Hetty Green (née Robinson), nicknamed “The Witch of Wall Street” (November 21, 1834 – July 3, 1916), was an American businesswoman, remarkable for her frugality during the Gilded Age, as well as for being the first American woman to make a substantial impact on Wall Street.
Birth and early years
She was born Henrietta Howland Robinson in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland. Her family were Quakers who owned a large whaling fleet and also profited from the China trade. At the age of two, she was living with her grandfather, Gideon Howland. Because of his influence and that of her father, and possibly because her mother was constantly ill, she took to her father’s side and was reading financial papers to him by the age of six. When she was 13, Hetty became the family bookkeeper. At the age of 15, she went to a school in Boston.
When her father died in 1864, she inherited $7.5 million ($107 million in 2010 adjusted for inflation) in liquid assets, against the objections of most of her family, and invested in Civil War war bonds.
When she heard that her aunt Sylvia had willed most of her $2 million to charity, she challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will which allegedly left the entire estate to Hetty, and included a clause invalidating any subsequent wills. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics, was ultimately decided against Hetty after the court ruled that the clause invalidating future wills, and Sylvia’s signature to it, were forgeries.
At the age of 33, Henrietta married Edward Henry Green, a member of a wealthy Vermont family. She made him renounce all rights to her money before the wedding on July 11, 1867. The married couple moved to Edward’s home in Manhattan, but when her cousins tried to have her indicted for forgery based on the Robinson v. Mandell decision, they moved to London and they lived in the Langham Hotel. Her two children, Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green and Hetty Sylvia Ann Howland Green, were born there, Ned on August 23, 1868 and Sylvia on January 7, 1871.
As Edward pursued investments as a sort of “gentleman banker”, Hetty began parlaying her inheritances into her own astonishing fortune. She formulated an investment strategy to which she stuck throughout her life:
conservative investments, substantial cash reserves to back up any movement, and an exceedingly cool head amidst turmoil. During her time in London, most of her investment efforts focused on greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought at full bore, claiming to have made US$1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone. Her earnings on that front were to fund her great subsequent rail-bond purchases.
When the Green family returned to the United States, they went to Edward’s hometown in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Already something of an eccentric, she began to quarrel, not only with her husband and in-laws, but also with the domestic servants and neighborhood shopkeepers. After the 1885 collapse of the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, in which Hetty was the largest investor, investigation revealed that Edward had not only been the firm’s greatest debtor, but that management of the firm had surreptitiously used Hetty’s wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Hetty, emphasizing that their finances were separate, withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank. Edward moved out of their home. In later years, however, they would effect at least a partial reconciliation, and Hetty helped nurse him in the years before his death on March 19, 1902, from heart disease and chronic nephritis. He was buried in Bellows Falls in the graveyard of Immanuel Church.
There are many tales (of various degrees of accuracy) about Hetty Green’s stinginess. She never turned on the heat nor used hot water. She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out. She did not wash her hands and rode an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One tale claims that she spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap.
Green conducted much of her business at the offices of the Seaboard National Bank in New York, surrounded by trunks and suitcases full of her papers; she did not want to pay rent for an office. Later unfounded rumours claimed that she ate only oatmeal, heated on the office radiator. Possibly because of the stiff competition of the mostly male business environment and partly because of her usually dour dress sense (due mainly to frugality, but perhaps ascribable in part to her Quaker upbringing), she was given the nickname the “Witch of Wall Street”. She was a successful
businesswoman who dealt mainly in real estate, invested in railroads, and lent money. The City of New York came to Hetty in need of loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907; she wrote a check for $1.1 million and took her payment in short-term revenue bonds. Keenly detail-oriented, she would travel thousands of miles – alone, in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted – to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.
Her frugality extended to family life. Her son Ned broke his leg as a child, and Hetty tried to have him admitted in a free clinic for the poor. According to Green’s biographer Charles Slack, the oft-repeated story is that when she was recognized, she stormed away vowing to treat the wounds herself, which is only half true. He relates that having been found out (and perhaps also after procrastinating about seeking treatment for the boy in the first place), Green paid her bill and thereafter brought him to other doctors (while also trying home remedies). Similarly, Slack relates that it is not true that the leg had to be amputated because of gangrene. Rather, it was amputated after years of unsuccessful treatment. In any case, Ned ended up with a cork prosthesis.
Ned moved away from his mother to manage the family’s properties in Chicago and, later, Texas. Ned became an ardent philatelist and assembled one of the finest private stamp collections ever. In middle age he returned to New York; his mother would pass her final months with him. Ned ultimately married Mabel, his long-time “housekeeper” (a former prostitute he met in Texas), of whom Hetty wholeheartedly disapproved. Although it has often been said that Ned spent the rest of his life spending most of his share of Hetty’s fortune, in fact (although he was a spendthrift), the $1 million yearly income he made on the approximately $100 million fortune he inherited was adequate to his most expensive needs. He left the same amount when he died. Most of Ned’s estate went to his sister Sylvia, while Mabel had been provided for (significantly less generously) during Ned’s lifetime. One of his more infamous extravagant purchases was a diamond-encrusted chamber pot.
Green’s extreme respect for her own privacy aside, she entered the lexicon of turn-of-the-century America with the sobriquet “I’m not Hetty if I do look green;” this phrase is quoted in O. Henry‘s 1890s story “The Skylight Room” when a young woman, negotiating the rent on a room in a rooming house owned by an imperious old lady, wishes to make it clear she is neither as rich as she appears nor as naive.
Her daughter Sylvia lived with Hetty until her thirties. Hetty disapproved of all of Sylvia’s suitors because she suspected they wanted only to get their hands on her money. When Green finally let Matthew Astor Wilks marry Sylvia on February 23, 1909, after a two-year courtship, the groom waived his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune, and received US$5,000 for signing this prenuptial agreement. (Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune, entered the marriage with US$2,000,000 of his own, enough to assure Hetty that he was not a gold digger.)
When her children left home, Green moved repeatedly among small apartments in Brooklyn Heights and Hoboken, New Jersey, mainly to avoid establishing a residence permanent enough to attract the attention of tax officials in any state.
In her old age, Hetty Green began to suffer from a bad hernia, but refused to have an operation because it cost $150. She suffered many strokes and had to rely on a wheelchair. She also became afraid that she would be kidnapped and made detours to evade the would-be pursuers. She began to suspect that her aunt and father had been poisoned.
Hetty Green died at age 81 in New York City. According to her longstanding “World’s Greatest Miser” entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, she died of apoplexy when she argued with a maid about the virtues of skimmed milk. Biographer Slack, however, reports this not to have been the case; Green had in fact suffered a series of strokes since April 17 of that year (the date of the argument with an intemperate cook in the employ of her lifelong friend Annie Leary). Estimates of her net worth ranged from $100 million to $200 million (or $1.9 – $3.8 billion in 2006 dollars) (Slack estimates $200 million), arguably making her the richest woman in the world at the time. She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her late husband, having converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith so they could be interred together.
Her children, especially Ned, tended to spend their money more freely – though it should be noted that both came through the Great Depressionrelatively unscathed by following Hetty’s investment philosophy of conservative buying backed by substantial cash reserves. Ned was an accomplished collector with interests in everything from auto racing to science to horticulture. His Round Hill estate was long used by MIT scientists for experiments including a prototype atom smasher, and his powerful WMAF radio transmitters were used to keep in touch with Richard E. Byrd‘s 1928-30 Antarctic expedition. When Sylvia died in 1951, she left an estate of an estimated US$200 million, donating all but US$1,388,000 of it to 64 charities, including colleges, churches, and hospitals. Both children are also buried in Bellows Falls.
If you can count your money, you don’t have a billion dollars
The voice of protest, of warning, of appeal is never more
needed than when the clamor of fife and drum, echoed
by the press and too often by the pulpit, is bidding all
men fall in and keep step and obey in silence the
tyrannous word of command. Then, more than ever, it is
the duty of the good citizen not to be silent