Green, Hetty (1834–1916)

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Green, Hetty (1834–1916)

American financier, regarded at the time of her death as the wealthiest woman in the world . Born Henrietta Howland Robinson on November 23, 1834, in New Bedford, Massachusetts; died on July 3, 1916, in New York City; first of two children and only daughter of Edward Mott Robinson (a whaler and foreign trader) and Abby Slocum (Howland) Robinson; attended the Eliza Wing school in Sandwich and a private school in Boston, Massachusetts, run by Reverend Charles Russell Lowell and his wife Anna Cabot (Jackson) Lowell ; married Edward Green (a partner in a foreign trade company), on July 11, 1867 (died 1902); children: Edward Henry (b. 1868); Sylvia Ann Green (b. 1871).

Born into wealth in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1834, Henrietta Green was the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland Robinson . The Howlands were one of New England's great mercantile families, and Edward became a partner in the venerable firm of Isaac Howland, Jr. & Company upon the death

of Abby's father. Henrietta then became the sole heir of the Howland fortune with the death of her brother in infancy. Despite the family's wealth, Hetty was raised according to Quaker values: thrift and simplicity. From her father, a strict, strong-willed man, she acquired a keen business sense and an independence and aloofness which she carried into her adult life. Upon his death in 1865, and that of her maternal aunt Sylvia Ann Howland the same year, she inherited a fortune of about $10 million in outright bequests and trust funds. She would later file a law suit to obtain her aunt's entire estate based on a second deathbed will. The celebrated case would drag on for five years until an eminent handwriting expert testified that the second will was a forgery.

In July 1867, Hetty married Edward Green, a silk merchant who was a millionaire in his own right. The couple spent the first years of their marriage in England, where Edward served as director of three London banks. There, Hetty gave birth to two children: son Edward, called Ned (1868), and daughter Sylvia (1871). It was to be the only period of domesticity in Hetty's life, for upon their return to New York in 1874, she devoted herself to the management of her fortune. Aided by her husband and a legion of financial advisors, she purchased government bonds and railroad stocks, also maintaining a liquid fund for lending purposes. She purchased real estate or mortgages in Chicago, New York, Kansas City, St. Louis, and San Francisco. In 1885, Edward, who apparently was less conservative in his speculations than his wife, went bankrupt. Hetty refused to underwrite his debts, and the two separated, although they remained on good terms until his death in 1902. Contrary to later gossip, Hetty provided well for her children, who attended parochial schools. Sylvia lived with her mother until her marriage in 1909. Ned attended Fordham College and studied law in Chicago. He then went to work for his mother, first managing her real-estate holdings in Chicago, and then going to Texas, where he acted as his mother's agent in the purchase of a portion of the Texas & Midland Railroad. He eventually became president of the line and moved to Texas permanently.

Hetty became quite eccentric during her later years, and it is her strange behavior rather than her financial genius that dominates much of what has been written about her. For whatever reasons, she became distrustful and tight-fisted, dressing in rags and carrying bits of food around in her pockets. She reputedly lived in a series of run-down boardinghouses outside New York City (some say for tax purposes), sought health care in free clinics, and haggled with shopkeepers over small purchases. Newspapers found her good copy, publishing apocryphal anecdotes about her behavior and dubbing her "the Witch of Wall Street." Of many stories that circulated about her miserliness was one about her supposed negligence in treating her son's knee injury. She tried to have it treated without charge at a number of public clinics, reportedly resulting in the eventual loss of his leg.

In 1910, when her financial affairs became overwhelming, Hetty called in her son, who organized the Westminster Company to take over the management of her fortune. When she died in 1916, at 81, she left her son and daughter an estate worth $100 million; over the years, she had increased her inheritance 20 times over. At the end, however, she was bitter about her reputation, which she said was determined by people who didn't really care to know anything about the real Hetty Green. "I am in earnest," she said, "therefore they picture me heartless. I go my own way, take no partners, risk nobody else's fortune, therefore I am Madame Ishmael, set against every man."

Following Hetty's death, her son ran through his inheritance at the rate of 5 million a year, with most of it spent on jewels, rare stamps and coins. When Ned died in 1936, Sylvia was the sole beneficiary. She died in 1951, bequeathing her fortune to schools, hospitals, churches, and the bookkeeper who had served the Green family for 36 years.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Ketchum, Richard M. "Faces from the Past—VI," American Heritage. April 1962.

McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

suggested reading:

Sparkes, Boyden, and Samuel Taylor Moore. The Witch of Wall Street: Hetty Green. NY: Doubleday, 1935.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Green, Hetty (1834–1916)

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