The recluse of Herald Square: The mystery of Ida E. Wood by Joseph A. Cox

review by Rose

On a grim March day in 1932 New York residents were engrossed by the unfolding drama at the Herald Square Hotel, eagerly reading the latest instalments of the strange tale. The story of Ida, her daughter Emma and sister Mary, echoed through the fast-paced urban environment and penetrated human consciousness, like a disquieting fever. As the narrative gathered potency, it was reinforced by the media who crafted a vision, part fact part fantasy, of Ida Wood. Headlines appeared stating Ida did not believe people could fly in the air, which was a falsehood. Though it is true to state that the press were more eager to listen to Ida than the relatives fighting over her inheritance. Soon the frail figure in a ragged nightdress, almost deaf and blind, who’d lived in a filthy darkened hotel room for decades, became like an entity from a nefarious fairytale. Ida became as notorious as the Miss Havisham sat in her decaying wedding dress in a ruined mansion, in Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. She did not fit into the real world, but into a strange land, an invention of a writers imagination. But Ida was simply a human being most likely suffering from a debilitating mental illness. She was also diagnosed with paranoid thoughts related to senility.

The author of this book was the counsel for the Public Administrator and employed to search for Ida’s real identity and life story. Despite this being his profession, he genuinely felt compassion for the three women and wanted to understand them. Ida became a mystery to him, a ticking clock in the back of his mind that, try as he might, he could not switch off. He and his team searched cemetery plots, examined wills and legal documents and church records. They interviewed relatives and worked to decipher what he called ‘The rose-coloured notebook’, which contained letters and dates that held the key to Ida’s deepest secrets. Ida had once been a beautiful socialite; she’d worn a dazzling gown and danced in a lavish ballroom with Prince Albert. She had met Abraham Lincoln and associated with some of the most influential society figures as a young woman. What girl born into poverty in that historical time could experience moments like these? Somewhere in Ida’s ninety-three-year-old brain were memories that radiated like shimmering jewelled chandeliers in the grand mansion houses she had visited. Ida had moved social classes, by becoming a willing mistress to wealthy businessman Benjamin Wood, proprietor of the New York Daily News, a man she eventually married. Wood created a smear campaign against Abraham Lincoln and was a staunch supporter of the South during the civil war. His ethics were questionable, his politics almost had him arrested for treason, but he did love his wife and daughter.

Ida and Benjamin took complex steps to conceal Ida’s background, including a name change, so that she could enter elite society. Ida possibly suffered from agoraphobia and complex anxiety conditions. People who hoard objects do not do so out of choice, it is a compulsion that they cannot control, often driven by underlying anxieties. The hotel manager confessed that during his six-year term, he’d never seen the women, except Emma, taken out when she was dying. The staff seemed to know little information about them. The women had decided to cut themselves off from the outside world when entering room 552. One may never know why Emma and Mary followed Ida in her decision. Though the hotel room was a squalid environment, it was also a treasure trove, beneath the dirt and clutter, hundreds of thousands in cash was hidden, cases and trunks overflowed with riches, rare editions of literature, jewels that sparkled and glowed as flawlessly as they’d been in Ida’s youth and luxurious dresses. The book is written with great empathy, it’s an investigative journey to find the true story of the three recluses of Herald Square. Themes are social class, law and inheritance, mental health, identity, disability and poverty.

Hoarding is often part of a complex mental health condition that is very traumatic for the person who has it. Hoarding is not simple and can be difficult to treat. It’s not what some would consider ‘a choice’ as it is often a serious compulsion, driven by severe anxieties. It’s obvious that Ida became paranoid about her money later in life, fearful of separating from it, developing the fear that everyone wanted to take it from her. She made an intelligent choice when she removed the money from the bank when she did, despite the bank seeing her behaviour as odd. Because she removed it just before the great depression, which tells us that Ida was a very astute person with finances. It’s only later that this condition developed into something which became severe, leaving three women living in horrifying conditions, without receiving proper medical care, and Ida pretending that she had very little funds, to the bellboy, who brought the sisters food every few days. When her daughter Emma died, and her sister Mary, Ida moaned about the fact it would cost her money in the bluntest way imaginable, shocking both doctors and undertakers. She asked for the cheapest burial possible, and clearly didn’t want to pay doctors, yet she knew she had amassed a fortune in the hotel. She would not go to the funerals and took no real interest in them. But if one looks back to when Ida was younger, she paid for a beautiful expensive headstone for her mother and brother. The hoarding and miserly behaviour started much later in her life, or it escalated much later. Because she hoarded, she didn’t think about who would get the inheritance after her sister and daughter died, so made no final will, which again, showed her state of mind and mental health.

She may always have had a mental health condition much earlier, she’d always been very focused on finances and money, but it may have become worse after the death of her husband. People can hoard any object, with money, one might wonder if Ida’s poor background, living in a family where food was not always available, eventually meant that her choice of object to hoard was money. In those days, many doctors’ misdiagnosed complex conditions that led to this kind of behaviour. Ida and her daughter and sister were lucky that they were not found earlier, by the wrong person, and admitted to an institution, as many women of that time were often locked in insane asylums for abnormal behaviour much less than what the three women in the Herald Hotel were showing.

Sometimes hoarders do not realise the effect they have on others, family members and partners. We have no idea why her daughter, Emma and sister Mary did not seek help and leave the hotel, even though it’s clear they must have been in agonising pain in the hotel room. Mary died without medical care and pain management in her last months, with cancer, despite the fact she could have died a more peaceful death by leaving the room. They were not prisoners in the room, one will never really know if they themselves suffered from their own complex anxiety conditions. Ida had always been the dominant female in the family. She was the one that married the wealthy businessman and acquired all the wealth. Her sister and brothers were reliant on her for the rest of her lives. In the book, the author makes it plain that during his investigations Ida was an excellent businesswoman, and she admired her sister for having the same mindset regarding finances. However, it also seems clear that she was hoarding money well before they entered the hotel. In her marriage, she would expect her husband to give her a share of his gambling wins and would keep the money, not spend it. She’d collect it. Both sisters seemed to have been quite similar in personality. But Mary will also have been grateful to Ida as she gave her an escape from poverty. Mary never married and we will never know the reason why. The author believes Mary was happy to follow her sister in all decisions. She seemed to content to take a secondary role to Ida. This may have caused problems later, as Ida’s mental health deteriorated.

Emma – Ida’s daughter

Emma was the most tragic figure in the hotel room during those long years she was isolated inside the room. At first, authorities and lawyers could find no evidence that she was, in fact, Ida’s daughter. However, it appeared that Benjamin Wood and Ida had Emma out of wedlock, while she was his mistress. This created another problem that they would have to hide in later years. Emma was brought into elite society and had a party as a debutante, the problem is that Emma was tragically born with a spinal curve, one that had caused her to be in a great deal of pain from a toddler. It would have been impossible to find her a suitor in high society at that time. One could say, that she may have had more chance of finding a husban,d in a less affluent society. The fact that her upbringing was being hidden, would also not have helped her find a suitable husband and her disability meant that the wealthy would most likely see her in a negative way and possibly wonder if it could be inherited. In those days, sickeness was viewed very negatively in marriages. Possibly, one of the most heart-breaking finds in the cases in the hotel was the only letter Joseph found, from Emma to her father, in it she is clearly distressed that she had no young men in her life. Emma died in the Herald hotel without experiencing romantic love. The author describes the sadness of finding the letter and understanding the pain Emma suffered in life.

Social Classes

Social classes are one of the main themes in the book. It would have been extremely difficult when Ida was a young woman to move social classes. Ida was a poor irish immigrant with working-class parents, but her mother was a loving mother, unfortunately the father died early on in an accident. Ida's mother took good care of her daughters and sons to the best of her ability. In her nineties, Ida described the fact that ‘no one had ever ruled her except her father.’ She said her mother and husband allowed her to do exactly as she pleased. This gives us a great insight into Ida’s strong personality, that often overcame the will of others. Perhaps it was this strong will that helped her escape poverty. She became the mistress of Benjamin Wood, who was very impressed by her personality. She obviously loved him as she stayed with him for almost ten years before they married. In a letter described in the book, Ida writes to her husband, telling him that she knew he was looking for ‘new faces’ and she wondered if he would meet her. We will never know if this was the letter that led to their first meeting. In the letter, Ida describes her looks and is very pragmatic and forthright about her intentions. Ida would have had few opportunities in those days to escape poverty and becoming a mistress may have been only one way out for the young woman. However, she was lucky that she found a man that loved her and wanted to marry her.


Identity is another prominent theme, it would take months and years to find out Ida’s real identity, she had changed her name, her sisters and brothers names to Mayfield, in order to create a new background that enabled her to be respected in elite society. She looked after her sister, brothers and mother when she was young, making sure they had the necessary finances and care they needed. Many churches did not keep adequate records and as an immigrant, finding her true identity would require long searches, funding and would require the author to travel abroad. We eventually find out that Ida was, in fact, Ellen Walsh. The author reveals his joy when he finally found Ida's true identity. Once she’d changed her identity she cut off the rest of her wider family who still lived in poor conditions. This was most likely due to the fear that they would reveal her impoverished background to the wealthy in society. People change identities for many reasons, in Ida’s case the change of identity was out of necessity, there were very few ways she could become a society wife and socialite if people from eminent families knew the truth. Knowing she’d been a mistress for years, would also mean that she would be stigmatised and not refused entry into higher circles. Moving identities created several practical and emotional problems. It required rigorous planning and changes in documents. Benjamin Wood did love her dearly and wanted to make sure that she and his daughter were treated with respect.


When the three women entered the hotel it was considered an illustrious hotel, elegant and quite stately. In the past it had many wealthy guests and was situated in the theatre district. However, as the women aged in the hotel room, the author describes the building as run-down, it was no longer the wonderful building they had entered. Yet it was unlikely that any of the three women knew of the hotels decline, although they lived in filthy conditions inside the hotel, they rarely ventured outside, only Mary left now and again, and soon all her visits outside would stop. Down many floors outside the windows, the streets were busy with communters rushing by, totally unaware that above them in a room, three women were living in total isolation and apart from the world. The fact that the hotel appeared to decay as the women aged, gives the hotel itself a presence in the book. Ida would shout through the door to the bellboy, that she could give him very little tips as she had no real money, yet she was hoarding a fortune. It's true to say that although they were gossiped about in the hotel. The hotel staff did not take a real interest in entering the hotel room as the years passed. New managers were appointed and none seemed to find it odd they had not seen the women. When asked questions few of them could provide any real details about the women, only a few bare facts. This shocked people at the time, and it's true that the way they lived would not have continued had someone in the hotel intervened.