"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, May 16, 2022

The Transformations of Ida Mayfield Wood

Ida Wood, sometime in the 1860s

During the long history of New York City, untold millions have come to the metropolis in an effort to "better themselves" and fulfill their various dreams.  Most of these hopes are doomed to failure.  Ida Mayfield Wood was one of the few success stories--and she accomplished her goals in a way few have done before or since.

Ida first came to New York in 1857.  The nineteen-year-old was a slight, pretty girl with a charm that was both dainty and sensual.  She told her new acquaintances that she was the daughter of a Louisiana sugar planter named Henry Mayfield.  Her mother, she said with a genteel pride, had been a descendant of the Earls of Crawford.

Ida wanted the wealth and social prestige suitable for such a pedigree, so her first order of business was to find an eligible man who could give them to her.  One name that caught her eye was that of 37-year-old Benjamin Wood.  The businessman was very wealthy, well-connected, (his brother, Fernando, was one of the city's mayors,) and reasonably attractive.  He was also married to his second wife, but Ida was not one to trouble about minor details.

She sent Wood a letter that, to say the least, did not beat around the bush.  "Having heard of you often," she began, "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.'"

Wood arranged an interview with this demure young lady.  He liked what he saw, and almost immediately accepted the invitation openly offered in her letter.  Ida became his mistress, bearing him a daughter they named Emma.  After Wood's wife died in 1867, the long-time lovers were married. 

Benjamin Wood

Wood was rich and powerful enough for his new wife's dubious history to be tactfully ignored.  She became a leading figure in New York society, extolled by the newspapers as "a belle" admired for her "bright plumage and fragile beauty."  Her social circle ran as high as the visiting Prince of Wales and president-elect Abraham Lincoln.  In 1860, Benjamin was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served until 1861.  (He won another term in 1881-83.)  In the same year he first entered Congress, Wood became editor and publisher of the “New York Daily News.”

Benjamin, unsurprisingly, was no more faithful to his new wife than he had been to the old one.  Ida was not particularly troubled by that.  However, Wood was also addicted to gambling for very high stakes.  This struck horror into the heart of his financially shrewd and prudent wife.  Characteristically, she dreamed up a novel way of turning her husband's deficit into her advantage.  She presented Benjamin with a deal:  He could gamble to his heart's content with her blessing, so long as he gave her half of everything he won, while paying for his losses himself.  In short, "heads she wins, tails he loses." His play was so important to him that he agreed to this one-sided bargain.  The practically inevitable result was that by the time Mr. Wood died in 1900, virtually every dime he had possessed belonged to his wife.  She had also purchased a controlling interest in the "Daily News," making her one of the first female publishers of a large newspaper.

After her husband’s death, Ida sold the "Daily News" for over a quarter of a million dollars.  She had valuable railroad stock.  She was set for a very comfortable and socially prominent widowhood.

Instead, Ida began to do some very strange things.  She sold all the many beautiful and costly belongings she had accumulated during her years with Wood.  In 1907, she went to her bank and demanded that the balance of her account--some $1 million--immediately be given to her.  In cash.  The bank officers had no choice but to comply and watch in stunned amazement as she stuffed the money into a bag and walked out.

She then checked into the Herald Square Hotel...and never checked out.  We  cannot know what inner demons inspired this woman who had so loved worldly matters to give up on life and turn herself into a recluse.  All she would say was that she was "tired of everything."  Joining her in this voluntary confinement were her sister Mary and her daughter Emma.  The trio never left their two-room suite and they never let anyone in.  Only twice during their long stay did they permit a maid to give them clean sheets and towels.  They never bathed.  The closest the women ever came to contacting the outside world was once a day, when through a closed door, they would ask the bellhop to bring them the same menu, which they paid for in cash:  Canned milk, crackers, coffee, bacon, and eggs.  Every so often, they also requested snuff, cigars, and petroleum jelly.  Ida would spend hours rubbing the last item on her face.  This one remaining vanity rewarded her with flawless pink-and-white skin--an ivory doll's head incongruously balanced on a bent, aged body.   Ida would explain that the three of them were destitute, and no one seeing the way they lived had any reason to doubt her word.

The three stayed together until 1928, when Emma Wood died at the age of 71.  Life--if you care to call it that--for the Mayfield sisters carried on as before until March 5, 1931, when the now 93-year-old Ida did something unprecedented during her stay at the hotel.  She opened the door, peered out into the hall, and screamed for a maid, explaining that her sister was very sick and needed a doctor.  As it turned out, Mary was beyond all help.  She was dead.

The doctor--and, soon, the undertaker--found that over the decades, the women had turned the suite into a rabbit warren filled with haphazard garbage:  Newspapers, food containers, trunks, old clothing, all the detritus of their hermit existence.

No one quite knew what to do with the remaining sister.  It seemed unconscionable cruelty to just leave Ida alone in this sad trash heap.  Morgan O'Brien, Jr., a member of a leading New York law firm, was summoned.  Intrigued by the mystery of the society belle turned recluse, he agreed to do what he could to sort out her murky affairs.

It was then that it emerged that Ida had vanished from life carrying with her a very great deal of money.  O'Brien also learned that she had some $175,000 of railroad stock, and had not cashed any dividends for years.  Ida herself was little help.  She insisted on staying holed up in her suite, where she smoked cigars, endlessly slathered petroleum jelly on her face, and refused to answer any questions, saying she was too deaf to understand anything the lawyers said.

Word quickly spread that the hotel was housing a very old and very rich woman, and, inevitably, a parade of long-lost relatives turned up holding out their palms.  First on the scene was Otis Wood, a son of Benjamin Wood's brother Fernando.  Accompanying him were his three brothers and their children.  Then came Benjamin's son from his first marriage, along with his children.  Soon, a crowd of Mayfields descended on the scene, loudly proclaiming their close blood ties to this elderly relative.  Some Crawfords joined the crowd, too, anxious to prove that they were kin to Ida through their common ancestry from the Earls of Crawford.  Before long, over a thousand people bearing the name "Wood,” “Crawford,” or "Mayfield" turned up to claim family ties with Ida--and her fortune.  Although they all claimed to be coming forward out of altruistic desires to help their dear, long-lost relative, their keen interest in her financial status was clearly their priority.  Their idea of "helping" Ida was to have her declared incompetent.  In September of 1931, they got their wish.

Ida was distraught to learn of her loss of independence.  "Why?" she wailed.  "I can take care of myself."  Much against her will, she was removed from her suite and brought to another room in the hotel.  

When her old hotel room was searched, over $700,000 in cash was found hidden here and there.  An old box of crackers was found to contain a diamond necklace. The suite proved to be a veritable time capsule.  Ida was storing 54 trunks filled with lovely 19th century gowns, exquisite jewelry, and valuable historical documents, such as a letter Charles Dickens had written to Benjamin Wood in 1867.  Ida's self-imposed squalor had been hiding a veritable Aladdin's Cave.  Ida's new-found family eagerly awaited the day when she would finally die so they could divide the spoils.

Ida herself, however, was disinclined to oblige them.  Despite her frail body, her mind remained as sharp and obstreperous as ever.  She was not the woman to go out meekly.  When food was brought to her, she would ask its cost.  If it was over a dollar, she would imperiously order that it be taken away.  On the rare occasions when her nurses and guardians would leave her alone for a moment, Ida would rush to a window and scream, "Help!  I'm a prisoner.  Get me out of here!"  In her mellower moments, she would fondly reminisce about the past, telling the nurses and reporters colorful, magical-sounding stories about her pampered New Orleans girlhood, and the fine education she had received thanks to her cultured, multi-lingual mother.

Before long, though, Ida became tired of fighting her imprisonment.  Her iron will gone, she simply gradually let go of life until she died  of pneumonia on March 12, 1932.  That left the question of who would inherit her wealth.  Although she had left a will, it left everything to her sister and daughter, who had, of course, both predeceased her.  Joseph Cox, counsel to New York's Public Administrator, was given the job of investigating Ida's lineage to see who had the best claim to be her heir.

It took Cox several years of hard work before the full truth about this strange woman emerged.  He  learned that Ida was not the Louisiana daughter of sugar planter Henry Mayfield.  Her real father was Thomas Walsh, a penniless Irishman who had emigrated to Massachusetts some time in the 1840s.  Her mother was a semi-literate woman from the Dublin slums.  "Ida" was not even her real name.  She had been born Ellen Walsh, but changed her name as a teenager, simply because she thought it sounded more elegant.  Her sister Mary, caught up in these alluring fantasies, became a "Mayfield" as well.  Oh, and Emma, "Ida's" daughter with Benjamin Wood?  She turned out not to be Ida's daughter at all, but another sister. (Benjamin Wood was apparently a willing partner in this little deception.)  The Mayfields and Woods and Crawfords were thus left out in the cold financially.  The pseudo-relatives did not take this news well.  They filed suit to get their "fair share" of Ida's estate.  The court made the reasonable ruling that, as "Ida Mayfield" was a pseudonym, the would-be heirs could go whistle for their money.  “Ida’s” estate went instead to ten living relatives of Ellen Walsh, who were stunned to learn they had a very odd--and very rich--kinswoman.  They each received about $90,000 (about $1.5 million in 2022 dollars.)  For them, at least, this sad story had a very happy ending.

Towards the end of her life, Ida/Ellen liked to tell her nurses a story from her girlhood.  One day, she went to a "gypsy seer" to have her fortune told.  After reading her palm, the fortune teller told the girl that she was going to be very lucky:  "You are going to marry a rich man, and get everything you want out of this life."

And so she did.  Although one can't help but think that in the end, it turned out to be a Faustian bargain.

1 comment:

  1. Whatever could have possessed Ida to become a reclue, and to have persuaded her sisters to join her? A very bizarre story, sad, too, of course. It seems fitting, though, that relatives who had never heard of her, and had never tried to get anything from her (perhaps only because they didn't know there was anything to get) received her money. Let's hope it did some of them some good.


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