Hetty Green in 1897
Henrietta Howland Robinson
November 21, 1834
|Died||July 3, 1916 (aged 81)|
New York City, U.S.
|Resting place||Immanuel Cemetery, Bellows Falls, Vermont|
|Education||Eliza Wing School|
|Known for||Financial prowess, miserly conduct|
Edward Henry Green
(m. 1867; died 1902)
|Children||Edward Howland Robinson Green (1868–1936)|
Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks (1871–1951)
|Relatives||Sylvia Ann Howland (Aunt)|
Hetty Green (November 21, 1834 – July 3, 1916), nicknamed the "Witch of Wall Street", was an American businesswoman and financier known as "the richest woman in America" during the Gilded Age. She was known for her wealth and was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the "greatest miser". She amassed a fortune as a financier when other major financiers were men. After her death, The New York Times stated that "It was the fact that Mrs. Green was a woman that made her career the subject of endless curiosity, comment and astonishment."
Birth and early years
Henrietta ("Hetty") Howland Robinson was born in 1834 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Robinson (née Howland), the richest whaling family in the city. Her family members were Quakers who owned a large whaling fleet and also profited from the China trade. She had a younger brother who died as an infant.
At the age of two, Hetty was sent to live with her grandfather, Gideon Howland, and her Aunt Sylvia. Hetty would read the stock quotations and commerce reports for her grandfather and picked up some of his business methods. At the age of 10, Hetty entered Eliza Wing's Boarding School in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Hetty's father became the head of the Isaac Howland whaling firm upon Gideon's death, and Hetty began to emulate her father's business practices. Hetty learned to read ledgers and trade commodities. At the age of 15, Hetty enrolled for two summer sessions at the Friends Academy. Hetty also attended Anna Cabot Lowell's Finishing school, and appeared as a New Bedford debutante in 1854, before moving to New York to live with a cousin of her mother's, Henry Grinnell. Yet, it was not long before Hetty returned to New Bedford, alternating between her father's house and her aunt's house. There, as Janet Wallach states, "...by pursuing her father's interests she not only won his praise, she shared his pleasure in making money."
Because of Gideon's influence and that of her father, and possibly because her mother was constantly ill, she was close to her father and was reading financial papers to him by the age of six. When she was 13, Hetty became the family bookkeeper. Hetty accompanied her father to the countinghouses, storerooms, commodities traders, and stockbrokers. In the evening, she read him the news.:45,53
Her mother, Abby Robinson, died on February 21, 1860, at the age of 51, but her $100,000 estate went to her husband, except for an $8,000 (equivalent to $223,000 in 2018) house for Hetty. In June, Hetty's father sold off his interest in the whaling fleet and invested in William Tell Coleman's shipping firm, becoming a partner. While in New York, he also invested in government bonds, which paid 6% interest in gold. Back in New Bedford, Hetty's aunt Sylvia gave Hetty $20,000 (equivalent to $558,000 in 2018) in stocks as a gift. While staying with her father in New York, Hetty would meet her future husband, Edward Henry Green.:54,63-65,69,71-77
Edward Robinson died on June 14, 1865, leaving Hetty approximately $6 million (equivalent to $98,204,000 in 2018), which included $919,000 in cash, a warehouse in San Francisco, with the remainder in a trust fund from which she received the income. Yet she had no control over the principal.:80-81
Hetty's aunt Sylvia Ann Howland also died in 1865, soon after her father. In September 1863, Sylvia Howland had willed half of her $2 million estate (equivalent to $32,735,000 in 2018) to charities and entities in the town of New Bedford; the rest would be in a trust for Hetty, but once again without her control of the principal. By December, Hetty challenged the will's validity in court by producing an earlier will, made in January 1862, that left the entire estate to Hetty, and included a clause invalidating any subsequent wills.:68,81-88,102 The will was challenged in court and the case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics, was ultimately decided against Robinson after the court ruled that the clause invalidating future wills, and Sylvia's signature to it, were forgeries. After five years of legal battles, Hetty was awarded a settlement of $600,000 (equivalent to $11,888,000 in 2018).
Edward Henry Green of Vermont learned the business trade in Boston before working in the Far East for the next 20 years. By the age of 44, he was a partner in the Russell Styrgis & Company, and a millionaire. Yet, Hetty's father stipulated in his will that Green would not inherit Hetty's money, which was to be "free from the debts, control or interference of any such husband.":77-80
On July 11, 1867, at the age of 33, Hetty married Edward Henry Green, a member of a wealthy Vermont family. She made him renounce all rights to her money before the wedding. The couple moved to his home in Manhattan. When her cousins tried to have her indicted for forgery based on the Robinson v. Mandell decision, the couple moved overseas to London, where they lived in the Langham Hotel. Their two children, Edward Howland Robinson Green (called Ned) and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks (called Sylvia), were born in London: Ned on August 23, 1868, and Sylvia on January 7, 1871.
They separated in 1885, but remained married, and spent more time together in their later lives.:152,220,239
Hetty followed a contrarian investing strategy, in her words, "I buy when things are low and nobody wants them. I keep them until they go up and people are crazy to get them. That is, I believe, the secret of all successful business." Hetty invested the interest from her father's trust fund, once again investing as her father had done, in Civil War bonds, which paid a high yield in gold, augmented by railroad stocks. Her annual profits during her first year in London, amounted to $1.25 million, while the most she ever earned in a day was $200,000. Hetty went on to say, "I believe in getting in at the bottom and out on top. I like to buy railroad stocks 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." Hetty's discounted greenbacks, bought during the Civil War, were increased in value when Congress passed legislation in 1875 backing them with gold. As Hetty said of her investing philosophy, "Before deciding on an investment, I seek out every kind of information about it.":89,98-99,118,127,247
When the Green family returned to the United States in October 1873, after Edward suffered losses on Wall Street, they settled in Edward's hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Yet, Hetty quarreled with Edward's mother, until her death in 1875. That same year, Hetty covered Edward's losses associated with the London and San Francisco Bank, of which he was one of the directors. Hetty bailed Edward out once again in 1884.:116,122-129,148
After the 1885 collapse of the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, of which Edward was a partner, it was disclosed Edward had $700,000 in debt. Hetty Green's $500,000 represented one-quarter of the banks's assets. The bank refused to allow Hetty's transfer of her $26 million in stocks, bonds, mortgages, and deeds to the Chemical National Bank, until Edward's debt was paid. In the end, Hetty made the transfer and paid off her husband's debt, but never forgave Edward.:148-151
Hetty's investing philosophy, in her words, included, "In business generally, don't close a bargain until you have reflected on it overnight." She also thought, "It is the duty of every woman, I believe, to learn to take care of her own business affairs," and "A girl should be brought up as to be able to make her own living..." "Whether rich or poor, a young woman should know how a bank account works, understand the composition of mortgages and bonds, and know the value of interest and how it accumulates.":178,232,238,251
Green's thriftiness was legendary. She was said never to turn on the heat or use 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 she rode in an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One tale claims that Green 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.
Yet, from Hetty's perspective, "Just because I dress plainly and do not spend a fortune on my gowns, they say I am cranky or insane.":220
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 her own office. Later unfounded rumors 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 (due mainly to frugality, but perhaps in part related 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 mines, and lent money while acquiring numerous mortgages. The City of New York came to Green for 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.
Green entered the lexicon of turn-of-the-century America with the popular phrase "I'm not Hetty if I do look green." O. Henry used this phrase in his 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 frugality extended to family life. When her son Ned broke his leg as a child, Hetty tried to have him admitted to a free clinic for the poor. Mythic accounts have her storming away after being recognized; her biographer Slack says that she paid her bill and took her son to other doctors. His leg did not heal properly and, after years of treatment, it had to be amputated.
In Hetty's words, "I don't think society means what some rich people would have us believe, I should get very tired of living in one of the great houses in New York, going out all night and sleeping all day. They don't have any real pleasure. It's intercourse with people that I like." Yet she was also a secret philanthropist, avoiding the attention of the Press. In her words, "I believe in discreet charity." Hetty also had the reputation of being an effective nurse, caring for her young and old neighbors. Her favorite poem was William Henry Channing's "My Symphony," which starts with "To live content with small means...":184,219,224-226
Green's daughter Sylvia lived with her mother until her thirties. Hetty Green disapproved of all of her daughter's suitors, suspecting that they were after her fortune. Sylvia finally married Matthew Astor Wilks on February 23, 1909, after a two-year courtship. A minor heir to the Astor fortune, Wilks entered the marriage with $2 million of his own, enough to assure Green that he was not a gold digger. Nonetheless, she compelled him to sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his right to inherit Sylvia's fortune.
When her grown children left home, Green moved repeatedly among small apartments in Brooklyn Heights and after 1898, in Hoboken, New Jersey, mainly to avoid New York's property tax, though she did loan money to the city at reasonable rates. Hetty then regularly commuted to her office in the Chemical Bank on Broadway. By 1905, Hetty was New York's largest lender.:230-231,256
In her old age, she developed a hernia, but refused to have an operation, preferring to use a stick to press down the swelling. She eventually moved her office to the National Park Bank, when she thought she had been poisoned at the Chemical Bank, a fear she had most of her life.:276,282-283
On July 3, 1916, Hetty Green died at age 81 at her son's New York City home. According to her longstanding "World's Greatest Miser" entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, she died of apoplexy after arguing with a maid over the virtues of skimmed milk. The New York Times reported she suffered a series of strokes leading up to her death.
Upon her death, Hetty was known as the "Wizard of Finance" and the "Richest Woman in America.":290
Estimates of her net worth ranged from $100 million to $200 million (equivalent to $2.3 billion to $4.6 billion in 2019), making her arguably the richest woman in the world at the time.
She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her husband. She had converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith so that she could be interred with him.:286-287
Their two children split her estate, which included a ten-year trust for Sylvia administered by Ed.:283 They were reported to have enjoyed their wealth more than she had. Both notably came through the Great Depression relatively unscathed by following Hetty's 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. After his death, his sister Sylvia, as heir, donated his Round Hill, Massachusetts estate in 1948 to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which used the property for experimentation. These included a prototype atom smasher. They used his powerful WMAF radio transmitters to keep in touch with Richard E. Byrd's 1928-1930 Antarctic expedition.
Sylvia died in 1951, leaving an estimated $200 million and donating all but $1,388,000 to 64 colleges, churches, hospitals, and other charities. Both children were buried near their parents in Bellows Falls.
The She-Wolf (1931) was the story of a miserly millionaire businesswoman based on the real-life miser Hetty Green. She was played by Australian-born actress May Robson.
- "Hetty Green "the Witch of Wallstreet"" (PDF). nps.gov. National Park Service. Retrieved 21 August 2014.
- Rosenblum, Constance (December 19, 2004). "'Hetty': Scrooge in Hoboken". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
Hetty Green was that rarity, a woman who largely through her own efforts amassed a ton of money during the Gilded Age, a time when virtually everyone else getting rich—Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie—was a man. By nearly all accounts she was also a thoroughly unpleasant individual, greedy, petty and often downright nasty
- Slack, Charles, Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon. New York: Ecco (2004) ISBN 0-06-054256-X.
- Leavitt, Judith A. (1985). American Women Managers and Administrators: A Selective Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-century Leaders in Business, Education, and Government. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 93. ISBN 0-313-23748-4.
- Wallach, Janet (2012). The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. New York: Anchor Books. pp. 9–21, 37, 45. ISBN 9780307474575.
- Robinson v. Mandell, 20 F. Cas. 1027 (C.C.D. Mass. 1868) (No. 11,959)
- "Mrs. Hetty Wilks Dead At Age Of 80; Daughter Of Hetty Green, Noted For Financial Manipulations, Wed Descendant Of Astor "Accustomed To Economy" Active Until Last Year William A. Haegele George T. Cottrell Mrs. Max Besas". The New York Times. February 6, 1951.
Mrs. H. Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks of 988 Fifth Avenue, widow of Matthew Astor Wilks, and daughter of Hetty Green, the famous woman financier, died yesterday in the New York Hospital at the age of 80.
- "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me", NPR radio program, episode of April 3, 2010
- "Hetty Green Dies, Worth $100,000,000; Passes Away At Son's Home After Several Paralytic Strokes, Aged 82. Hoped To Live To Be 85 Invested Heavily In Bonds And Mortgages In Recent Years. Stock Market Not Affected. Hetty Green Dies Worth $100,000,000". The New York Times. July 4, 1916.
Mrs. Hetty Green, generally believed to be the world's richest woman, died yesterday in her eighty-second year after an illness of several months. The woman whose great business acumen had built up a fortune estimated at $100,000,000 and had made her name known in the market places of the world faced death as she had life, militantly and unafraid.
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-05-25. Retrieved 2005-11-08.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link), Stevens College
- Caplan, Sheri J. Petticoats and Pinstripes: Portraits of Women in Wall Street's History. Praeger, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4408-0265-2.
- Ford, Carol. "Hetty Green, A Character Study". National Magazine, September 1905.
- Lewis, Arthur H. The Day They Shook the Plum Tree. New York: Harcourt Brace. (1963); Buccaneer Books, Cutchogue, NY (1990) ISBN 0-89966-600-0.
- Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez, Math on trial. How numbers get used and abused in the courtroom, Basic Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-465-03292-1. (Ninth chapter: "Math error number 9: choosing a wrong model. The case of Hetty Green: a battle of wills").
- Slack, Charles. Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon. New York: Ecco (2004). ISBN 0-06-054256-X.
- Wallach, Janet (25 September 2012). The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-385-53198-6. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
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