By William Beavers
All big cities produce their share of eccentrics and weirdos, and New York has harbored some real doozies in its day. This is the first in a series of articles about some of these strange but fascinating New York characters.
Hetty Green, the Richest Woman in the World
Today’s New York is full of highly successful women entrepreneurs and business women, but how many can compare with Henrietta “Hetty” Green (1834-1916), once nicknamed “the witch of Wall Street,” for shrewdness and sheer audacity?
Hetty’s father left her $6 million in 1865. By the time of her own death she had increased that legacy to $100-$200 million ($2.2 to $4.3 billion today), making her the richest woman in the world.
Her financial training started early. Her family, the Robinson’s of New Bedford, Massachusetts, were prosperous Quaker owners of a large whaling fleet. Hetty opened her first bank account when she was eight and read the financial papers to her near-blind grandfather, discussing securities with him in detail. When she was 13 she became the family bookkeeper. Her father, a ruthless businessman, took Hetty with him when he strolled the New Bedford docks making deals.
After her parents died, Hetty became an astute investor in her own right. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the market and an eidetic memory for her own finances. She bought bonds and real estate at severe discounts in financial panics. She not only snapped up investments in fire sales, but she provided high-interest loans to distraught bankers. When markets recovered, Hetty would call in the loans, plus interest, and sell off the investments as the markets heated up again. In this fashion, she gained a reputation as a hard-nosed businesswoman.
Her only miscalculation came when she married Ned Green, member of a wealthy Vermont family. Fortunately, she was shrewd enough to get him to agree before the wedding that their finances should be kept separate. Ned was a stock speculator, and her financial discipline soon clashed with his freer ways when she had to repeatedly rescue him from ruin. For Hetty, the last straw came when her bank attempted to seize her assets to cover her husband’s debts. She unofficially separated from her husband, taking the couple’s two children with her.
Mother-of-the-year Hetty certainly was not. It was reported that when her son, Ned, broke his leg, she tried unsuccessfully to have him admitted to a free clinic for the poor. She then took him to a private doctor, but later the leg turned gangrenous and had to amputated. Afterwards, she kept Ned around as an unpaid scrivener whose job involved writing or making handwritten copies of documents.
Hetty’s miserliness was legendary. She was said never to build a fire or heat water because of the cost. One tale claims she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirty parts of her dresses (the hems) to save on soap. She was a portly woman who wore one black dress continuously until it was worn out, then donned a new one. It’s doubtful she bathed much. Much mention is made of her filthy hands.
Hetty rode around the city in a decrepit carriage, a ruse to keep the envy of others at bay. She did not pay for office space, instead running her business out of a small back office at Chemical Bank, where she had transferred her accounts after the unpleasantness with her husband at her former bank.
For all her bizarre personal habits, she had a reputation for astute business decisions. In 1907 she made perhaps her most audacious move. Sensing an overvalued market, she called in her loans and sold off many of her securities. When the panic broke, she was among the very few who were fully liquid, and in the aftermath she went bargain hunting. She picked up pre-bankruptcy shares for a song, profiting much as vulture funds do today. Even the City of New York came to Hetty for loans to keep it afloat on several occasions. In 1907 she wrote a check for over $1 million and took her payments from the municipality in short-term revenue bonds.
When in old age Hetty developed a hernia, she refused to have an operation because it would cost $150. She suffered a series of debilitating strokes, and had to rely on a wheel-chair. She also became afraid she would be kidnapped and made needless detours around the city to evade imagined pursuers. But she continued investing right up until her death. When she died her estate was worth an estimated $100-200 million. Years later, after the demise of her children, more than half the estate went for taxes while the rest was bequeathed to charity.
William Beavers is a New York writer and author of the “New York City Culture Catalog” (Abrams/Alliance for the Arts). Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org