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Hetty Green - The Witch of Wall Street

Updated on June 12, 2013
suziecat7 profile image

Suzanne believes women throughout history have made a difference. Her goal is to discover and celebrate women's contributions to history.

Some people take frugality to the limit. They scrounge and save and stretch. They calculate every move and every decision they make. Sacrifice becomes a virtue to them. It is a means to a desirable end. The end, of course, is money and wealth.. At what point are these frugal thinkers considered miserly, stingy or cheap? When does their eccentricity become mean-spirited obsession and undaunted greed? The answer is when they become like Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street.

Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in 1835 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of wealthy owners of a very large whaling fleet. As a child, Hetty was smart, spoiled and curious. At six years old she was reading the financial section of newspapers to her father and grandfather whose eyesights were failing. Hetty opened her own savings account when she was eight years old. She did not make friends easily and had a hard time adjusting in school. When Hetty turned 21, she inherited nearly ten million dollars, the equivalent of 185 million in today's dollars,.from her parents. She turned her eye toward Wall Street and moved to New York.

It didn't take her long. Her shrewd business mind led Hetty to immediately begin investing in the financial markets. Her first success was when she purchased depreciated U.S, bonds from nervous investors after the Civil War. Her success didn't serve to make her a debutante in any circle. Her sour attitude repelled potential friends except for one of her father's business acquaintances by the name of Edward Henry Green. He was also a wealthy investor and both shared a love for money. They married in 1867 and moved to London where they had two children.

In their seven years in London, Hetty continued speculating in American dollars. They moved back to the U.S. in 1874 and settled in Green's boyhood home in the town of Bellow Falls, Vermont. They commuted regularly to New York to keep an eye on their investments. Hetty, already very rich, practised frugality to an extreme. She reused envelopes, haggled with merchants over prices and made sure only the hem of her dress was laundered at the cleaners. Maybe because of her thrift, Hetty accumulated wealth better than her husband did. When he tried to withdraw a large sum of money from their joint bank account and was refused because of an outstanding half a million dollar debt, Hetty had enough. She eventually paid his debt and ended the marriage.

Hetty Green conducted most of her business in the Seaboard National Bank in New York in subsequent years. She brought along her suitcases full of paperwork to avoid paying rent for an actual office. She invested her money in railroads and real estate and often lent money at a profit. The City of New York was several times the recipient of those loans. Hetty was known to travel thousands of miles to collect a few hundred dollar debt.

 

The Miser's Miser -

So how stingy was Hetty Green? She wore the same black dress and same undergarments every day. She moved around from one dingy hotel room or apartment to another never wanting to spend too much on rent. She bought broken cookies in bulk to get them cheaper. It is rumored Hetty spent hours searching her old car for a lost two cent stamp. She saved and combined shards of soap. She ate mostly oatmeal and crackers. She argued fiercely about every bill. Was Hetty Green just eccentric or down right mean?

She wasn't called the Witch of Wall Street for nothing. She would dig up dirt on any potential loan recipient or investor to keep the upper hand. She never turned on the heat or hot water. She ate raw onions for health and her general stench and black attire scared children. She sent her own children to school in hand-me-downs and lined their shoes and clothes with newspaper for warmth. The most damning act of her greed and meanness was when her son, Ned, injured his knee. Hetty tried to bring him to a charity hospital for treatment but was recognized and refused. She decided to treat his injury herself rather than spend the money on a doctor. A few years later her son's leg was amputated due to gangrene.

Hetty Green died on July 3, 1916 at the age of 81. She left all her money, a little under $200 million to her children. Her son, Ned, had her body transported from New York to Bellows Falls, Vermont in a private railroad car. She would have considered this a luxury for sure and would not have approved. Her children inherited her frugal ways as well though Ned was known to indulge in several interests such as auto racing and collectibles. Hetty's daughter, Sylvia, was more charitable.

 

Facts -

Hetty Green was the first female tycoon and the richest woman in America in her time. Her estate when she died, in today's economy, would have been worth $2 billion.

Books have been written about Hetty Green including The Day They Shook The Plum Tree by Arthur H. Lewis in 1963 and Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoons by Charles Slack in 2004.

Her family was related to the Howlands that came over on the Mayflower.

Hetty Green often travelled alone which was unheard of for women in those days.

In The Guinness Book of World Records Hetty Green is listed as one of the greatest misers in the world.

She feared assassination.

She was raised as a Quaker.

For other historic Hubs, please click here - http://hubpages.com/_36otspfnata5l/hub/Women-of-Computer-Science

And here - http://hubpages.com/_36otspfnata5l/hub/Cassie-Chadwick-Con-Artist

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    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 5 years ago

      I am not familiar with this woman, and I am sure that she was extremely frugal - or, as I would say, cheap. But I wonder if some of these stories are more legend than reality.

      I also wonder how a woman like this would be viewed today. In the current climate, she might be viewed by many as more of a hero than a witch. Many Americans these days tend to glorify the rich more than attack them, and even the recent financial crisis has not changed their attitudes.

    • profile image

      snroys 5 years ago

      I very much enjoyed your piece she was a very inyeresting woman from what ive heard in your story

    • profile image

      Kerry 5 years ago

      Like Jack, I learned about Hetty from the book "The Very Rich" a big coffee table book my dad loved. I was looking for the Very Rich and found your page. Excellent to learn more about this unusual woman.

    • profile image

      stessily 5 years ago

      Thank you for reminding me of Hetty Green; when I think of her, I ponder the unclear value of imbalances in life. It's puzzling when a person's life seems to exhibit such extremes: extreme wealth, extreme chariness, receiving much and apparently giving little.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all for the comments. Hetty was certainly an unusual woman.

    • profile image

      Jack Mills 5 years ago

      Great hub! I first became familiar with Hetty Green via the coffee table book "The Very Rich." She reminds me of an aunt whom I learned much from, some painfully and yet I find much of her frugality worth emulating. Because of your great review I must now go to Netflix and look for documentary. Enjoyed others' comments. Thx for a good read. Jmills

    • Brooke Lorren profile image

      Brooke Lorren 5 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

      Interesting article. I don't really have a problem with a lot of what she did... like searching for a two-cent stamp, buying broken cookies, or carrying her paperwork around to avoid having to rent an office. She did take it a little too far, especially when she refused to treat her son's leg.

      My grandparents, who grew up in the depression, were always very frugal. They've never had cable television, and up until the 1990s, only had a 13" black and white television. Grandma always bought used vehicles. Grandpa evidently always liked to go some place where they offered free sandwiches every week. Grandpa always had cases of generic soda around too.

      Found out about eight years ago that they had more money than I thought. After reading The Millionaire next door, I suspected that they were millionaires, and in the last year, my suspicions were in a way confirmed. My grandpa is no longer with us, and now grandma spends her money a little bit more freely, but I don't think she'll ever have to worry about it.

      Nice story though.

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      Great hub! I cant imagine being so stingy that I didn't wash my clothes properly or sending your kids to school in newspaper lined clothes- I hope subsequent generations went mad and blew the lot!

      Voted up and interesting

    • platinumOwl4 profile image

      platinumOwl4 6 years ago

      Hello, suziecat7, I read this article I though sure a comment was made.

    • regina nadia profile image

      regina nadia 6 years ago

      very interesting ! : )

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all - yes, a big budget movie would be great.

    • profile image

      Modern Man 6 years ago

      I keep hoping a big-budget movie will be made on this fascinating woman.

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      Fascinating! Thank you for an illuminating hub. Voted up and awesome.

    • 50 Caliber profile image

      50 Caliber 6 years ago from Arizona

      suzie, a great summation of a historic figure. I think frugal and Cheap are two different words. I consider frugality to be an action one takes to obtain a position to which they have an end, like being frugal to reach the ability to buy a car with out payments, Cheep is having a million dollars in your mattress, sleeping on it and eating cat food or even cheaper oatmeal, and making a son a cripple. I'm frugal as a means to an end, to not have to live amongst city neighbors of noise, drug dealers and other reasons like retirement 20 years early.

      Seems Hetty Green was a lover of money who would have it at the cost of having nothing else like a bath, clean clothes or a friend. You hit a good tale I'm pondering as my brother says I'm crazy living here and cheap, shopping at flea markets, Goodwill and Salvation Army, he doesn't see frugal, as I know sooner or later I'll need major repairs or a new Jeep, Ha!

      Thanks for the mind teasing example, 50

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks everyone.

    • charlesroring profile image

      charlesroring 6 years ago

      Her frugality caused her son a leg. She was crazy.

    • boston shorty profile image

      boston shorty 6 years ago from Overlooking Quincy Bay, MA

      Great subject and content...consider me a new follower.

    • mulberry1 profile image

      mulberry1 6 years ago

      Some of her "eccentricities" sound like traits many wealthy people have, but others just sound unclean.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thank you all for your comments. You guys are the best.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

      Congratulations on maintaining the 100 Author Score. That is some accomplishment.

      Thank you for this entertaining Hub. I hadn't heard of this woman but I'd say she deserved her nickname. I think this is some kind of mental illness. Harder to forgive among the rich than among the poor.

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 6 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      A great history lesson indeed. I had never heard of her before this that I can recall. What an interesting hub! rated up and awesome.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Great article. I had never heard of her before this thanks so much for the history lesson! congrats on your nomination.

    • Cagsil profile image

      Cagsil 6 years ago from USA or America

      Hey Suzie, thank you for teaching me about someone I had never heard of. It's always fun to learn about the actions of others, other than what I see daily. I don't know whether or not, she was mean or just frugal to an extreme. I would say that she did what she thought was right. I do disagree with her action with regards to her son's leg. But, then again, it's not my kid. :) Thumbs up! :) Nicely Done!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Suzie - excellent hub, as usual. Hetty sounds fascinating, a great story, but it's actually kind of sad, isn't it? Her treatment of her children was horrible.

      (Please check your email)

    • GarnetBird profile image

      Gloria Siess 6 years ago from Wrightwood, California

      Fascinating and well-written. Wouldn't you HATE being her child and living in a home with no heat or hot water? I'd rather be middle class with comforts and some TLC. GREAT hub!

    • Cameron Dean profile image

      Cameron Dean 6 years ago from New York

      The female -real life Ebenezer Scrooge. Excellent hub, I love reading it and I want to know more, I’m getting the books.

    • swedal profile image

      swedal 6 years ago from Colorado

      Wow, that is taking frugality to a whole new level when you only have the bottom couple inches of your dress cleaned... Phew!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Interesting character...Hetty Green. As the video said we could all learn a little bit from her...taking lunch to work, etc. to keep more of what we earn. Not to treat her son's leg and some of the other things she did was a bit much. Thanks for sharing this story about her.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      BP - Nice to see you. Yup, that's why they have money (and we don't :(

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks, Mr. Tindle. I'm not sure she was so much mean as weird. I appreciate you taking th time to read and comment.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      VietnamVet - Thank you for stopping by.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks, VioletSun - glad you enjoyed.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I was fascinated by the extent of her stingyness. I do believe she took it a tad too far. Terrific article.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 6 years ago from Texas

      Absolutely fascinating. I had heard a story of this person, but never read of the details of her life until now. Thank you for sharing.

    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 6 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Poor creature! That's your answer to our Ebenezer Scrooge, except he was invented by Dickens. But...whatever gets you through the night I suppose; it was her money to do what she wished with, and the kids did benefit in the end. Its hard to look "through a glass darkly" at others lives as all the years are telescoped into a few lines of text. Interesting hub voted up and interesting. Bob

    • profile image

      lilyfly 6 years ago

      I love this Suziecat, I remember reading about Hettie Green when I was five or six. I can't imagine how filthy she smelled, and her poor son with his leg(reminds me of how bad Alaskan Doctors are as compared to the lower 48. ) Another winner... voted up... lily

    • profile image

      alastar packer 6 years ago

      Had heard about her but never new the details, thanks suziecat7.Although not the case with Hettie; a story like this just reminds one of the shabby person who passes and then everyone finds out they had riches hidden away somewhere.

    • mslizzee profile image

      elizabeth 6 years ago from Buncombe County, NC

      She must have been rather smelly as well as stingy. What an interesting character. Thank you.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 6 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      My mother was born in New Bedford, MA, and Hettie Green is legend there. Great hub!

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 6 years ago

      My Grandma was frugal to say the least. She hated my desire to never re-use a bath towel and thought I was wasteful and extravagant. Needless to say she had big bucks!

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Drbj - Yes, she was peculiar- Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • Mr Tindle profile image

      Mr Tindle 6 years ago

      Suziecat7,

      Great historical hub. I vaguely remember watching a show about this woman one time, but your hub was truly informative and interesting. I would say that say that Hetty was had somewhat of mean streak, but she was allot crazy! Not a good combination, especially since she was so smart and rich as well.

      Voted up!

    • vietnamvet68 profile image

      vietnamvet68 6 years ago from New York State

      intresting story, a lady who I have never heard of. Great informative piece.

      God Bless

    • VioletSun profile image

      VioletSun 6 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

      This was enjoyable to read. Makes me wonder if her frugality was a psychological issue that has a "label" and treatment nowadays. Compromising her son's health is absolutely a mental issue. The part where you wrote, that she scared little children with her stench (after eating onions) and black attire made me chuckle. This is a story, I will be sure to tell others about. :)

      Voted up!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      Because Hetty was rich, suziecat, she was considered eccentric. If she had been poor, she would have been called crazy.

      But no matter how she was described, she was peculiar. Thanks for the informative hub.

    • suziecat7 profile image
      Author

      suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Thanks, WillStarr, for being the first to comment. What you say is so true. The rich are frugal which is one of the reasons they are rich.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I've noticed that wealthy people tend to be very stingy, which I suppose, is why they are wealthy and I am not.

      Excellent historical and informative Hub Suziecat!