireland and England where he discovered that Ann Crawford, Ida’s Mother was born in Dublin and later moved to England were she married an Irish Immigrant Thomas Walsh, they had several children and among the names was a Mary, Michael and Ellen, and Lewis, no one by the name Ida. The family leaves England for Massachusetts and after the drowning of Lewis Walsh, Thomas Walsh moves to California while the women Walsh headed to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’ is around this time, 1856 or so, that Ellen Walsh makes her way to New York and changes her name to Ida Mayfield, daughter of Plantation Owner Henry Mayfield and Ann Crawford…of the Earls of Crawford. When she finds out that her family is moving to Williamsburg she convinces them to join in her in her new life as a Mayfield. Ann Walsh, becoming Ann Mayfield, Mary Walsh becoming Mary Mayfield and Michael Walsh becoming Henry Mayfield.
They were poor Irish immigrants of little to no means and when Ida set out for New York at 19 she had a plan to change the course of her life and she did. Some might say lying about your identity is wrong, but it was her way out and obviously she had some charisma to not only charm Mr. Benjamin Wood…if that’s what you want to call it, but to also convince him to keep her dark secrets for the entirety of their marriage. Emma, who had spent her life as Emma Wood, was actually Emma Walsh, Ida’s youngest sister. Ida’s fear of poverty was awoken by the creeping financial crisis of the early 20th century and so rather than risk her fortune and risk her life unraveling she took the only family she knew and hid them away at the Herald Square Hotel.
After researching this story, I decided to do a little fact checking and I found some great tidbits about the Walsh family and also Benjamin Wood that raises a few new questions for me.
Before Mr. Wood met Ida, he had been married not once but twice. First to Catherine Wood from Connecticut, while I couldn’t find their marriage records I know that they resided together in 1850 along with their two children Benjamin age 3 and Henry age 1 along with a couple of Benjamin’s sisters maybe and Catherine’s brother Lewis per the 1850 United States Census. Catherine also died in 1850 per a listing in the New York Evening Post, that matches her census birthday. Benjamin next pops up in the 1860 census living with the family of Adelia S. Bowers, 28 who in the census is registered as Adelia Wood. Also living in the household is Benjamin Junior and Henry Wood…as well as a new addition Adelia G Wood age 4. There is no record of Benjamin’s wedding to Adelia, but their relationship and child appears to be recorded. Benjamin always listing his occupation as journalist. It isn’t until after Adelia’s death that we find Benjamin living with Ida in 1870 along with Emma Wood 14, Henry Wood 10 and Benjamin 8, but also I found a curios listing in the New York state Census from 1880. Head of household Mary Mayfield, widow, Henry Mayfield son 26, Benjamin Wood 59 son-in-law, profession Journalist, Ida Wood 32, Emma Wood 14…and a Delia Watts female…there are a couple of other names residing there also and I realize the ages and birth years don’t add up, but think about how easy it was to lie on your census documents. Is it really just a coincidence that all these people with connecting names are living under the same roof, maybe, but I think not likely and is this Delia Watts the child of Adelia Wood and Benjamin Wood? Maybe, I am not sure we will ever know the real. In Feb. 1899 Benjamin Wood and Ida Wood applied for a passport to Turkey promising to return within a year, he died in 1900 and is buried in New York, not sure if he ever made the trip, but I have a feeling Ida Ellen Walsh Mayfield Wood did. She made it.
I should also note that eventually Mr. Cox divided up Ida’s estate among the only true relatives they could find and that was the family of Katherine Sheehan…the one who answered the Boston Globe feature. She along with nine other direct descendants of Ellen Walsh aka Ida Mayfield received a cut of the estate valued at that time of $90,000. The country was in a depression during this time and $90,000, however you sliced it would have been a fortune. According to dollartimes.com $90,000 dollars in late 1935 is worth over 1.6million today. Joseph A. Cox later went on to write a bout about Ida Mayfield titled the Recluse of Herald Square, published in 1964.
For more stories about these fine ladies of the past check out Complicate Women of History.
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Wikipedia: Benjamin Wood