Her death a few months later in early 1932 prompted hundreds of alleged heirs to file claims to her million dollar estate. These were the worst days of the Great Depression and stories of great fortunes meant the nation would follow the case with great anticipation. No one would have predicted the stunning end result.
The search of Ida Wood’s hotel rooms after her death turned up a vast collection of personal papers and documents, the most important of which appeared to be a will she made out in 1889. In it she willed all her assets to her sister Mary and daughter Emma, the two unmarried women she lived with at the hotel during her decades of seclusion. Both women had died a few years earlier and neither had left a will. Two factions of the Wood family soon squared off in a contest to be declared the rightful heirs to the estate. The New York Surrogate Court, however, declared Ida’s 1889 will invalid and referred the matter to the city’s Public Administrator, an official charged with settling estates of people who die without valid wills or verifiable heirs. Attorney Joseph A. Cox, counsel to the Public Administrator, was then assigned to conduct an investigation into the family lineage of Ida Wood to determine her most immediate heirs.
One of the first searches by Cox and his team turned up an intriguing clue. Records at the Catholic Church where Ida and her wealthy businessman and politician husband Benjamin Wood had been married in 1867 showed that Ida had registered her name as Ida Ellen Walsh Mayfield. Cox also found a letter of dispensation (Wood was Protestant) from a Catholic priest referring to her as Ida Ellen Walsh. Where had the name Walsh come from, Cox wondered? Ida had only been known to the public as Ida E. Mayfield Wood, daughter of a wealthy Louisiana plantation owner.
More clues emerged as Cox began by sifting through Ida’s mountain of personal papers. He found two undertaker’s receipts, one made out to Thomas Walsh for the burial of a young boy in Cambridge, Mass., in 1846, and a second made out to a nun for the burial of Thomas Walsh in San Francisco in 1864. There was also a letter dated 1866 indicating that Ida had sent money to the House of the Guardian Angel in Jamaica Plain, Mass., for the care of one Michael Walsh, aged 14.
These were intriguing documents but how they related to Ida Mayfield remained unclear until Cox found a rose-colored notebook filled with information, albeit incomplete, of Ida’s past. It was, said Cox later, “the Rosetta Stone of the Ida E. Wood mystery.” The notebook contained details of the death of Ida’s mother and the whereabouts of her grave in New York. The headstone listed Ida’s mother as Ann Mayfield and indicated that her brother Henry Mayfield was also buried there. This evidence seemed to strengthen the Mayfield side of Ida’s origins but still left many questions unanswered. The notebook also had an entry noting that Ida’s father died in California in 1864 — the same date and location of the Thomas Walsh undertaker receipt. Still another entry referred to a Louis Walsh, aged 13, who drowned in 1865.
Acting on a hunch, Cox decided to pursue the older undertaker receipt that referred to the burial of a boy, presumably the son of a Thomas Walsh, in a Cambridge cemetery in 1846. The caretaker took him to a long-overgrown section of the cemetery where no headstones could be seen. After a little poking around with a shovel, they hit a headstone. “That sound of metal on stone,” Cox later wrote, “was the key turning in the lock which had barred us from Ida’s past.” The headstone read, “Erected by Ann Walsh in memory of her husband Thomas Walsh who died in San Francisco Nov. 8, 1864, aged 54 years.” This inscription linked the two undertaker receipts and potentially, Ida’s notebook entry about her father dying in California in 1864. As for Ann Walsh, that might be Ida’s mother — perhaps she married a Mayfield after Thomas’s death? Another name on the headstone, Louis Walsh, dead at 13 in 1865, likewise matched a notebook entry.
Acting on another hunch — this time a true longshot — Cox went to Malden, Massachusetts where records indicated the Walshes lived in the 1850s to see if anyone remembered them. To his astonishment, he located Mrs. Margaret O’Reilly, an 82-year-old woman born in 1857. She knew the family well and remembered minute details about them, including the drowning death of Louis (she was eight in 1865). The family, she said, moved away shortly thereafter — to where she did not know. Subsequent investigations would later reveal that Ann Walsh (Ida’s mother), her daughter Mary and son Michael moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the request of Ida. Within a few years they, too, transformed themselves into Mayfields, with Ida’s brother Michael taking the name Henry (hence the name Henry Mayfield on the New York headstone).
A second break in the investigation came when another attorney connected with the case convinced the Boston Globe to run a lengthy feature story on the evolving mystery and — importantly — to run a few old pictures found among Ida’s effects. Hundreds of alleged claims and leads poured in, but one stood above the others. Katherine Sheehan of Salem, Mass., wrote to say that she possessed a photograph identical to one that appeared in the Globe story. Investigators knew that one of the women in the photo was Ida’s mother Ann. Sheehan said the other woman was her grandmother Eliza Crawford O’Connor and provided a wealth of detailed family information.
Cox took this information, traveled to Ireland and England, and thus solved the mystery. To begin with he discovered that Ann Crawford, Ida’s mother, was born in Dublin. She and her sister, Eliza, later moved to England (exiled from the family because they converted to Catholicism), and married fellow Irish immigrants. Ann married Thomas Walsh (of Meath) and they had several children while living in England, including Ellen (aka Ida) in 1838 and Mary in 1840. They eventually moved to Massachusetts, as did Eliza and her family. Ida left the family in 1857 at age 19 and eventually turned up in New York City with a new identity — Ida E. Mayfield, a southern belle from Louisiana. As detailed in last week’s column, she met and married the wealthy Ben Wood. She moved into the Herald Square Hotel in 1907 with her sister Mary, daughter Emma, and $1 million in cash and valuables. Ida remained there for 24 years until she was “discovered” in 1931 and subsequently became an object of national fascination.
The subsequent trial before Surrogate Judge of New York, James A. Foley, resulted in the conclusive finding that Ida E. Mayfield was the false identity assumed by Ellen Walsh. Accordingly, the court awarded her estate not to the descendants of the Wood family, nor to the hundreds of Mayfields who claimed they were relatives, but to Katherine Sheehan and nine other direct descendants of Ellen Walsh (two O’Donnells, three Kennedys, and a McEnearney, Murphy, Gallagher, and Reynolds). Each received a share of the estate valued at about $90,000 — a fortune in the late 1930s.
Joseph A. Cox eventually wrote a book about the mystery entitled “The Recluse of Herald Square” (1964).
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 13, 1862: The Irish Brigade suffers horrendous casualties in its heroic assaults against Confederate lines in the Battle of Fredricksburg.
Dec. 14, 1955: Ireland becomes member of the UN.
Dec. 8, 1966: Sinead O’Connor, singer and activist, is born in Dublin.
Dec. 13, 1890: Playwright Marc Connelly is born in McKeesport, Pa.