Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street

Born on 21 November 1834, Hetty Green was nicknamed the “Witch of Wall Street” probably because of her miserly and frugal ways, her severe Quaker dress, and the stiff competition she brought against her male counterparts. Henrietta “Hetty” Howland Robinson was the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson and his wife Abby Slocum Howland. She born at their Massachusetts residence in New Bedford, located on the southwest corner of Seventh and Walnut streets.

Hetty Green

Hetty Green in 1897. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hetty’s parents both came from money. Her mother Abby was the daughter of Quakers Gideon and Mehitable Howland and the family was well-to-do having made their money from a large whaling fleet and from having profited in trade with China. Her father was also Quaker and Robinson also had an illustrious heritage as his family were prominent landowners in Rhode Island since the colonial era. Robinson became involved with the Howland’s business — Isaac Howland, Jr., & Co. — and was characterized as, “The very Napoleon of our little business community.”[1] He was also said to be an unassuming, shrewd, and thrifty.

Hetty Green - Edward Mott Robinson

Hetty Green’s father Edward Mott Robinson. Author’s collection.

When Hetty was two, because her mother was ill and easily taxed by a child, Hetty was sent to live with Abby’s only sibling, an older sister named Sylvia Ann. Aunt Sylvia was living her with their father, Gideon Howland. His eyesight was failing, and it became Hetty’s job to read aloud to him the financial news of the day and so she learned how to read the stock quotations and commerce reports. Of this she later said, “In this way I came to know what stocks and bonds were, how the markets fluctuated, and the meaning of ‘bulls’ and ‘bears.’”[2]

At the age of Hetty, she was sent to Eliza Wing’s Boarding School in Sandwich, Massachusetts. There she learned the common lessons that Quaker girls of the nineteenth century were taught: rote memorization with lessons in science, history, and literature. Of course, there was the daily reading of the Bible that included three chapters every day and five on the Sabbath.

When Hetty’s grandfather Howland died on 2 September 1847, her father became the head of the Howland’s whaling firm. This enabled her to learn her father’s professional techniques and witness his business acumen as he ran the company:

“She watched him closely as he assessed the inventory, inspected the ships, dealt with the captains, and heard the rough talk of the crews. She listened to him bargain with merchants and berate them when he thought they were charging too much. She followed along when he took her to the counting house and showed her how to read the ledgers, or brought her to the brokers and taught her how to trade commodities. She paid attention when he repeated again and again that property was a trust to be taken care of and enlarged for future generations. She obeyed when he insisted that she keep her own accounts in order and later praised the experience.”[3]

Around 1849, a year before the famous wax sculptress Madame Tussaud died in England, 15-year-old Hetty was enrolled at the New Bedford Quaker school, the Friends Academy. It had been founded in 1810, faced east, and was located on the summit of a ridge. It was a two-story wooden structure, 70 feet long by 26 feet wide, and surmounted by a belfry. The first floor had two school rooms separated by an entry and each room had a fireplace, teacher’s platform, and desk opposite the door. On the second story there were two small rooms, one functioned as a classroom and the other as a library.

Hetty attended two summer sessions at the Friends Academy. Unfortunately, she was never the best student. She had terrible spelling, often spoke like a rough sailor, and tended to dress in outfits her father approved of but came off as “disheveled and shabby.” Perhaps because she had few friends when not in school, she spent time with her father and began to learn more about his business.

Part of the reason for her interest was because like her grandfather, her father’s eyesight also began to fail. Every evening she read the business section of the newspaper to him and when she asked questions, he was willing to answer. He also taught her more about stocks and bonds, along with important information on the price fluctuations that accompanied commodities and the markets.

To complete her education her father sent her to Anna Cabot Lowell’s finishing school. Lowell had been born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1819 and wrote various works about education, just like the Frenchwoman Madame de Genlis whose somewhat advanced theories on education appeared in late 1700 and early 1800s. Lowell’s works included such books as the Theory of Teaching, Thoughts on the Education of Girls, and a book of verses titled Poises for Children.

Robinson also enrolled Hetty in dance lessons, which were taken at Lorenzo Papanti’s Dance Studio located as 23 Tremont Street in Boston. Yet dancing was not the only subject students learned from the tall and thin Lorenzo with his well-fitted wig. Hetty was also taught the proper behavior and courtly grace required when attending dances or balls:

“The rules were strict: a gentleman must bow when asking a lady to dance; he must not ask the same girl to dance twice; he should not take a seat next to a young lady he did not know; if he walked someone home after a ball, he must not enter her house, but should call on her the following day.”[4]

The dance lesson undoubtedly helped when in 1854, 19-year-old Hetty came out as a debutante in New Bedford. Her debut to “polite society” occurred at a debutante ball where the idea behind it was to display eligible young women to eligible bachelors. Hetty was somewhat older than the average age of a debutante as most girls ranged in age from about 16 to 18. However, there could have been no young girl as fashionable dressed as Hetty. Instead of the frumpy lackluster dresses she usually wore, she appeared with a flower wreath in her hair, black velvet choker ribbon, satin slippers, hooped petticoats, and a stylish white muslin dress.

If the idea of her being a debutante was to help her find a husband, it failed because she was nearly 33 before she finally married. After coming out, she went to live with her mother’s cousin, Henry Grinnell, for a time. She then returned to New Bedford and began living alternatively between her father’s and her Aunt Sylvia’s house.

When Hetty was 25 years old, her constantly ill mother died on 21 February 1860, at the age of 52. Her estate of $100,000 went to Robinson with an $8,000 house* left to Hetty. A few months later her father sold off his interest in the whaling fleet and became partners with William Tell Coleman, a New York businessman who was an American pioneer in the settlement of California and who established a ship line between New York and San Francisco in 1856.

Robinson then moved to New York. Besides partnering with Coleman, he also began to invest in government bonds, which were paying 6% interest in gold. Hetty went to visit him while he was living there and it was there, she met her future husband, Edward Henry Green. He was a native of Bellows Falls, Vermont and had spent the greatest portion of his early life in Hong Kong and the Philippine Islands where he became “immensely wealthy.” In fact, by the age of 44 he was a millionaire and a partner in Russell Styrgis & Company, a Boston company active in the China trade.

Green was returning temporarily to the Far East and passing through New York when he met Hetty. They soon became engaged and while she was engaged, her father died on 14 June 1865. He left her an estate worth approximately $6 million at the time. It included $919,000 in cash and a warehouse in San Francisco with the remainder in a trust fund that allowed Hetty to receive income, although she had no control over the principal.

Another tragic death happened soon after when on 2 July Hetty’s Aunt Sylvia died. She had been an invalid for some time and Hetty was her chief companion and confidante. However, Hetty’s aunt had been upset about Robinson inheriting much of the Howland money, which she thought should be left to the Howland relatives. So, Aunt Sylvia therefore willed half of her estate to New Bedford charities and entities and the other half to Hetty, which was in the form of a trust fund that once again meant Hetty had no control over the funds.

Hetty decided to do something about her aunt’s will and with help from her fiancé Green, she challenged it in court in December of 1865. Hetty then produced an earlier will, made in January 1862, that left the entire estate to her and included a clause that invalidated any subsequent wills. The legitimacy of this second will was notable because forensic mathematics were used. A Harvard University mathematician calculated the odds of Aunt Sylvia’s signature being legitimate to one in 2,666,000,000,000,000,000,000. Moreover, when Robinson v. Mandell went before the court:

“The trustees fought the claim on two grounds — first, that the relations between Hetty and her Aunt Sylvia had not been so cordial as to have led the latter to leave the former all her property; and second, that the signature to this so-called ‘second page’ was a forgery.”[5]  

Hetty married Green on 11 July 1867. Robinson had stipulated in his will that Green could not inherit Hetty’s money, which was to be “free from the debts, control or interference of any such husband.”[6] In addition, before Hetty married Green, she too made him renounce all rights to her money both “present and prospective.” The agreement also included that she should never be liable for any of his debts or obligations nor responsible for any of their joint expenses.

After marrying Green and amidst the contentious trial about her aunt’s money, Hetty and her husband moved to London partly because Hetty’s cousins were trying to have her indicted for forgery. Hoping to avoid problems and stay out of the limelight, they decided to move overseas and began residing in London’s Langham Hotel. During their time there, they had two children: Edward Howland Robinson Green (called Ned) born on 23 August 1868 and Sylvia Ann Howland Green (called Sylvia) on 7 January 1871.

Hetty Green with daughter Sylvia and her husband, Matthew Astor Wilks

Hetty Green with her daughter Sylvia and her husband Matthew Astor Wilks on their wedding day. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ultimately, Hetty lost her case but it had nothing to do with her Aunt Sylvia’s signature being a forgery. It came down to a point of law where the “judge escaped the decision [because even if the genuine signatures of Sylvia Ann Howland were shown] … the agreement to which they were affixed was [deemed] void.”[7] Nonetheless, Hetty Green did not give up and after a hard fought battle of five years in 1870 she received a hefty settlement of $600,000.

While young, Hetty had acquired important information about Wall Street from her father and her grandfather. She had also won their praises learning the ins and outs of business and she gained great pleasure and self-satisfaction from making money. It was like a game to her, an activity that proved second nature having watched how her father and grandfather did it.

Hetty Green checking out of a hotel.

Hetty Green checking out of a hotel. Author’s collection.

While Hetty’s business acumen and investing skills were highly successful, her husband was having financial problems. In 1887, “Spendthrift Green,” as he was called, lost his fortune in speculation. She paid his debts, but it was a breaking point, although she didn’t divorce him, they never lived together afterwards. Moreover, he had to live on a small pension that she granted him for the rest of his life.

As to Hetty Green, she continued to make enormous amounts of money. Her investing tactics relied on contrarian investing, a strategy that is characterized by purchasing and selling in contrast to the prevailing sentiment at the time. In fact, she said at one point:

“A fortune cannot be built up around any fixed idea, or, in other words, without the exercise of plain common sense … I buy when things are low and no one wants them. I keep them, just as I keep a considerable number of diamonds on hand, until they go up, and people are anxious to buy. That is the general secret of business success.”[8]

Hetty Green also invested the interest from her trust funds in Civil War bonds, which paid a high yield in gold, augmented by railroad stocks. Her profit the first year was near 1.25 million dollars. Of such an investment strategy she once said:

“Railroads and real estate. I believe in getting in either at the top or at the bottom. I like to buy railroad stock or mortgage bonds. When I see a good thing going cheap because nobody wants it, I buy a lot of it and tuck it away. Then when the time comes they have to hunt me up and pay me a good price for my holdings.”[9]

Though she might have been nicknamed in the late 1800s the “Witch of Wall Street,” when asked about stocks and bonds, she reportedly stated:

“I don’t much believe in stocks. Wall Street is no place for a woman; I try to steer clear of it, and I never buy industrials. Railroad and real estate are the things I like. You see I believe in using common sense in business. Before deciding on an investment I therefore seek out every kind of information about it. There is no great secret in fortune making. All you have to do is to buy cheap and sell dear, act with thrift and shrewdness and then be persistent.”[10]

Though she might have thought Wall Street was no place for a woman, she willing to have a man do her bidding there. She met with John J. Cisco, a conservative banker and friend of her fathers, to talk business. Sticking true to her character of contrarian investing, during the Panic of 1873, Cisco then “made his services available for her business on Wall Street, … when stocks were being abandoned, Hetty wanted to trade.” Moreover, she once journeyed to see him on Wall Street taking the public omnibus while carrying her well-worn satchel with $200,000 worth of bonds, something that made him very unhappy.

Hetty Green always seemed to have a way with the markets even if she thought Wall Street was no place for women. She has been compared to Russell Sage, an American financier and railroad executive, who amassed a fortune. When he died Hetty was said to be the only person that could “dip her hands in her money-bags and say to Wall street: ‘How much do you want and how much will you pay?’”[11] Of her investing skills, people also wrote:

“Her intuition seems to enable her to avoid the pitfalls and ambushes often laid for her. She is a skillful strategist, and many a mysterious and powerful movement in stocks has been traced to her, yet always when it was too late to thwart her schemes.”[12]

Hetty Green was also known to lend money. The city of New York was one such entity who benefited from her willingness to loan funds, which happened on several occasions. The most interesting time was probably during the Panic of 1907, which is when she wrote a check for $1.1 million and took her payment in short-term revenue bonds. Of her regular lending practices, it was written:

“Financially strapped businessmen and even municipalities came knocking, looking for assistance from Green who began operating essentially as a private bank. Years before she heeded Morgan’s call to help avert a banking crisis, she had lent funds to New York City several. She offered fair terms often well below the current rates. Despite her ability to dictate terms, she could abide usury, telling a reporter that ‘no one know it better than the wealthy men who have had business dealings with me.’”[13]

Hetty Green with Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam is shown at a cashier’s window labeled “U.S. Treasury” next to a notice that states “Pay Your Income Tax Here – No Escape for Millionaire Tax-Dodgers.” Russell Sage, Hetty Green, and George J. Gould are standing in line, looking forlorn and crying as they pass their “Check for Income Tax” to Uncle Sam. In their pockets are papers labeled “Taxes Evaded.” Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Despite Hetty Green being considered the richest woman in America, her miserliness was legendary, even if at times it was sensationalized. People stated that she would travel thousands of miles by herself in an age when women dared not go down the street unescorted just to collect a few hundred dollars. There were also reports that that to save money, she had her laundress only wash the dirty parts of her dresses and once she once spent a whole night searching through her carriage for a two-cent stamp.

Her penny-pinching ways also extended to her family. One example is when her son broke his leg in a sledding accident. She was unwilling to consult with respectable doctors in the city fearing that she would be forced to pay a premium because she rich. Exactly what happened after that varies. Some people report that she therefore tried to get him admitted into a free clinic, was recognized. and told she would have to pay. She refused to do so, left, and decided to treat him herself. Others state that she went to less respectable doctors and was unable to get proper treatment. Ultimately, however, Ned’s leg never healed properly, it turned gangrenous, and a portion of it was amputated forcing him to wear a cork prosthesis.

Hetty Green’s son Edward “Ned” Howland Robinson Green. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although Hetty Green might have been noted for her miserly peculiarities, she was also frequently characterized in the press as being a “wily” or “smart” businesswoman. One newspaper even stated that she was a financier of “unusual shrewdness.” However, in addition, newspapers also regularly reported on her rather shabby, dourly, and out-dated dress covered by her black bombazine cloak. The York, Pennsylvania Gazette wrote of her in 1893:

“Hosts of people have brushed elbows with a shrewd and rather calm faced woman, apparently 50 years old, rather short, wearing a plain, old fashions shawl and a bonnet so far beyond fashion’s pale that no one would ever suspect it had been in it, every years ago. Nobody ever saw her with a dress which was not severely plain, and seldom has she been noticed when she did not carry an old style and well worn black satchel. Her appearance would never cause the uninitiated to think that she was anything more extraordinary than an old fashion woman of moderate means and simple tastes, who was on her way to the corner grocery or the baker … Yet, if money is power, this same staid looking person is one of the most powerful human beings in the country.”[14]

Hetty’s husband died 2 March 1902 when she was 68. After his death she continued to control her financial affairs until her son Ned began looking after them in her late seventies. Even then she remained involved with her business affairs until she suffered several strokes about three months before her death. She died on 3 July 1916, at the age of 81, and was buried next to husband in Bellows Falls, Vermont.

At the time of her death, Hetty Green was the wealthiest women in the United States. She had varying investments in real estate, bonds, and mortgages. She also had holdings in railroads and western farmlands. Nevertheless, she often said that the press abused and misrepresented her and she also once stated:

“My life is written for me down in Wall Street by people who, I assume, do not care to know one iota of the real Hetty Green. I am in earnest; therefore they picture me as heartless. I go my own way. I take no partner, risk nobody else’s fortunes, therefore I am Madame Ishmael, set against every man.”[15]

Hetty Green

Hetty Green. Author’s collection.

*Worth in 2019 just shy of $250,000 according to the CPI Inflation Calculator.

References:

  • [1] W. M. Emery, The Howland Heirs: Being the Story of a Family and a Fortune and the Inheritance of a Trust Established for Mrs. Hetty H. R. Green (New Bedford: E. Anthony and Sons, Incorporated, 1919), p. 355.
  • [2] Ibid, p. 359.
  • [3] J. Wallach, The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age (New York: Anchor Books, 2013), p. 19.
  • [4] Ibid. p. 23.
  • [5] C. Gaw, “America’s Richest Woman Financier,” The Missoulian, September 18, 1910, p. 15.
  • [6] J. Wallach, p. 80.
  • [7] Chicago Tribune, “Sylvia Howland’s Will,” July 24, 1870, p. 3.
  • [8] Walden’s Stationer and Printer v. 25-26 (New York: Walden’s Stationer and Printer, 1906), p. 23.
  • [9] The National Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly v. 22 (Boston: Bostonian Publishing Company, 1905), p. 633.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] The Burlington Free Press, “About “Aunt Hetty” Green,” August 11, 1906, p. 10.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] S. J. Caplan, Petticoats and Pinstripes: Portraits of Women in Wall Street’s History: Portraits of Women in Wall Street’s History (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013), p. 51.
  • [14] The Gazette, “Wily Hetty Green,” October 18, 1893, p. 5.
  • [15] B. Sparkes and S. T. Moore, Hetty Green: A Woman who Loved Money (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1930), p. 182.

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