The Hermit of the Herald Square Hotel
January 25, 2013 8:04 AM   Subscribe

In 1907, Ida Wood checked into a suite in the Herald Square Hotel. She wouldn't leave the room again for 24 years.
posted by Chrysostom (21 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I couldn't help but think: where did she get all the change?
posted by Phredward at 8:12 AM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

Fascinating--TL but did read every word. Human foibles never cease to amaze.
posted by rmhsinc at 8:25 AM on January 25, 2013

Oh, this has made my day. Love this type of shit. Thank you so much.

Her sister Mary took the name too. Emma Wood, her daughter with Benjamin Wood, wasn’t her daughter at all, but another sister. Her husband never divulged her secrets.

Another story in itself (at least one more, anyway). Got some web surfing to do today!
posted by Melismata at 8:30 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting to think about that life story in the context of the mores of the Victorian novel. According to the "rules" of such things, Benjamin Wood should have been "ruined" by marrying his up-from-the-gutter mistress--and she should have been a permanent outcast from society. But no such thing: she gets to go from being mistress to wife (which pretty much everyone must have known)--with, as far as everyone knew, a baby born out of wedlock, and it is in no way an impediment to her taking her station in the smart set--dancing with the Prince of Wales and meeting President Lincoln.
posted by yoink at 8:30 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fascinating.... in the article there is mention of the Collyer brothers... photos of their home in NY are here.
posted by HuronBob at 8:57 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

From HuronBob's link, there were secret passageways in the basement! Exciting!

Ida sounds like she would have been such an interesting lady to meet in person. You have to have a good amount of chutzpah to change your name, write that letter to a man you'd never met, and bring both of your sisters along for the ride! And to keep herself safe from her husband's gambling addiction in that way... she might be my hero!

But what on earth did she do all day in her little hotel room for 24 years? I can't even imagine.
posted by jillithd at 9:11 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fascinating story! I wonder who got the money? Did some distant Walsh relatives get a real surprise one day, or did her husband's relatives get it all in the end?
posted by tavella at 9:52 AM on January 25, 2013

But what on earth did she do all day in her little hotel room for 24 years?

Well, it did say that they also requested Copenhagen snuff, Havana cigars and jars of petroleum jelly, which Ida massaged onto her face for several hours each day.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:57 AM on January 25, 2013

Answering my own question: turns out that indeed her Walsh relatives got a pleasant surprise:

"[T]he 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."
posted by tavella at 9:59 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Katherine Sheehan's grandmother was Ida's sister, so she really did have an unknown great-aunt die and leave her a million dollars. Legend come to life.

Also, apparently Ida didn't just convert Mary and Emma to Woods, she converted her whole family to Mayfields!

"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)."

Seriously, talk about converting desire to reality by sheer force of will and personality...
posted by tavella at 10:08 AM on January 25, 2013

That was amazing! The brass ones on this woman --- that letter is a piece of fucking work. To go from the wrong side of the tracks in Malden to dancing with Lincoln on the back of nothing but a nice complextion and a will to beat John Henry's is fucking amazing.
posted by Diablevert at 10:26 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Amazing story. Thanks so much for this!
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:13 AM on January 25, 2013

that letter is a piece of fucking work

Yeah, so, so much. I keep going back and forth on the but I know a little more, and there is an old saying—‘Knowledge is power’, trying to parse if this bit is blackmail or supersexysexsex seduction. Or both. Probably both.
posted by taz at 11:19 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great story!

In the "Herald Square circa 1907" photo, don't miss the building at the center of the right half; it's the New York Herald building by Stanford White, one of the glories of NYC until it was torn down in 1921. If I could resurrect one building in the city, I can never decide whether it would be that or White's Madison Square Garden (where he was murdered in 1906). I love New York, but I wish it hadn't treated its heritage so contemptuously for so long.
posted by languagehat at 11:43 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is fascinating and that letter is amaaaazing. Chutzpah!

More interesting personally is that this all went down at the Herald Square Hotel. When I moved to NYC out of grad school I lived at the HSHotel for the first 2 weeks I was there, while I looked for an apartment. For the first week my boyfriend at the time stayed with me in a tiny regular type hotel room. After he left, in the second week, I moved into an even tinier room that used a shared bathroom down the hall. It looks like it's been renovated pretty substantially since then (June 1996 it would have been) but it was clean and generally affordable for those two weeks until I found a studio on the Upper East Side. Alas, at no time while staying there (or anywhere else) did I have half a million dollars stuffed inside my clothing.
posted by marylynn at 12:13 PM on January 25, 2013

$1,000 and $5,000 bills? I doubt cabbies made change for that.

Fascinating story. I can't wait to read much more about them.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:14 PM on January 25, 2013

trying to parse if this bit is blackmail or supersexysexsex seduction. Or both. Probably both.

I'm going to go with straight-up blackmail, myself. To me it sounds clearly as if she's calling him out as someone who sleeps with underage girls, and that she'll tell all if given the chance. It is certainly possible that she sent many of these letters out, and this is just the one that struck home.
posted by davejay at 12:55 PM on January 25, 2013

The blackmail angle... y'all may be overestimating the influence an unknown young woman had over a powerful businessman in this time period. I mean, she would at least need to have had (or say she had) evidence, and even then.
posted by gilrain at 1:41 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fascinating.... in the article there is mention of the Collyer brothers

An interesting tidbit: In FDNY firefighting parlance, a house so filled with stuff that it creates a dangerous scenario for the first responders is still referred to as a "Collyers' mansion condition".
posted by rollbiz at 2:02 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Disagree, gilrain. The state of affairs with New York muckraking papers of the era was that they would run with a story if the teller was compelling enough and had enough chutzpah. Wood was a target of the muckrakers already, given his peripheral involvement in his brother's very public scandals.

It might just have been the old "Fly at once, all is discovered!" con, but she may have also had specific information, or just been confident that Wood was terrified of scandal.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:05 PM on January 25, 2013

Oh, man, I disagree about the letter. She only talks about "knowledge is power" after slyly mentioning her looks ---- I think it's a clear come on. It's Victorian for "I fuck like a minx."
posted by Diablevert at 2:27 AM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

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