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The Life and Times of Hetty the Hoarder, the Witch of Wall Street

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There was an old woman often seen plodding up and down Wall Street at the turn of the 20th century. She walked alone. Her black, faded dress was dirty and ragged at the seams. She carried a case with her with a pitiful lunch tossed inside, usually graham crackers or dry oatmeal. She was such a familiar sight, with her grim face and strange dress, everyone called her “The Witch of Wall Street.”

She was Hetty Green, and she was worth $3.8 billion*.

Building Billions

Hetty was born into a wealthy whaling family in 1834. She was an only child, and her mother was too sickly and fragile to help raise her. Instead, her father and grandfather saw to her care. They trained her to handle money shrewdly from a young age, reading her stock market reports as other parents read bedtime stories.

Hetty was a financier. Her handwriting was sloppy and riddled with misspellings, but she surely knew her numbers. More importantly, she knew how to increase them. She oversaw tremendous real estate deals, bought and sold railroads, and made loans. She was particularly adept at prospering during the downfall of others; buying falling stocks, foreclosing properties, and even holding entire banks, entire cities, at her mercy through enormous loans. Depending who you asked, she was either a brilliant strategist or a ruthless loan shark. Collis P. Huntington, the man who built the Central Pacific Railroad and personal enemy of Hetty, called her “nothing more than a glorified pawnbroker."

Hetty’s audacity was apparent early on. When her aunt, Sylvia Howland, died in 1868 and left $2 million to charity, Hetty was incensed. She challenged the will in court, presenting what she claimed was a previously written will that left everything to Hetty, with a clause that specifically invalidated any subsequent versions of the will. The courts determined that clause and Sylvia’s signature were a complete forgery, and Hetty lost the case. It was one of very few losses that Hetty would allow in her lifetime.

Tough Love

Love was not something that could be tallied in an office, and Hetty struggled with it. She believed (rightly) that she was surrounded by gold diggers, and did not trust the men who showed interest in her. She was 33 before a man who possessed his own modest wealth wanted to marry her. This was Edward Henry Green, with whom she had two children, Ned and Sylvia. Unfortunately Edward wasn’t nearly as good with money as Hetty was. Even though she had made every effort to keep their finances separate, the pre-“women are humans” 19th century banks kept using her money as if it were his. Hetty put a stop to this, and Edward moved out of the family home. His finances rapidly declined. Hetty, however, refused to fit the mold of a complete villain, and nursed her husband during his dying months. She then wore widow’s reeds for years after his death, making her Wall Street appearance all the scarier.  

Joys of Motherhood

Their two children lived a poor existence with their mother. Sylvia was not a pretty girl; she wore cast off clothes and made few friends. She mostly silently shadowed her mother, sleeping next to her on a cot in whatever rented room they happened to be living in. Ned, some would say, suffered even more. When he was a teenager he was struck by a child driving an “express” dog cart, pulled by a St. Bernard. Ned’s leg was already lame for reasons lost to history, but the accident left it in serious need of medical attention. Hetty, ever the dutiful mother, took her son to a free clinic in the city. Unfortunately, Hetty was too recognizable, and the doctors demanded payment as they would from anyone they suspected of faking poverty. 

So Hetty decided the leg would likely knit itself if given time, especially with her helpful home treatment of “oil of squills” and “Carter’s Little Liver Pills.” Ned’s leg worsened, until, after suffering a fall down a flight of stairs while visiting his father, Edward realized the depth of the injury and called a doctor. The leg was amputated, with Ned’s father using his own dwindling money to pay for it, rather than haggle with Hetty.

“A Bunch of Robbers!”

In fairness, Hetty’s medical frugality applied to herself, too. After 20 years of suffering a hernia, she finally allowed Dr. Henry S Pascal to examine her in 1915. When she disrobed down to her “old and none too clean” underwear, Pascal saw that she did indeed have a severe, bulging hernia. Her solution had been to jam a stick against the swelling, held in place by her underwear and the pressure of her own leg. The doctor told her the extremely painful hernia need an immediate operation. When he told her the cost, $150, she scowled and picked her fallen stick off the floor, replacing it in her underwear.

“You’re all alike! A bunch of robbers!” she said, and left the doctor’s office.

Hetty’s peculiarities increased as she aged. She changed residence with a skulking frequency, moving from one small, unheated apartment to another. This was her attempt to hide from both the press and tax collectors. She believed that this, combined with taking confusing and varied routes to work (at an office provided free by her bank, of course) also kept kidnappers and robbers at bay. One source details her great discomfort when sleeping in a strange place. She wore safe deposit keys to various banks on a chain around her waist at all times, and slept with a revolver rigged to her hand with strings when staying in a strange motel. 

“I am called close and mean and stingy.”

She also became fonder of public speaking as she entered old age. These interviews are the world’s only chance to hear the “Witch” defend herself, and to wonder if history has been too hard on the oddity of a powerful woman. “I am not a hard woman," she told one reporter. "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.”

Hetty died at the age of 81, in 1916. Ned tried to make his mother look good. He spoke of her many charities, though not one was ever actually named and none came forward to identify themselves. He spoke of an old decrepit employee his mother had kept on out of compassion, but was quickly contradicted by other office employees who remembered the man in question and Hetty’s dismissal of him when he was no longer useful.

Rebellious Children

Ned and Sylvia took different paths when they received their inheritances. Sylvia, who had married a man of reasonable means late in life, made few changes. But Ned craved adoration and high living. He married his first lover, a prostitute named Mabel whom his mother had hated. Together they sought popularity and acceptance, spending money in a grand fashion to accomplish it. They built mansions, bought a private island, and kept a passel of young ingénues referred to as Ned’s “wards.” Ned even constructed the largest and most awkward yacht then known to man, and then found himself too seasick to ever use it. He indulged in the new sciences of radio, broadcasting from his own radio station at his Round Hill estate, and allowing MIT access to his equipment for study. When Ned died in 1936, he had miraculously managed to maintain a decent fortune, and left the majority to his sister, Sylvia.

And what did Sylvia do, the quiet, unattractive girl who was now one of the richest people on earth? What did she do with the money of a woman who could not abide giving anything away? She performed an act of rebellion, perhaps her only one.

She left the fortune, around $443 million* at the time of her death in 1951, entirely to charity.

*In today’s dollars.

Sources: Charmers and Cranks by Ishbel Ross, and The Day They Shook the Plum Tree by Arthur H. Lewis.

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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