That Hetty Green hoarded her vast Gilded Age fortune and lived like a pauper there can be no doubt. That she was as bad as people say is open to question.
Nicknamed the 'Witch of Wall Street,' she amassed a fortune worth as much as $3.8 billion in today’s money. She always wore an old black dress, walked blocks to buy broken cookies in bulk and once spent hours looking for a two-cent stamp.
Hetty Green managed her investments at the Chemical Bank, eating a lunch of oatmeal heated on a radiator. She moved frequently among cheap apartments in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Hoboken, N.J., to avoid establishing a residence and paying taxes.
According to the most damning story about Hetty Green, she wouldn't pay for a good doctor when her son injured his leg in a sledding accident. Doctors later amputated his leg.
Here’s something else, though: She loved her son and took him to many doctors to mend his leg. Like many of the stories about her, the tale of her refusal to pay for good medical care for her son was an exaggeration. And the stories about the good things Hetty did were rarely, if ever, reported.
Perhaps her greatest sin in the eyes of the world was living her life boldly on her own terms. People weren’t used to a woman who carried a gun and used salty language picked up on the New Bedford docks. Nor were they used to a woman who managed her investments spectacularly well at a time when women weren’t trusted with money.
Hetty Howland Robinson was born Nov. 21, 1834 in New Bedford, Mass. She was the only child of Edward Mott Robinson, a well-to-do businessman who married Abby Howland, heiress to a whaling fortune. As a young girl Hetty read the financial news to her weak-eyed father, who was astute enough to get out of whaling before the industry collapsed.
Her father left her $7.5 million when he died in 1864. Hetty also stood to inherit millions from her maiden Aunt Sylvia. She became fixated on her inheritance, but when Aunt Sylvia died she only left Hetty a pittance. Hetty challenged the will in a very public court battle and lost.
Amid accusations she’d forged Aunt Sylvia’s signature, she married Edward Green – after he agreed to keep their money separate. They moved to London, where they had a son and a daughter, Ned and Sylvia. Eventually the family returned to Edward’s family home in Bellows Falls, Vt.
It was an odd match: Green was a wealthy silk and tea merchant who’d lived in the Philippines for 20 years. And he liked to live large. He dressed well, enjoyed clubs, appreciated fine food and tipped generously. When he squandered his own fortune and cost her some of hers, she packed her bags and their children and walked out on him.
Hetty, Ned and Sylvia moved to a series of apartments in Brooklyn, where they lived like ordinary people among ordinary people. She set up shop in an office at Chemical Bank, where she built her fortune. She developed a strategy of investing for value, which made her the richest woman in the world.
Hetty Green didn’t buy stocks on margin. She invested in real estate and bonds, railroads and mines. She bought cheap, sold dear and kept her head during financial panics. In 1907 she bailed out the City of New York when the banks wouldn’t.
Hetty Green fascinated the press with her plain dress, her unpretentious homes in Brooklyn and her willingness to travel alone for thousands of miles when few women dared to go anywhere unescorted. She publicly supported the Brooklyn trolley workers who went on strike in 1895. In an interview with a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she said:
The poor have no chance in this country. No wonder Anarchists and Socialists are so numerous. … The law must be upheld, must it? Then why don’t they begin at the right end? Who begins to break the law? The great railroad magnates … Let the poor man break the law and see how soon he gets into jail.
She told another reporter she lived simply because of her Quaker beliefs.
“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.”
For that comment, a New York World editorial excoriated her for her insolence.
Her Quaker upbringing also taught her that a gift to be bragged about is not a gift in the eyes of the Lord. She loaned money at below-market rates to at least 30 churches. According to her son, she secretly gave many gifts to charitable causes and supported at least 30 families with regular incomes.
Toward the end of her life, Hetty Green reconciled with her husband, nursing him through his final illness. He died on March 19, 1902 in Bellows Falls. She lived for 11 more years, dying on July 3, 1916.
Before she died, Hetty Green converted to the Episcopal faith. That allowed her to be buried next to her husband in the Immanuel Episcopal Church cemetery in Bellows Falls.
Hetty Green divided her estate evenly among her children. Ned, his father’s son, squandered much of his fortune, leaving the rest to his sister. Sylvia had married a man who agreed to forgo her money. She died childless and left her money to a variety of charities.
With thanks to Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon by Charles Slack. Photographs courtesy Library of Congress. This story about Hetty Green was updated in 2018.