Fascinating Ida – Frank McNally on the continued story of Ida Wood, a rich recluse who hid her humble Irish origins

Ida Mayfield Wood: her frank application to become Ben Wood’s mistress succeeded more spectacularly than she could have hoped

Ida Mayfield Wood: her frank application to become Ben Wood’s mistress succeeded more spectacularly than she could have hoped

 

When trying to explain the extraordinary deception carried out by the woman who posed as Ida Mayfield Wood (Diary, October 17th), Joseph Cox, the US lawyer who helped unravel it, had to go back to her grandmother’s childhood in the turbulent Ireland of the 1798 rebellion and its aftermath.

Margaret Walsh had bequeathed disturbing memories that followed her granddaughter to England, where she was born in 1838, then Massachusetts, where she arrived as a child, and finally New York, where she made her fortune.

“Life was precarious,” Cox wrote in his 1964 book about her, The Recluse of Herald Square. “It made people tough, or it killed them, or in the case of children like Ellen [Walsh] it implanted strangling fears that could not be shaken off in adult life, only submerged and subverted.”

The pivotal year in Walsh’s life came early, in 1857, with her move to New York. Her family had so far struggled in America. She herself had been in service since age 12. Now she was 19, and may have had a new-born baby, later passed off as her sister and after that as the child of her future husband.

Among her advantages, however, were beauty, brains, and a hard head. She used all three in the brazen letter that first brought her to the attention of Benjamin Wood. Her researches had established that he was rich – partly thanks to his brother Fernando, a two-time city mayor corrupt even by New York standards – and a philanderer.

The letter, which was still among her possessions 75 years later, mentioned his reputation for liking “new faces” and suggested he might find hers agreeable too. She might not be “quite as handsome as the lady you are with at present,” it added, “but I know a little more”.

After including a post office box number, she signed this “Nellie”, making it perhaps the last document on which Ellen Walsh/Ida Mayfield would ever use that pet version of her real name.

This frank application to become Ben Wood’s mistress succeeded more spectacularly than she could have hoped.  Not only did he like her face, he fell in love with it, married her, and was a devoted husband ever after.

Whether she was as besotted with him is doubtful, but their combined talents made them a successful couple. One of Wood’s other weaknesses was gambling. He once even bet his own newspaper, the New York Daily News, and won. 

But he wasn’t always so lucky. His new wife didn’t succeed in reforming him, if she ever tried. What she did instead was insulate her wealth from his losses, while profiting from the wins. By the time he died, she owned the newspaper too.

She had long since reinvented herself for New York society as the daughter of Henry Mayfield, a sugar plantation owner from Louisiana, and a mother named Crawford, descended from Scottish earls.

The Crawford bit was accurate at least, but like the Walshes, that had come from Dublin, and there were no earls involved. Her mother’s people owned a bakery, the subject of one of the memories that had followed her to America, in which the family had been spared violence during a bread riot once because of their known charity to the poor.

In her dying days at the Herald Square Hotel, surrounded by her money, lawyers, and would-be heirs – it was such memories that dominated Ida’s conversation, as the decades of deception fell away.

But by the end of the epic court case that followed her death, there were 1,103 registered claimants to the fortune. Thanks to Mayfields alone, the courtroom was thick with southern accents, something she had never had herself, the Louisiana backstory being entirely fictional.

After years of detective work, Cox (for whose out-of-print book I’m indebted to Imelda Murphy) travelled to Ireland to trace her true origins. He had been there 20 years before, as a US soldier on postwar furlough, when his improvised uniform – half British, half American because of shortages – had been confused with the Black and Tans.

Now his life was complicated by the burning of the Custom House from the same era. But he eventually found records in places including the two churches of St James, Catholic and Protestant, beside Guinness’s, and traced both the bakery and a version of the bread riot story (from 1826) to nearby Bow Lane.

In the end, he also reduced the number of legal heirs to 10, in Dublin, England, and the US, who shared equally in the fortune. None had ever met Ellen/Ida or been among the original claimants. As far as Cox knew, only one had ever heard of her until she was dead and her “magnificent hoax” was uncovered.  

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