At a time when rampant sexism still raged across the world, Hetty Green built a fortune all of her own. In fact, she soon became one of the richest women in the world. But she earned plenty of enemies along the way, and even today, her reputation as the “Witch of Wall Street” lingers. But was she really such a terrible miser — and why did she live in such a way?
When Green was born Henrietta “Hetty” Howland Robinson in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1834 it was against the backdrop of an America that was changing fast. As the New World established itself as a desirable place to live and work, the number of immigrants arriving in the country had increased rapidly.
Meanwhile, the ever-expanding railroads meant that prosperity was spreading inexorably west from the eastern cities.
Everywhere you looked, it seemed, people were making their fortunes — and Green’s family were no exception. Her father, Edward Mott-Robinson, had already enjoyed some success as a businessman when he met and married the wealthy heiress Abby Howland.
Descended from Quakers, she would go on to inherit a profitable whaling empire from her father Isaac.
As a child, Green would help her grandfather by reading the newspaper’s financial segments out loud — a habit which exposed her to business at a young age.
And by the time she was six years old, she was performing the same task for her father, now the head of the Howlands’ whaling company.
According to reports, Green was a natural with money, soon mastering complex systems and learning to trade. And when she became a teenager, she was handed the huge responsibility of keeping the family books.
In a time when women were mostly kept away from financial affairs, Edward brought his daughter along to meet brokers and attend meetings.
Despite her business acumen, though, Green was still expected to act like a lady and marry well. And after graduating from finishing school, she made her society debut in 1854.
Allegedly, her aunt gifted her a large sum of money with which to purchase a closet of beautiful dresses. But instead, she spent just a fraction, channeling the remainder into government bonds.
Reportedly, Green’s frugality with fashion did little to dim her appeal. And as a young woman, she had no difficulty attracting suitors — including the Prince of Wales, if rumors are to be believed.
But Green was far too interested in the world of business to settle for being a mother and homemaker for the rest of her life.
When Edward died in 1865, it seemed as if Green’s chance to prove herself had come at last. After all, the businessmen had left his daughter almost $7 million in assets and cash.
But because she was a woman, the money was placed in a trust, leaving others responsible for its management and distribution.
Green, then, could not use her talents to invest her own money. And her pride was dealt a second blow later that year, when her aunt Sylvia passed away.
Again, she inherited a large sum of money from the deceased — but again it was to be held in a trust that was out of her control.
Recklessly, Green attempted to convince the executors of her aunt’s will that an earlier document specified that she should inherit the entire fortune. But in court, lawyers proved that these papers, along with Sylvia’s signature, had been forged.
Eventually, after a long legal battle, she inherited $600,000 — the equivalent of almost $13 million today.
By that time, Green had met and married Edward Henry Green, a businessman from Vermont who had spent two decades in the Far East. Already a millionaire himself, he did not stand to gain any of his wife’s family fortune, which could not be inherited by marriage.
In fact, an early prenuptial agreement was signed, ensuring that the couple’s finances remained separate.
Together, Green and Edward moved to Manhattan and then London, where their children Ned and Sylvia were born. But in 1873 they returned to the United States.
There, the differences between them soon became apparent. While the heiress had learned how to make educated investments, her husband was a lot more carefree with his money.
According to reports, Edward loved the finer things in life, splashing cash on luxuries such as high-end dining and fine clothes. Meanwhile, he invested his money on Wall Street, where he soon began to make losses.
As his fortune dwindled, Green was forced to bail him out on a number of occasions.
In 1885 a firm in which Edward was a partner collapsed, leaving him in debt to the tune of $700,000. And because they were married, the black mark on his record began to affect Green as well.
Eventually, she bailed her husband out once again — but this time she refused to forgive him.
Later that year, Green left Edward, taking the children with her. From the family home in Vermont she moved to Brooklyn in New York City, where she took up residence in a string of unassuming properties.
By this point, though, appearances were deceptive, and she was well on her way to becoming the richest woman in America behind the scenes.
In the years since her father’s death, you see, Green had been steadily growing her fortune. Although the trust was still managed by other people, she did receive a regular income — money which she could then invest in things such as bonds and real estate.
And in this manner, she had been slowly and steadily taking control of her own finances.
Rather than get-rich-quick schemes, it seems, Green preferred stable investments, predicting which neighborhoods would become popular and buying up property in the area. And despite the nickname that she would acquire later in life, she stayed well clear of the ups and downs of Wall Street.
Instead, she remained calm and collected, even when financial crises loomed.
“I buy when things are low and nobody wants them,” Green is reported to have said. “I keep them until they go up and people are crazy to get them.
That is, I believe, the secret of all successful business.” As well as property, she invested in railroad stocks and Civil War bonds, both of which delivered excellent returns.
As it turned out, Green’s strategy was a success. And soon, the money came rolling in — including a record $200,000 made in a single day.
Apparently disgusted with Edward’s attitude to money, she remained separated from her husband, although the couple reconciled just prior to his death in 1902.
Five years later, in 1907 America experienced a financial crisis known as the Bank Panic. And as some of America’s biggest institutions collapsed, individuals stepped forwards to prop them up with their own funds.
In New York City, officials realized that they were facing the very real threat of bankruptcy unless they could find wealthy benefactors.
Luckily, help came in the form of Green, who loaned the city more than $1 million in exchange for short-term revenue bonds.
Amazingly, it was the third time that she had bailed out New York, having handed over $1 million in 1898 and another $1.5 million three years later.
In other words, Green saved her adopted city from ruin on more than one occasion. So why, then, was she given the somewhat harsh nickname the Witch of Wall Street?
Well, in an era where women were mostly confined to the home, the independent and wealthy Quaker certainly got tongues wagging.
What Green was really famous for, though, was her cheap ways. According to reports, she remained exceptionally frugal throughout her life, despite the great fortune that she had amassed.
And while we all like to save a little money here and there, she appears to have taken things to the extreme.
For starters, Green is said to have enjoyed a cheap diet consisting mostly of eggs, onions, and oatmeal. At the time, she could have afforded to dine in the finest restaurants that New York had to offer.
But instead, she chose to heat her basic meals on a radiator in order to avoid high energy bills.
Not only that, Green also allegedly carried a packet of graham crackers with her wherever she went, eliminating the need for any pricey meals out. Meanwhile, while at home, she refused to use any heating or hot water.
And in terms of decor, she used dyed chicken feathers in place of floral arrangements.
When Edward died, Green took to wearing black all the time — a fashion choice that surely contributed to her witchy reputation. But she chose plain dresses, rather than elaborate gowns.
And according to reports, she refused to fork out for enough soap to wash the garments properly. Instead, she cleaned just the hems.
At the time, residents of New York were subject to a hefty property tax. But in the eyes of the law, Green didn’t have a permanent address in the city.
Instead, she avoided the expensive levy by moving between boarding houses on a regular basis. As an added bonus, this also kept away the press, who were growing increasingly interested in the enigmatic Witch of Wall Street.
And Green’s frugality extended to her business life, too. Rather than fork out for an office, she managed all of her affairs from a desk that she set up in New York’s Chemical Bank.
And when she wasn’t there, she could often be found thousands of miles from the city, chasing her debtors down in person. In an era when it was unheard of for a woman to travel alone, this behavior caused quite a stir.
But perhaps the worst example of Green’s miserly behavior came when her son Ned injured his leg in a sled accident. His mother, the story goes, was reluctant to fork out for expensive medical care, so she took him to be treated at a free facility for the poor.
When the doctor realized who she was, though, he refused to attend to the boy.
Because of this delay in treatment, it’s said, Ned developed gangrene. And in the end, his leg was amputated — a harsh price to pay for his mother’s reluctance to part with her hard-earned cash.
Now permanently disabled, the boy spent the rest of his days using a false leg fashioned from cork to get around.
But was the Witch of Wall Street really as bad as the papers made her out to be? Although history remembers Green as the world’s most frugal millionaire, the truth is a little more nuanced.
And while she certainly loved pinching pennies, there is plenty of evidence that shows she had a much softer side.
Despite Ned’s unfortunate accident, for example, Green clearly loved her children. In fact, she spent much of her life preparing them to inherit her riches once she was gone.
And when one businessman threatened her son, she responded in kind. According to Janet Wallach’s 2012 biography The Richest Woman in America, the angry mother said, “Harm one hair of [his] hair and I’ll put a bullet through your heart.”
Similarly, Green had a good relationship with her daughter, whom she urged to marry “a poor man of good principles.” And when that day finally came, she forked out for a fancy suite at the Plaza Hotel.
Years later, Sylvia would donate millions of the Green fortune to charity — further evidence of the family’s empathetic ways.
In fact, Green herself made several donations to charity over the years, although she always did so anonymously without seeking recognition. And at one point, she gave a large sum of money to Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore — on one condition.
Reportedly, she asked that the Maryland institution began admitting women.
In 1895 when the railroad workers of Brooklyn went on strike, many businessmen looked on them with disdain. But Green spoke out in support of the action, suggesting that it was the wealthy owners who were the real criminals in the situation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these comments did little to win over her detractors.
“The poor have no chance in this country,” Green told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper at the time. “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.”
Was Green’s Witch of Wall Street image perpetuated by wealthy railroad owners who felt stung by her words? Or simply by men who felt uncomfortable at the notion of a powerful, independent female?
Either way, it’s clear that America’s richest woman was far more kind-hearted than her unfortunate legacy implies.
As far as Green was concerned, in fact, there was an easy explanation for her simple way of living — and it had nothing to do with being a miser. Reportedly, she told a journalist, “I am not a hard woman.
But because I do not have a secretary to announce every kind act I perform I am called close and mean and stingy. I am a Quaker, and I am trying to live up to the tenets of that faith. That is why I dress plainly and live quietly. No other kind of life would please me.”
When Green was at the height of her success, America was wrapped up in what’s known now as the Gilded Age. All across the country, a new system was emerging to replace the hierarchies of old — a world in which wealth and influence were within anyone’s reach.
And in New York, perhaps more than anywhere else, fortunes were made to be flaunted.
In this environment, Green and her modest way of living stuck out like a sore thumb. By the time that she died of a stroke in July 1916 she had reportedly amassed a fortune of $200 million — almost $5 billion in today’s money.
And when the Great Depression hit years later, Ned and Sylvia’s inheritance survived relatively intact thanks to their mother’s financial advice. Even in death, then, she proved herself a shrewder investor than most men.