The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills

The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills

Donna Patricia Ward - February 24, 2018

“Help, I think my sister is going to die!” For the first time in 24 years, Ida Wood entered into the hallway of the Herald Square Hotel. Terrified by the state of her sister’s health, Ida opened the door around 4 pm and cried for help. A physician from a nearby hotel entered suite 552 to tend the very sick woman laying on the couch in the 2-bedroom suite. Over the next 24 hours, more people visited the room including the hotel manager, an undertaker, and two lawyers from the firm O’Brien, Boardman, Conboy, Memhard & Early. On March 5, 1931, Ida Wood’s self-imposed seclusion came to an abrupt end.

Ida Wood moved into New York City’s Herald Square Hotel in 1907. Joining her was her sister, Mary E. Mayfield, along with Emma Wood, a woman reported to be Ida’s daughter. The three women lived in seclusion, never opening the door except a crack. Ida claimed to be an impoverished woman, choosing to cut herself off from the rest of the world. Not until the fateful day when Mary took ill did Ida Wood leave her secluded room. Why? Who was this woman?

The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills
Herald Square circa 1907. Wikipedia.

From Lover to Mrs. Wood

As a young woman, Ida enjoyed reading gossip columns and news about New York’s high society. She longed to belong to this world. In May 1857, she wrote a letter to a man whose name often appeared in the paper. Ida knew that she would never cross paths with Mr. Benjamin Wood unless she contacted him to request a meeting. “Mr. Wood—Sir,” she began. “I venture to address you from learning a young lady, one of your ‘former lovers,’ speak of you. She says you are fond of ‘new faces.’ I fancy that as I am new in the city…that I might contract an agreeable intimacy with you.” Ida went on to state that she was handsome but not as handsome as Mr. Wood’s former lover. Then she professed that she knew a lot, sharing her mother’s wisdom of “Knowledge is power.”

Mr. Wood agreed to meet Ida. According to his reports he found a slender girl with long black hair that was not “bad looking.” Ida told her new lover that her father was a sugar planter in Louisiana named Henry Mayfield and that her mother, Ann Mary Crawford, was a descendant of the Earls of Crawford. They carried on a 10-year affair, finally marrying in 1867 after the death of Mr. Wood’s second wife.

The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills
New York Congressman Benjamin Wood. Wikipedia.

The couple never hid their affair. Ida was charming and no one seemed to mind that they had a daughter, Emma, years before they married. Mr. Wood took Ida to elite social and cultural events as well as political meetings. Reportedly, Ida danced with the Prince of Wales and met President-Elect Abraham Lincoln.

Ida’s lover, and later husband, was the owner and publisher of the New York Daily News (no relation to the current publication) and politician, elected to the US Congress in 1861. His brother was mayor of New York City from 1855-1858 and in 1861 and 1862. Benjamin Wood professed the importance of peace, advocated for the spread of slavery to the western territories, and was critical of President Lincoln. These views were shared with his self-proclaimed “belle of New Orleans.”

Benjamin Wood was a gambling addict. Ida Wood, 17 years his junior, knew how to save money. Ida informed her husband that she would ignore his gambling as long as she received half of his winnings. Any losses that he accrued were his alone to handle. Over the course of their marriage, Benjamin signed most of his property and newspaper over to his wife.

The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills
New York Herald building in Herald Square. Wikipedia.

Self-Imposed Seclusion

Each day Mrs. Wood took a carriage ride at 4 pm. She stopped at the Manhattan Club, called for her husband, and the couple road up fashionable 5th Avenue. Ida was admired as her “bright plumage and fragile beauty” made her a remarkable woman in the “parasol age.” From accounts, it seems that Mr. Wood was enamored with his wife. When he lost at gambling, he wrote notes apologizing for his bad habit, signing with, “unfortunately for you, your husband, Ben.” When Benjamin Wood died in 1900, the New York Times reported that he had no “real estate” and that what personal property he had was of “small value.”

After a short stint as a newspaper editor and writer, Ida sold it in 1901 for over $250,000. Shortly after this sale, Ida began selling off her own possessions including furniture, oil paintings, tapestries, and sculptures. She took her earnings and deposited them into the Guaranty Trust Company. Widowhood, it seemed, would be very comfortable for the former southern belle.

The New York Stock Exchange lost 50% of its value in October 1907. Depositors rushed to banks and trusts to withdraw their cash, setting off the Panic of 1907. Many local and state banks went bankrupt. With no federal insurance programs to insure a depositor’s cash, people continued to withdraw their money. To many it was better to have cash where they could see it instead of in a failing bank.

The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills
Benjamin Wood. Wikipedia.

Widow Wood entered the Guaranty Trust Company and demanded the balance of her account in cash. An officer at the Trust stated that Mrs. Wood decried that she was “tired of everything,” and took her nearly $1 million, stuffed it into a netted bag, and left the bank. With her cash in hand, Ida checked into the Herald Square Hotel and was later joined by her daughter and sister. The three women lived together in seclusion until 1928 when Emma Wood entered a hospital and died at the age of 71.

Ida and her sister Mary remained in the hotel suite. Daily, a bellhop asked if he could bring anything to the room. The women usually requested only eggs, bacon, crackers, evaporated milk, and newspapers. Occasionally Ida requested that the bellhop bring her jars of petroleum jelly that she massaged into her face for several hours a day. The women cooked in a makeshift kitchen in the bathroom. On special occasions, they ate raw fish and smoked cigars. Maids were not permitted to enter into suite 552. Linens and towels were rarely exchanged through a cracked-open door. The women never left their room, yet Ida always paid their bill in cash in despite being a destitute old woman.

The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills
New York Herald building in Herald Square. Wikipedia.


When Ida Wood ran into the hallway screaming for help she was five feet tall, weighed 70 pounds, and practically deaf. Her body resembled a question mark when she stood. Observers stated that her complexion was “as creamy and pink and unwrinkled” despite not bathing for several years. As the undertaker began preparing her sister’s dead body for transport, Ida began rambling off that she was a former southern belle, a New York socialite. She stated that her husband used to be a congressman and her brother-in-law the mayor. As the people in the room heard what Ida was saying, they looked around the room at the piles of yellowed newspapers, balls of used string, and numerous trunks and accepted Ida as senile. Or was she?

Tasked with finding Mrs. Wood’s next of kin, Attorney Morgan O’Brien, Jr. began an inquiry. He soon found out that Ida was far from poor. He found hidden shoeboxes full of cash totaling $247,000. There were uncashed Union Pacific stocks, a cracker box that contained a diamond necklace worth $40,000, and $500,000 in an oil cloth attached to Ida’s nightgown.

The court declared Ida Wood incompetent in September 1931. Her caretakers forced her to move down one floor and nurses cared for her around the clock. Ida had stored several trunks in the hotel’s basement and many more in a warehouse uptown. Investigators found fine bolts of fabric, exquisite gowns, necklaces, watches, tiaras, and gold certificates dating back to 1860.

The Tale of a Southern Belle Turned Mysterious Hotel Recluse Will Give You Chills
Newspaper image of Ida Wood. Ephemeral New York.

Ida Wood died on March 12, 1932, one year after she opened her hotel door and cried for help. Only after her death were lawyers able to piece together exactly who Ida was. This was not an easy task and took several years. Finally, investigators determined that Ida Wood was, in fact, Ellen Walsh from Massachusetts. Her father, Thomas Walsh, was an Irish immigrant who settled in Malden, Massachusetts, and her mother grew up in the Dublin slums. Shortly after she wrote to Benjamin Wood, she changed her name to Ida Mayfield simply because she liked the sound of it. As she departed to meet her future lover and husband, her sister also changed her last name to Mayfield. Emma Wood was not the lovechild of Ida and Benjamin. Instead, she was Ida’s younger sister. Benjamin Wood never told any of Ida’s secrets.

Ida Wood was successful in creating a new identity for herself. She used her natural beauty and the intelligence that she acquired living modestly as a child to improve her social and economic standing. In an era when a person could simply disappear into a hotel, no questions asked, Ida was able to walk away from the identity that she created. Ida Ellen Walsh Mayfield Wood is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, New York.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Curious Life of Ida Wood”. Tijana Radeska, The Vintage News. Feb 5, 2018.

“Everything Was Fake but Her Wealth”. Karen Abbott, Smithsonian. Jan. 23, 2013.

“Mrs. Wood’s Rubbish Pile”. Peter Lyon, The New York Times. Oct. 4, 1964.

Wikipedia: Ida Wood.

Wikipedia: Benjamin Wood.

Wikipedia: Panic of 1907.