Hetty Green – America’s First Female Tycoon

I was first introduced Hetty Green during the Bicentennial.  LIFE Magazine had put out a special issue on noted American women during the previous two hundred years of the nation’s existence and Hetty was one of the women.  Of course, they chose the least flattering picture they could find, Hetty during her later years when she was noted for her eccentricities.  She was nicknamed “The Witch on Wall Street,” which is interesting when you consider there were hardly any women on Wall Street or in business in the 19th century.  All of which makes Hetty’s accomplishments all the more remarkable.  Unlike Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin, Hetty didn’t get her stock tips from a railroad tycoon like Cornelius Vanderbilt.  She studied the markets closely, bought low and sold high (Warren Buffett would have been proud), and kept her expenses low by borrowing a desk in the offices of Chemical bank (which later merged with J.P. Morgan).  For years, Hetty was known more for her eccentricities and her frugality and then for her business acumen.  In recent years, however, Hetty has been recognized for being the first American woman to make a substantial impact on Wall Street.  Her success paved the way for women such as Muriel Siebert and Sayra Lebenthal.
She was born Henrietta Howland Robinson in New Bedford, MA on November 21, 1834. At the time of her birth, New Bedford was a thriving town, whose primary industry was whaling.  Her family were Quakers who owned a large whaling fleet.  Her father was disappointed that she hadn’t been the longed for son, and her mother suffered from post-partum depression after her birth.  As a result, Hetty was farmed out to relatives, including her maternal grandfather Gideon Howland.  Feeling abandoned by the people who were supposed to love her, from an early age, Hetty began to act out and throw tantrums when she didn’t get her way.  It also led her to become a massive control freak as she got older.

Hetty became interested in finance, through reading the financial papers to her grandfather whose eyesight was failing. It became a way for her to connect not only to her grandfather but also to her father as well.  By the time she was 13, she was the family bookkeeper.  Despite her financial savvy, when her father died in 1864, and left her $7.5 million ($107 million in 2010), the money was still left in a trust. Hetty was furious that she was not allowed to control the bulk of her money.  Hetty had invested a small amount of money on her own; she invested what she could in Civil War bonds, against the objections of her family.  Hetty made a killing, as she would continue to do for the rest of her life. 
When her aunt Sylvia died and left the bulk of her fortune to charity, Hetty was livid.  Her aunt had used her fortune throughout her life as a way to control people; Hetty had catered to her in the expectation that she would inherit everything.  Showing just how ruthless she could be, Hetty challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will which allegedly left the entire estate to her.  The case dragged on for years, and ultimately Hetty ended up losing, after the court decided that the signature on the will had been forged.

While Hetty was no raving beauty, she was considered attractive with fine blue eyes and a tall, shapely figure.  While living in New York, she met Edward Henry Green, who came from a wealthy Vermont family.  Thirteen years older, he was tall and handsome, with wavy blond hair, and blue eyes.  While Hetty was reticent, no interest in clothes or parties; and had no small talk , her beau had a robust personality, was a witty conversationalist filled with amusing anecdotes, and he was the type of man who feasted on life. Fluent in several languages, he had lived abroad for twenty years.  After a long courtship, the two married when Hetty was 33 years old. In a sort of 19th century pre-nuptial agreement, she made him renounce all rights to her money before their wedding.  For several years, they lived abroad in London, making their base at the ultra-exclusive Langham Hotel.   The couple soon had two children, Edward Howland Robinson born in 1868 and Sylvia born almost three years later in 1871.  While her husband was much more of a gambler when it came to investing, Hetty was much more practical when it came to money.  She had a simple investment strategy, conservative investments, substantial cash reserves, and an exceedingly cool head.  While other investors might drop their stock at the first sign of a dip in the markets, Hetty would hold on until the stock rebounded.  She initially invested heavily in greenbacks, which according to Wikipedia, were notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. While other investors were wary, Hetty invested heavily and made $1.2 million from her investment in the first year.  She later expanded her portfolio to include railroads, eventually feuding with most of the major players including Collis Huntington.
In 1885, the financial house John J. Cisco collapsed, in which Hetty was the largest investor.  In the fall out, Hetty discovered that not only was her husband the firm’s biggest debtor but that the firm had used her money as collateral for their loans to her husband.  While Hetty had no problem turning a blind eye to her husband’s infidelities and gambling, she put her foot down when it came to her money.  Despite his transgressions, the idea of divorcing him never occurred to her.  The couple separated, although they stayed on friendly terms, sharing lunch occasionally, and Hetty even nursed him in the years before his death. 

Over the years, Hetty began to develop a reputation as an eccentric.  Believing merchants raised the prices when they knew that she was coming, she started dressing in old clothes and using a false name to get a better price.  When she lived in New York, instead of renting a house or an apartment in one of the new luxury buildings like the Dakota, Hetty preferred to live in boarding houses because it was not just cheap but convenient.  Later in life, she moved from one furnished apartment to another in Brooklyn and Manhattan in order to avoid having a permanent residence (and to avoid paying income tax).  When the five boroughs combined into what we now know as New York City, she moved across the river to Hoboken. She ate baked onions because she believed that they warded off colds. Instead of eating in fancy restaurants like Delmonico’s, Hetty brought her lunch to work every day to save money.  She allegedly wore her clothes until they were falling apart.  There were rumors that she ate oatmeal that she heated on the office radiator. 
The biggest and most juicy myth was the story that Hetty’s frugality cost her son his leg.  Ned injured his leg while sledding at their home in Vermont.  Hetty applied a home remedy to try and heal the leg but she also called the local doctor. When it appeared that the methods were working, she canceled the doctor who had been called to attend him, because she would have had to pay him for his time, which she felt would be wasted since Ned appeared fine.  Unfortunately for Ned, the healing was only temporary.  Hetty, to her credit, when she realized that Ned’s leg was not healed, took him to see several eminent physicians. Almost all of them recommended that Ned have the leg amputated which both Hetty and her son were reluctant to have happen.  Over time, the leg grew worse and eventually had to be amputated.  She couldn’t escape the rumors even in death; she supposedly died of apoplexy when she argued with a maid about the virtues of skimmed milk. The truth was that Hetty had been suffering ill-health for a number of years.  Diagnosed with a hernia, she refused to pay $150 to have an operation, considering the price too high.  Instead, she put a ruler in her underwear, pressed against the hernia. 

Many of the stories were spread by her mostly male business competitors who gave her the lovely nickname of the ‘Witch of Wall Street,’ partly due to her habit of mostly wearing black. It no doubt galled them that Hetty was so successful in business that the City of New York came to Hetty more than once to help keep the city afloat.  Hetty could be just as ruthless and litigious as any male tycoon. She sued the trustees of her father’s estate, accusing them of mismanagement, and despite the negative publicity, she foreclosed on a church that had gotten behind in its loan payments.  When the pastor told her that she was in danger of not getting into heaven, Hetty told him to pray for her.  Hetty enjoyed making money, the wheeling and dealing, much more than she did spending it. While other tycoons built lavish mansions, monuments to their wealth, or donated large sums to charity, Hetty quietly went about her business, crisscrossing the country to inspect the various properties she owned. Instead of just donating money to charity, Hetty preferred to help others help themselves by providing jobs whenever possible.

Hetty believed that it was important for women to have some knowledge about business, how to write a check, open a bank account, read a financial statement, in order not to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous businessmen.  She believed that knowledge of business would make them better wives, since they would have an understanding of the pressures their husbands were under. However, Hetty didn’t believe in women’s suffrage, that they should have the vote or even run for political office.   Despite her success in business, she still believed that a woman’s greatest job was to be a wife and a mother.
But all of her money made Hetty paranoid.  She believed that not only her aunt but her father had been poisoned.  She began carrying a gun to protect against the possibility of an attack. Determined to protect her children against fortune hunters, she made her son Ned promise not to get married for twenty years (he eventually married his long-time girlfriend after his mother’s death). When her daughter Sylvie eventually married in her late thirties to Matthew Astor Wilks, Hetty made sure that he signed a pre-nuptial agreement waiving his right to her fortune.  At point, Hetty moved into the brand new Plaza Hotel, but she moved out after six weeks, sick and tired of the letters she received from people begging for money. She also became afraid that she would be kidnapped and made detours to evade the would-be pursuer.

Hetty finally passed away on July 3, 1916 at the age of 81.  She left a fortune of between $100 million to $200 million (or $1.9 – $3.8 billion in 2006 dollars), arguably making her the richest woman in the world at the time.  Apart from a small bequest to a relative, the majority of her wealth was left to her two children, Ned and Sylvie.  Freed from his mother’s eagle eye, Ned spent lavishly but still managed to leave his sister a substantial fortune after his death.  Since neither of Hetty’s children had children of their own, Hetty’s fortune ended up being dispersed after Sylvie’s death to 63 charities and financial institutions.

Further Reading:

Farquhar, Michael:  A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans: Pirates, Skinflints, Patriots, and Other Colorful Characters Stuck in the Footnotes of History. New York:  Perigee Books (2008)
Slack, Charles, Hetty: The Genius And Madness Of America's First Female Tycoon. New York: Ecco (2004).
Wallach, Janet:  The Richest Woman in America – Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. New York:  Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (2012)


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