Hetty Green: The Witch Of Wall Street

CULTURE | August 22, 2019

Hetty Green. Source: (thedabbler.co.uk)

Nicknamed the “Witch of Wall Street,” Hetty Green was a real-life female Ebenezer Scrooge. She was a financier during the 19th and early 20th centuries and was the richest woman in her time, with a fortune on par with that of JP Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.

She was born Henrietta Howland Robinson on November 21, 1834, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her family were Quakers in the mercantile business. By the time Green was born, the family had already amassed a fortune through whaling and shipping. Her grandfather, Gideon Howland, encouraged her interest in the family business, often discussing finances with her and encouraging her to read financial papers. By age thirteen, she had already begun doing the books for the family business.

19th Century Dresses. Source: (wamc.org)

When she turned twenty, her father bought her an expensive new wardrobe of the most fashionable dresses of the time with the intention of finding her a husband. But Green was not interested in courtship and instead sold the wardrobe and invested the proceeds in government bonds. Both her maternal aunt and her father died in 1865. Her father left her an inheritance of $6 million, but that wasn't enough for Green. She went after her aunt’s estate as well, suing her own family using an alleged deathbed will that was later determined to be a forgery.

Hetty Green’s house in Bellow Falls. Source: (newenglandhistoricalsociety.com)

Henrietta Howland Robinson became Hetty Green on July 1867 when she married Edward H. Green. However, a pre-nuptial agreement ensured that their finances would remain separate. While such an agreement is common among the wealthy today, it was unusual during the 19th century. It proved to be a wise move in this case though as Edward Green went bankrupt in 1885 and the two separated after she refused to cover his debts. They remained estranged until his death in 1902.

Hetty Green in mourning clothes. Source: (YouTube.com)

In the meantime, Green continued to expand her fortune through investments and lending. She earned the nickname, “Witch of Wall Street,” after her husband died and she began wearing black mourning clothes, but her reputed ruthlessness and miserliness only solidified the moniker. The Panic of 1907 forced many major investors to borrow money from her. That, along with her real estate investments, led to the growth of her fortune.

Colonel Green, Hetty Green’s son. Source: (flickr.com)

Despite her wealth, Green was known to live modestly. She, along with her son and daughter, lived in low-cost housing and wore cheap clothing. This caused her to be the subject of much gossip and stories circulated claiming that she was so cheap that she didn’t use hot water or even buy new undergarments. One popular story alleged that she refused to spend money on medical care for herself or her children and her son’s leg had to be amputated as a result. These stories were never confirmed; however, Green was known to seek medical care at charity clinics. By the time she died in 1916, Green’s fortune had grown from $6 million to over $100 million.

Tags: Hetty Green | wall street

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