Native son: The Witch of Wall Street

by Charles D Novak

When I first heard about Hetty Green I thought she was a myth. Years went by before her name came up again which intrigued me enough to do some research.
Her family members were Quakers. Her real name was Henrietta Howland Robinson. In 1867 at the age of 33 she married Edward Henry Green and went by the name of Hetty Green. She made her husband renounce all rights to her money before the wedding.
She was born In New Medford, Massachusetts on November 21, 1834. By the time she was fifteen she knew more about finance then many professional brokers. She became the first woman to make a fortune on Wall Street. She managed her own funds and invested in stocks, bonds, railroads, mines and real estate. She owned dozens of buildings in New York, Chicago, St Louis and Boston.
Hetty Green started off with money. She inherited $8,000 when her mother died. Her aunt left her $20,000 and she received $5 million from her father. She invested these funds in Civil War Bonds. When she died in 1916 of a stroke, the fortune she left her son Ned and daughter Sylvia was close to $100,000,000. She was believed to be the richest woman in America.
Hetty Green’s stinginess was legendary. She never turned on the heat and very seldom used hot water. She wore an old black dress and undergarments that she changed only when they were worn out. She only washed the dirty parts of her clothes to save on soap. She would not stay in one place for long because she didn’t want to establish residency and have to pay taxes.
Her frugality extended to her family life. Her children grew up having to pretend they were poor. When her son Ned broke his leg as a child she tried to have him admitted to a free clinic for poor people. Eventually the leg had to be amputated.
Hetty taught her son everything she knew about investing and making money in the stock market. He became a very successful broker. Her daughter Sylvia was a recluse and lived with her mother into her 30s before finally getting married.
At forty one Hetty still had a pretty face and a fine completion but her black dress made her look downright homely. When she got angry she would cuss like a dockworker. Two months after her husband’s death she walked into the New York City Police Department and announced her desire for a permit to carry a pistol. “I am a rich woman and there are people who want to kill me” she explained. The permit was granted.
As her financial power grew she started to wear a black veil to cover her face and hide her identity. It didn’t work. With her customary black dress and now the veil the people started calling her The Witch of Wall Street. She died at the age of eighty one with her son and daughter by her side.
The richest woman in America had lived like a frugal shop girl. My favorite story about her goes like this: Sitting in a chair in a hotel lobby with her Scottish Terrier nestled in her arms, Hetty was asked why she loved her dog so much and she replied “ because he doesn’t know how rich I am.”