Posts Tagged ‘famous charlatans’

The strange story of the recluse of Herald Square

January 9, 2013

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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