Why you should care
Because that crazy recluse in your apartment building could be more interesting than you think.
Margaret Kilkenny, a chambermaid at the Herald Square Hotel in New York City, knew not to turn down the beds in suites 551-552. The only signs of life she’d seen come from those rooms were pale withered hands that reached through a small crack in the door occasionally to collect clean linens and a few groceries. So Kilkenny was more than a little surprised when the door to the suite opened on May 5, 1931, and a raspy voice yelled, “Maid, come here! My sister is sick.”
The demand came from 93-year-old Ida Wood, a millionaire socialite from New Orleans who had disappeared from high society 24 years earlier. Her story, dubbed “The Recluse of Herald Square” by the press, made headlines and captivated the nation in the early 1930s.
In the days after first reaching out for help, a parade of lawyers, undertakers, purported relatives and hotel staff filtered through suites 551-552. They discovered that the millionairess, once touted in the papers for her fragile beauty, was now stooped and withered, and sported a wild bramble of gray matted hair. She had been living there with her sisters Mary and Emma in near isolation for more than two decades. The rooms were almost entirely filled with refuse; the doctor who came to examine Mary could barely find a place to stand amid piles of old magazines, boxes, suitcases, strange collections of newspaper clippings and bits of cloth.
She knew that the only way for a woman to climb the social ladder was through marriage, and so immediately set out to find herself a rich husband.
The sisters didn’t just hoard objects — hidden among the junk was Ida’s entire fortune. Roughly 1 million dollars in cash and jewelry were found in cardboard boxes, trunks and Cracker Jack boxes, and $500,000 was found in an oilskin bag that Ida hid under her skirt.
After her own death in March 1932, more than a thousand people came forward claiming to be the rightful heirs of Wood’s fortune. Like archaeologists on a dig, investigators pieced together Wood’s life from the piles of objects found in the suites. Birth certificates, letters, deeds, bills and receipts revealed Wood’s true identity: Ellen Walsh, a poor Irish immigrant who grew up, not on a plantation in New Orleans, but in an impoverished area of Massachusetts.
Her “hoarding dilemma emerged from avoiding her biggest fears,” says Renee Winters, author of The Hoarding Impulse: Suffocation of the Soul, referring to the millionaire’s past lies, secrecy and fear of being discovered as a liar. As the years after her death passed, Wood’s grand deception unraveled, making headlines and telling a story that was truly stranger than fiction. And the deception didn’t end with the public: Emma spent her entire life thinking she was the daughter of Ida and Ben Wood when she was, in fact, Ida’s youngest sister.
Wood had arrived in New York back in 1857, at the tender age of 19. With high cheekbones, a cascade of chestnut hair and captivating eyes, she was a striking and petite beauty. The “Empire City,” as it was called then, was like a wonderland for the young woman, who set her sights on the blinding opulence of the West Side elite. She knew that the only way for a woman to climb the social ladder was through marriage, and so immediately set out to find herself a rich husband. She scoured the gossip columns for eligible bachelors, finally settling upon the owner of the Daily News newspaper and brother to the mayor, 37-year-old Ben Wood.
Her first letter to Ben, dated May 28, 1857, was found among her belongings. In it she writes of having heard his former loves speak highly of him, and she offers to “contract an agreeable intimacy with you,” noting her good looks. The quirky but romantic pitch worked: “Ida” and Ben met, fell madly in love and embarked on a 10-year affair culminating in marriage in 1867. The half-century that the couple spent together before Ben’s death in 1900 was rose-tinted and opulent. Ben showered Ida with the finest jewels, furs, frocks and negligees. They took extravagant trips all over America and Europe; Ida even danced with the Prince of Wales at his New York debut ball in 1860 and met Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
After Ben died, however, Ida became the editor of the Daily News, where she failed fantastically. She fired half of the writers and, rather than reporting current events, insisted that the paper focus on human interest pieces. Tellingly, Wood had a fascination with features about recluses. She finally sold the paper in 1901 for $340,000, and spent the next few years cruising through the Mediterranean and traveling through Europe with Mary and Emma.
During one of her brief returns to New York in 1907, Wood ran into a banker friend on Fifth Avenue who told her that he was concerned about the country’s financial situation. This awoke the impoverished child within, and, in a frenzy, she withdrew all of her money from the bank, placed it in a mesh sack and moved into the Herald Square Hotel with her sisters.
There, the three women, having lived the good life for so long, slowly retreated into the twilight of reclusion as the 20th century raged outside. Their isolation prevented them from ever hearing a radio broadcast, seeing a motion picture with sound or hearing the roar of an airplane overhead. Walled off from the rest of the world, insulated by junk, Wood and her secrets about her humble beginnings remained safe.