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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Cash in the Attic. Really.

Henry Hayden was a shooting star. After serving in the Civil War, he studied law in Oshkosh and in 1872 moved to Eau Claire, where he soon became the most powerful attorney in northwestern Wisconsin. He defended railroads and logging barons, bought up shares in local banks and businesses, and in 1885 brought his new young bride to a luxurious Gilded Age palace. A forceful character willing to make enemies, during the Gay Nineties he was said to be worth half a million dollars, and was at the height of his powers and the top of his profession -- until he suddenly keeled over, on Jan. 4, 1903, from a massive heart attack.

Hayden's widow Alice, only 35 years old at the time, never recovered, but holed up in the mansion for the next 30 years. She put away his fancy horses and carriages, laid off the servants, and stopped attending parties or making calls. When her sister Theresa was also widowed, Alice took her in, and the pair rarely left their home after that. Year after year the shrubs grew unruly, the paint peeled, weeds took over the gardens, and dust settled on the window sills. Outside the house, airplanes and automobiles were invented, a World War was fought, women won the right to vote and everyone lost the right to drink, and the nation plunged into depression. But inside the mansion, the two reclusive sisters lived quietly.

Occasionally a near neighbor would call to check up on the old ladies and find them in the simplest clothes, pleading poverty to excuse the primitive conditions. When Theresa died in 1932, 65-year-old Alice could not be persuaded to hire an additional housekeeper to help maintain the cavernous home, and even tried to borrow $18 from a neighborhood merchant. When Alice Hayden finally passed away in the summer of 1934, her executors found broken windows, tattered carpets, and every indication of that the Depression had reduced the two aging women, like so much of the population, to the brink of poverty.

Until they stumbled across a laundry bag stuffed with $62,000 in cash, leaning against a highboy in the library. Then they found another $150,000 in securities and currency tucked in a dresser drawer in Alice's bedroom. She had apparently withdrawn large sums from her bank before the great crash of 1929 and hidden them around the decaying house. The investigators spent days ripping open mattresses and leafing through every volume in the library in search of more assets. In all, more than $225,000 descended to her daughter and grandson in Massachusetts.

You can read more about eccentric Alice Hayden, and another rich widow nearby who lived in voluntary poverty, in our online collection of Local History and Biography Articles.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on May 14, 2007

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