Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street, and an eminent investor

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I recently read Charles Stack’s biography of Henrietta Howland Robinson Green, the American businesswoman and financier nicknamed as the “Witch of Wall Street”, who was one of the richest women in America during the Gilded Age, one of the few women on Wall Street. The book is entitled ‘Hetty Green: The Genius and Madness of America’s first female tycoon’, and both descriptions of her in the title are hugely appropriate.

Born in 1834, Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Green (nee Howland Robinson) was born into a rich whaling family in Massachusetts. The only surviving child of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland, Hetty honed her craft reading the financial papers to her maternal grandfather and her father. At age 13, she became the family bookkeeper and was incredibly knowledgeable in financial affairs.

When Hetty was 26, her mother died, leaving her daughter $8,000 dollars (nearly $200,000 today’s money). But just a few short years later, Hetty would become embroiled in a bitter battle to inherit her mother’s sister’s fortune, which would ensure that all inheritance from her grandfather’s company would go to her.

From her mother’s death, Hetty was determined to ensure every penny of Aunt Sylvia’s fortune went to her. But the invalided Aunt Sylvia, whose relied on the care of servants and health professionals, had other ideas. Sylvia was aware of her niece’s greediness, and temper, and wanted to be sure that all the people who had given their lives to make hers a bit better were remembered. Hetty, knowing this, hastened to her aunt’s home to discourage Aunt Sylvia from bequeathing any money to anyone escape her, Hetty. When Hetty realised Aunt Sylvia’s plans to leave money with her servants, Hetty got so angry she pushed one of them down the stairs. Aunt Sylvia eventually relented and signed a will in Hetty’s presence, bequeathing her entire fortune to her niece.

Hetty was horrified to learn that Sylvia had created a new will after signing the aforementioned with Hetty, leaving most of her $2 million estate (nearly $31 million) to charity. Hetty challenged the will’s validity in court by producing an earlier will that would have bequeathed all of her aunt’s fortune to her. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics. The court ultimately decided that the earlier will produced by Hetty was a forgery, although she was awarded $600,000 after five years of legal battles.

In 1865, Edward Robinson died, leaving Hetty approximately $5 million (equivalent to $77,293,000 in 2015) which included a $4 million trust fund that drew annual earnings, something she wasn’t pleased about.

Two years after her father’s death, at the age of 33, Hetty married 44 year-old Edward Henry Green, a Vermont businessman who had lived in Asia for several years making his fortune. Hetty requested that Edward sign a prenuptial agreement before the wedding, renouncing all his rights to her money. The couple soon fled to London, probably to get away from the hype created by the Robinson vs. Mandell case. They spent seven years living in the Langham Hotel off Regent Street, during which time Hetty bore two children – Edward Howland Robinson “Ned” Green, and Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green (known as Sylvia).

When her children were small, Hetty took to being a mother while her husband pursued investments. However, she soon wanted to make use of her astonishing fortune, and formulated her investment strategy which she stuck to all her life. She made conservative investments, always had substantial cash reserves, and never lost her cool. She began by investing in greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought in majorly. She claimed to has amassed a fortune of $1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone.

The family returned to the US in the mid 1870s, settling in Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont. Hetty spent a few years living her with the reputation of an eccentric. She famously quarrelled with all her in laws, servants and neighbours, and was noted for her stinginess in spite of her growing fortune.

The largest investor in the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, Hetty was horrified when the bank collapsed, in 1885 and hastened to New York. She soon learned that the bank’s greatest debtor was none other than her husband, Edward Green. The firm’s management had surreptitiously used her wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Emphasizing that their finances were separate, Green withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank of New York. Enraged by his dealings, she and Edward would never live together again (although there is evidence that they did reconcile in later years).

Throughout her life, Hetty had a reputation for her stingyness – an ironic fact considering her enormous wealth. While most Wall Street tycoons took a coach in the mornings, Hetty opted to walk. She could have afforded numerous houses in the most affluent parts of New York, a mere stone’s throw to Wall Street, but instead she spent most of her later years in a simple apartment across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey (this was possibly also to avoid having a permanent residence that would bring her to the attention of any tax officials).

One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. Perhaps most interesting, instead of enjoying the new restaurants that were springing up in Downtown New York, Hetty’s lunch while she worked at a Wall Street bank (because she didn’t want to pay rent for her own office) in New York consisted of oatmeal cooked in a big vat on radiator. Her stingyness, combined with her dour dress-habits and austere personality would nickname her ‘The Witch of Wall Street’.

But for all her eccentricity, Hetty was a phenomenally successful businesswoman. While she often dealt in real estate, lending and mines, her main investments were to be in railroads during a golden era of railroad building across America. As soon as Ned became old enough, she stationed in him in Texas, where he learned the tricks of the trade while managing their railroad investments.

The City of New York came to Green for loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907. She would travel thousands of miles alone—in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted—to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Edward and Hetty never lived as husband and wife after the John J. Cisco debacle, but there is evidence that they reconciled in later years. Hetty nursed Edward for a few months until his death in 1902.

Hetty was notoriously disapproving of all of Sylvia’s suitors, believing them to just be after her fortune. When Sylvia was in her late 30s, Hetty finally agreed for her daughter to marry Matthew Astor Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune. With $2 million of his own, it was enough to convince Hetty that he wasn’t just a gold-digger. Nonetheless, she compelled him to sign a prenuptial agreement waiving his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune.

Hetty Green died aged 81 at her son’s New York City home. She earned the title of ‘World’s Greatest Miser’ in the Guinness Book of Records, but left an estimated net work of somewhere between $100 and $200 million, equivalent to around $2-4 billion in today’s money.She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her husband. She had converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith (from her Quakerism) so that she could be interred with him.

You can buy Charles Stack’s biography of Hetty Green here.

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