The strange story of the recluse of Herald Square

IdamayfieldwoodIf Ida Mayfield Wood were around today, she would be a candidate for Hoarders.

A Southern belle who hit the city in the 1850s, Ida ran in elite circles, marrying congressman and Daily News publisher Benjamin Wood, brother of Mayor Fernando Wood.

After her husband (below) died in 1900, Ida grew increasingly paranoid about money. She’d always been shrewd with cash, but the Panic of 1907, which caused a run on banks, pushed her to the edge.

So later that year, Ida, her daughter Emma, and Ida’s sister Mary all moved into a very modest two-room suite of a 34th Street (below in 1921) residence called the Herald Square Hotel.

From 1907 to the late 1920s, the three elderly women lived as recluses in squalor. They never left their suite; hotel staff fetched food (evaporated milk, coffee, crackers, bacon, eggs, and an occasional fish), as well as Cuban cigars, according to a New Yorker piece published in the 1950s.

West34thstreetbroadway1921

By 1931, Emma and Mary had died. Ida, feeble and emaciated, was discovered living in her filthy suite, crammed with “an accumulation of old newspapers, cracker boxes, balls of used string, old wrapping paper, and several large trunks,” reported the New Yorker.

Oh, and more than a million dollars in cash and securities, plus $75,000 worth of jewelry—huge sums in that dark Depression year.

Her story made headlines in 1931 because a nephew applied for guardianship over her. By the time she died in 1932 at age 93, dozens of relatives had come out of the woodwork, hoping for an inheritance.Benjaminwood

Then, as a judge tried to verify her descendants, he uncovered something incredible: Ida Mayfield Wood, who claimed to be a rich Southern belle, was really Ellen Walsh, the poor daughter of Irish immigrants from Massachusetts.

Not only was she a hoarder and recluse—she was a fraud who’d gone to elaborate lengths to invent her identity, her husband and social circle in the dark.

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11 Responses to “The strange story of the recluse of Herald Square”

  1. Somebuddy Says:

    She wasn’t exactly the only one perpetrating the illusion of her past. Her husband, Benjamin Wood, was in on the plan. Ida’s mother and sister lived with them in 1880 in NYC.

    You can find an excellent history on her here: http://books.google.com/books?id=3g3YQbG_vtgC&lpg=PA10&dq=%22ida%20ellen%20walsh%22&pg=PA10#v=onepage&q&f=false

    It seems that the couple ‘adopted’ Ida’s younger sister. There was also a brother, who died in childhood in Massachusetts. And her father, Thomas, died in San Francisco in 1864, presumably on his own Gold Rush.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks, this adds another layer to the story! I thought her husband was clueless.

  3. Ellen Levitt Says:

    So, how did she got the dough?

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Ida was a shrewd investor of her husband’s money. She bought stock in Union Pacific Railroad, according to the New Yorker article.

  5. sallieparker Says:

    Ida’s family was English and Anglo-Irish, not “poor Irish immigrants.” They were however serious Catholics, as were Ida herself and eventually Ben too. Given this, and the pro-Southern leanings of Ben and Fernando Wood, a “Louisiana belle” was the ideal backstory for Ida.

  6. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks. Some sources do say her real parents were poor immigrants, such as this 1937 New York Times article.

    It’s about the legal case pitting descendants of the Walsh family against ex-slaves who claimed to have known Ida Mayfield when she was a girl in Louisiana.

    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F00610F93C59177A93C3AA1783D85F438385F9

  7. Beth Says:

    Are you familiar with the Collyer brothers? The true über hoarders and a real New York story. This story reminds me of them.

  8. evi Says:

    what an amazing story –

    evi

  9. therealguyfaux Says:

    I had heard that the kicker to the story was that some of the real Mayfields in Louisiana had had a bit of a rough go in the Wall St crash, and staked their claim to her fortune on a you-never-know basis– at worst, they figured, they’d be paid a few bucks to go away quietly, or so they thought. True?

  10. Ken Says:

    Hi
    I found a small box at an estate sale which contained items that belonged to an Ida Wood and Benjamin Wood from New York. There are two tintype photos of her that look just like the picture on this site. Please contact me if you want to see these items.
    Thanks, Ken

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