My Crazy Aunt Ida
October 15, 2010 by Chip Wood
Let’s take a break from all of the political mudslinging for a few minutes. Let me tell you the story of one of the most amazing characters to be found in the branches of the Wood family tree. I think you’ll enjoy it. And you may even learn something about wealth that thieves cannot steal and moths and rust cannot corrupt. We’ll see.
Technically, Ida Mayfield Wood wasn’t really an aunt. Not even a great aunt. Cousins who have studied genealogy much closer than I have tell me she was actually “the wife of a half-5th cousin, three times removed.”
I’ve got to admit, I don’t have the faintest idea what that means. All I know is that I found the story of Ida Wood absolutely fascinating. A century ago, she was the subject of literally thousands of newspaper articles.
At least one best-selling book was written about her and the historic inheritance case that resulted from her death. The subtitle of The Recluse of Herald Square promised “A stranger-than-fiction report of intrigue and greed that resulted in one of the most important and exciting inheritance cases in American law.” That it was, and then some.
Ida Mayfield captivated New York society when she appeared on the scene in the mid-1800s. She claimed to come from the family of wealthy plantation owners in Louisiana. Since she was young, lovely and vivacious, she was welcomed at the soirees and balls of the day. There were newspaper accounts of her dancing with Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate for President. She wore dazzling gowns and jewelry to balls in the New York City.
Ida was pursued by several young men but finally settled on a millionaire businessman and former U.S. Congressman, Benjamin Wood. Benjamin was the brother of Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York City at the time, and owned a popular newspaper, the New York Daily News (no relation to the paper of the same name today). For a while the couple lived the high life — elegant dinner parties and fancy balls and lengthy trips to Europe, with Ida always draped in the most fashionable clothes and wearing the most expensive jewelry.
But it turned out that Benjamin was a philanderer and an inveterate gambler. After a few years he lived apart from Ida most of the time. He continued to lavish large amounts of money on her, which she put into stocks and savings accounts.
When his fortunes turned and he subsequently asked her for some of that money back, she loaned it to him on very strict terms. When he needed even more money, she paid him $100,000 (over a million dollars in today’s money) to purchase a controlling interest in the Daily News.
Ida became one of the first female publishers of a large metropolitan newspaper. For a while she took a direct interest in the day-to-day affairs of the paper, even writing many of its editorials.
When Benjamin Wood died in 1900, Ida’s mental state began to deteriorate. She became increasingly reclusive and paranoid about her finances. The financial panic of 1907 apparently set her over the edge. She sold the newspaper for $340,000 (making a hefty profit on her investment), and withdrew all of her money from the banks.
Ida took her cash — estimated at more than $1 million (the equivalent of more than $10 million today) and moved into two rooms at the Herald Square Hotel. Her sister Mary and a woman she identified as her daughter Emma later joined her. The three women cooked their own meals and rarely ventured outside their rooms. Mary and Emma died in the late 1920s, leaving Ida alone. She became increasingly reclusive, refusing to open her door even when the bellman brought the food she ordered. She insisted that he toss it over the transom.
By 1931, Ida was 93 years old, partially deaf and nearly blind. She had not left her room at the Herald Square Hotel for several years. One contemporaneous account described her as “feeble and emaciated, weighing 70 pounds and bent over like a question mark.” She hoarded her cash, living on pennies a day. Her diet consisted mainly of toast and condensed milk. She lived in constant fear that someone would rob her.
Finally, in the fall of 1931, her closest relative — Otis F. Wood, the son of her husband’s brother, Fernando — petitioned the court to declare his aunt incompetent and make her his ward. The judge agreed and Otis Wood became her guardian. And here is where the story really gets interesting.
When Ida refused to permit Otis to go through her possessions he ordered a sedative put in her food. While she slept he had her rooms searched. What they found astounded them. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash was stuffed into various pots and pans. Ida had hidden 50 $10,000 bills in a pouch tied to her waist. (The bills had been printed by the U.S. Treasury more than 50 years earlier.) There were shoeboxes filled with yellowed stocks and bonds worth tens of thousands of dollars, some with interest and dividend coupons that had not been redeemed in decades. A diamond necklace was found in a cracker box.
The discoveries made newspaper headlines around the country. Typical of the coverage was this story from the Brooklyn Standard Union of October 7, 1931:
“RECLUSE, 93, HOARDING MILLION DEFIES TREASURE SEARCHERS
“A frail but spirited little lady of 93 years, once the belle of mid-Victorian days, today stomped her defiance of searchers spurred by discovery of nearly a million dollars in currency she hoarded in her hotel room ‘because she was afraid of banks.'”
Otis Wood told reporters that he wanted to move his aunt to better quarters. In the meantime, he hired guards to patrol the hallway outside her room 24 hours a day. Ida refused to move and, because of her failing health, Otis was reluctant to use force to relocate her.
Ida died five months after the story broke. A will was found, in which she left everything she owned to her sister and her daughter. But both women died before Ida and neither left a will. The New York Surrogate Court referred the case to the city’s Public Administrator, the official charged with settling the estates of people who died without valid wills or verifiable heirs.
Within weeks more than one thousand people named “Wood” or “Mayfield” had filed claims on the estate. Joseph A. Cox, counsel to the Public Administrator, was assigned to conduct an investigation into the family lineage of Ida Wood.
It took Attorney Cox several years to unravel the mystery of Ida Wood’s antecedents. After a search that took him from boxes of dusty documents found in Ida Wood’s hotel room, to an overgrown grave in Massachusetts, to a bakery in Ireland and long-ago births in England, Joseph Cox told the court he had discovered the truth:
“Ida Mayfield” was in fact Ellen Walsh, the daughter of Irish immigrants. She was born in England and raised in Massachusetts. She was not related to anyone in Louisiana; in fact, as far as he could determine, she had never visited the state. Instead, she had left home in Massachusetts in 1857, a lovely and determined lady of 19 years, whose wit, beauty and vivaciousness bought her entrée into New York society under her assumed name.
The various Woods and Mayfields were understandably upset by the news and filed suit to get “their fair share” of the estate. The subsequent trial before Surrogate Judge James A. Foley resulted in the finding that Ida E. Mayfield was a false identity assumed by Ellen Walsh, who died with no direct heirs. Therefore, the court awarded her estate not to descendents of the Wood family, nor to the hundreds of Mayfields who claimed they were related, but to Katherine Sheehan and nine other living relatives of Ellen Walsh, an Irish lass who ran away from home at age 19.
In addition to Sheehan, two O’Donnells, three Kennedys and a McEnearney, Murphy, Gallagher and Reynolds each received a share of the estate valued at about $90,000. Again, this would be the equivalent of around $900,000 in today’s dollars. It would be a hefty sum today. During the depths of the Great Depression it was a staggering amount of money.
After he retired, Joseph A. Cox wrote the story of his quest to find the truth about Ida Mayfield, nee Ellen Walsh. The Macmillan Company published The Recluse of Herald Square in 1964. I found a copy of the first printing, signed in September 1964 by the author himself, on Abebooks.com, my favorite source for used books. It is from that account, as well as newspaper stories of the day, that this column has been drawn.
I hope you found the story of Ida “Ellen Walsh” Mayfield Wood interesting. And that at least for a few moments, it helped you forget the cares and concerns of our world today. And who knows? Faced with today’s market worries, it just might encourage you to hide some loot yourself. As you know from last week’s column, personally, I prefer gold.
And here’s another idea: Why not do some genealogical research into your own family tree? Unless you do, you’ll never know what heroes and scoundrels you might find there.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.
— Chip Wood