Ida Wood: The Recluse of Herald Square

Ida Wood never had any intention of making contact with the outside world, but on March 5, 1931, death made it necessary. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the 93-year-old did something she hadn’t done in 24 years of living at the Herald Square Hotel in New York City: she voluntarily opened the door, craned her neck down the corridor, and called for help. Over the next 24 hours, various people filtered in and out of room 552: the hotel manager, the house physician, and an undertaker, who summoned two attorneys. The body of Ida’s sister, Mary Mayfield, lay on the couch in the parlor, covered with a sheet. She had died of natural causes. The manager of the hotel admitted that he had never seen Ida or her sister. They had moved into the 2-room suite in 1907. They always paid their bills in cash and refused maid service, though they did place their sheets and towels outside the door in exchange for clean ones. A bellhop said that for many years he made a habit of knocking on the door once a day and asking the women if they needed anything. They requested the same thing every day: evaporated milk, crackers, coffee, bacon, and eggs. Ida always tipped the bellhop 10¢, telling him the money was the last she had in the world. When Ida died a year later and the children of her only living relative, a nephew, came to clean out her hotel room, they found $247,200 in cash in a shoebox, as well as $500,000 tucked into one of her dresses. They also found 54 trunks stored in the basement of the hotel, and inside lay exquisite gowns, necklaces, watches, bracelets, and tiaras, along with several gold certificates dating back to the 1860s. In an old box of stale crackers, they discovered a diamond necklace worth $40,000. While Ida was being buried in a cemetery in Queens, New York, a team of attorneys worked to unravel the mystery of her life, while over 1,103 claimants squabbled over her estate.