Who Was Hetty Green? What Was She Known For? – Investopedia
After Hetty Green died on July 3, 1916, press reports labeled her “the wealthiest woman in the world,” with an estate valued at more than $100 million. However, she had another, less salubrious title: the Witch of Wall Street. Whether she earned that moniker due to her actions or because of her era’s rampant misogyny (as she was a spectacularly successful woman playing a man’s game) is subject to interpretation. Nevertheless, over the course of 51 years, she turned an 1865 inheritance from her father and aunt of somewhere between $5 million and $10 million (reports differ) into the equivalent of just over $2.5 billion in 2022 dollars.
Investopedia / Julie Bang
Born Henrietta Howland Robinson on Nov. 21, 1834, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson, a successful whaling agent and oil manufacturer, and Abby Howland, the granddaughter of another even more successful whaling agent, Isaac Howland Jr., who headed one the great mercantile families of New England. Raised as a strict Quaker, she was taught to live with austerity. At the tender age of 6, she was required to read the newspaper financial pages to her father and grandfather, both of whom had poor eyesight. At the age of 8, she opened her first bank account with money she had saved from her allowance. She began going to school at age 10, attending a strict Quaker boarding school in Sandwich, Massachusetts.
When she reached 15, she went to a summer session at Friends Academy and then three years of finishing school in Boston. She was also put to work as her father’s bookkeeper or, as she told the accomplished American journalist Dorothy Dix in adulthood, “I was forced into business. I was the only child of two rich families and I was taught from the time I was 6 years old that I would have to look after my property.”
Aside from the fortune she made, Green’s most notable accomplishment is probably living her life exactly as she wished in a male-dominated society and industry at a time when by law a woman's property was controlled by her husband. She was known to use salty language, carry a gun, and travel great distances alone, all considered scandalous conduct for a woman.
She also created an early example of a prenuptial agreement to circumvent the law on marital property. When she married Edward H. Green, a wealthy Vermont businessman, in 1867, she saw to it legally that their financial lives would be entirely separate. This is probably due to the fact that, unlike herself, he was a very incautious investor who liked to speculate wildly and live extravagantly. Nevertheless, she repeatedly rescued him from debt, at least until 1885, when she found out that he planned to use $550,000 of her money to ameliorate a loss without her consent. Thanks to her legal agreement, her bank refused the transfer of funds. Though she didn’t divorce her husband, they separated and the marriage never entirely recovered from his betrayal.
Also, because she always made sure to have a large pool of liquid cash available to her for lending purposes, she was able to avoid disaster in the Panic of 1907. She bailed out New York City when the banks refused to do so and had many a major investor indebted to her. After separating from her husband, she set up an office in the Chemical Bank and built her fortune on Wall Street. A steady stream of men regularly sought her investment advice, leading her to be given another, more palatable sobriquet by the press: the Queen of Wall Street.
Green lived an existence of such austerity and frugality that she was bound to be viewed by her contemporaries as an eccentric or, less charitably, a skinflint. Indeed, the Guinness Book of World Records dubbed her “the World’s Greatest Miser,” according to biographer Charles Slack. Her various homes were always inexpensive and once her son and daughter were grown, she chose a small apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, as her residence. Her dress was considered shabby and after her husband’s death in 1902, she regularly dressed in black mourning clothes. She sometimes sought medical treatment at charity clinics and there was an infamous story that she once denied her son medical treatment after a sledding accident, a decision that eventually led to the amputation of his leg.
Her son, however, had a different take in a New York Times interview published six days after her death. He stated that the accident, which occurred when he was 7 years old, was not considered serious, which is why no medical help was sought, and it was only in adulthood, many years later, that amputation was necessary. He went on to say, “Much has been printed about my mother that is untrue. She has been represented as being parsimonious; but such is not the case.”
Green attributed her lifestyle to her Quaker upbringing. “My early training disciplined me towards pomp and show,” she said. “My family has been wealthy for five generations. We need make no display to insure recognition of our position.” A New York World editorial called that remark “insolent.” Green also explained to the press, “I do my own shopping because I get 100 cents’ worth for every dollar. If more people did that, there would be less talk of hard times and the high cost of living.”
Green also eschewed participation in high society, which made people look askance. Once, when she was 20, her father bought her a wardrobe of fancy dresses intended to help her land a husband. She promptly sold the gowns and bought government bonds with the money.
Green amassed her vast fortune through disciplined and conservative methods. As she told the New York Times in 1905, “I buy when things are low and nobody wants them. I keep them until they go up and people are anxious to buy.” She refused to buy stocks on margin and generally preferred investing in real estate. However, she did not follow a buy-and-hold philosophy: “I never buy anything just to hold it,” she said. “There is a price on everything I have. When that price is offered, I sell.” This has caused her to be called “the grandmother of value investing.”
Her son explained her investing philosophy thusly: "My mother never made any money in speculation. The Greens don’t speculate. She has been what you might call a one-man bank. When currency has been scarce in New York, she has always had plenty to lend on good collateral. There is no better judge of commercial paper in the United States."
Her philanthropy was not engaged in publicly, as per her Quaker beliefs. However, she made loans at below-market rates to 30 churches and, according to her son, secretly supported a variety of charities while also providing a regular income for at least 30 families.
Green was never arrested for any crime, though she was charged with the equivalent of some in the court of public opinion, as in the case of her son’s sledding injury. However, she does not appear to have been above occasional shady dealing. When her Aunt Sylvia died in 1865 (just two weeks after Green’s father had died), Green expected to inherit her $2 million estate. Instead, the will left $1 million to charities and the rest to Green in a trust to be run by her aunt’s doctor. Green produced an alternate will leaving her the whole kit and caboodle outright, but the court believed it to be a forgery and she lost her challenge.
She also, on at least one occasion, relied on brute force to get her way. She had a running business battle with Texas railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. At one point he came to her office in Chemical Bank and threatened her son, who was representing her interests in Texas. Her response was to pull a gun on him, reportedly saying, “Up to now, Huntington, you have dealt with Hetty Green, the businesswoman. Now you are fighting Hetty Green, the mother. Harm one hair of Ned’s head and I’ll put a bullet through your heart.” Huntington fled, leaving his hat behind.
The calumny began to be used after Green’s husband died and she took to wearing mourning clothes. Dressing in unrelenting black, in combination with stories of her miserliness, brought to the popular mind the image of a witch.
Green said that she saw the panic coming. Thus, she made a special attempt to have a lot of cash on hand that she could lend when disaster finally struck. She then bailed out the city of New York when the banks either couldn’t or wouldn’t.
The maritally separated Green returned to nurse her husband in his final illness, moving in with him in Bellows Falls, Vermont. He died in 1902 and she lived as a widow for the next 14 years, converting to his Episcopal faith so that she could be buried next to him in Bellows Falls in the Immanuel Episcopal Church cemetery.
It seems likely that Hetty Green’s reputation as the Witch of Wall Street was more a product of the raging misogyny of her era rather than being rooted in fact. Though undeniably eccentric, due at least in part to her strict Quaker values, she was a disciplined and canny investor who was well taught by her father and grandfather and had at least the grudging admiration and respect of her peers. An early practitioner of value investing, she amassed her more than $100 million estate through diligence, hard work, and talent. She earned her position as the richest woman in the world.
So what happened to all that cash? She left her estate evenly divided between her son and daughter. Ned lived extravagantly, then left what remained to his sister. Sylvia, like her mother, kept her finances entirely separate from those of her husband. The couple had no children and when Sylvia died, she left all her fortune to a number of charities.
Encyclopedia Britannica. "Hetty Green: American Financier."
CPI Inflation Calendar. "$100,000,000 in 1916 is worth $2,557,816,513.76 today."
Lighting the Way: Historic Women of the SouthCoast. "Hetty Green."
National Park Service. "Hetty Green."
New England Historical Society. "Another Look at Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street."
Charles Slack. "Hetty."
Smithsonian Magazine. "The Peculiar Story of the Witch of Wall Street."
The New York Times. "Hetty Green’s Son and Heir Trained by Her."
Theodore Douglas MacGregor. "The Book of Thrift," Pages 338 and 339. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1915.
Library of Congress. "Hetty Green the 'Witch of Wall Street' was Born."
Janet Wallach. "The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age," Pages 192-193. Anchor Books, 2013.
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