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*.
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.
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.
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.