Most of us are familiar with the Christmas story of Scrooge.
Enter a real female Scrooge, the Queen of Mean, who never seems to have cooked a Christmas goose.
Dour and unlikeable, she was once named in the Guinness Book of Records as the person with the dubious distinction “the world’s worst miser”.
I wonder what Dickens, across the Atlantic, would have made of her? Certainly she could have inspired his famous character had he known of her…
Although no relation to the Clintons she was known as the Witch of Wall Street.
She was more prosaically known as the richest woman in America.
Henrietta Howland Robinson was born on 21 November 1834 in New Bedford, Massachusetts to a Quaker family who made their fortune in the dubious and smelly trade of whaling.
Instead of nursery rhymes and ABC readers, by the time she was 6 young Hetty was reading financial papers to her grandfather, whose eyesight had deteriorated too badly to read himself. Two years later she opened her own bank account.
She was handling massive amounts of money at an early age and became the family bookkeeper at 13 years of age. What she lacked in formal education she more than made up in financial apprenticeship!
Her father gave her the following advice which is strangely at odds with the Quaker concept of friendship and brotherly love:
“Never give anyone anything, not even a kindness.”
She would take that uncharitable advice very literally all her life.
Her father wanted his attractive young daughter to find a worthy suitor and tie the knot. So he bought her a full wardrobe of clothes worth $1200 ($30 600 today) which she promptly sold and invested the proceeds.
When her mother died in 1860 twenty-six year old Hetty inherited $8000 (about $211 000 today) – the first and by far the smallest fortune she would inherit.
Then a rich aunt died leaving her $20 000 (worth about $527 000 today). Hetty wasn’t satisfied with this as her aunt left the bulk of her money to charity as well as to her doctor and several other relatives. Not feeling anyone but herself was entitled to any money, the ruthless young woman forged a will of her own, which was eventually thrown out of court. It took five years of legal wrangling but the court ruled that she had forged an addition to her aunt’s earlier will leaving all her money to Hetty, stating that any future wills would be invalid.
Despite this she somehow managed to swindle $600 000 from her aunt’s estate, earning the wrath of her cousins.
Five years later her father died, leaving her $5 000 000 (equivalent to about $77 293 000 today) and catapulting her into the big league.
Her investments seemed to have the Midas touch about them and she made many a male businessman green with envy. She had a wide range of investments: US Civil War bonds, railroads and mines, and moneylending. She regularly travelled long distances unescorted to claim any money owing to her, even just a few hundred dollars.
The City of New York approached her for loans on several occasions during difficult times.
At the age of 33 she condescended to marry Edward Henry Green but made sure he wasn’t marrying her for her money. He was fourteen years her senior. He had to sign a form renouncing all rights to it! The new couple settled in Manhattan.
Soon later the Greens moved to London to avoid her vengeful cousins, who sought to indict her for forgery based on the will saga. Her son Ned and daughter Sylvia were born while the Greens were east of the Atlantic.
By 1875 the statute of limitations was up and they returned to the States where they settled in Bellows Falls, Vermont.
Ned broke his leg and Hetty tried to get treatment for him at a free clinic. But there were complications and being family she took him to several different doctors for treatment. Despite all efforts over several years his leg eventually had to be amputated.
Hetty paid for Ned to attend law school and then put him in charge of handling her properties first in Chicago and then Texas. Years later he returned to New York.
Unlike Hetty, whose sound investments pays dividends in leaps and bounds, her husband had no such luck and his seemed to dwindle instead of grow.
There was big trouble in the Green household in 1885 when the John Cisco financial house collapsed in ruins. Hetty was the biggest investor and it was found that Edward was the greatest debtor, getting loans on the strength of Hetty’s wealth. So after the inevitable unpleasant scene Edward moved out and returned to Bellows Falls and Hetty moved to New York and invested her securities with Chemical Bank.
She eventually agreed to cover Edward’s debts in order to prevent a legal standoff.
Hetty and Edward stayed married however and when he fell seriously ill Hetty took to nursing him until his death in 1902.
Hetty was just as overbearing when Sylvia wanted to get married. She had numerous suitors but Hetty thought they all had ulterior motives and were after the Green money. Eventually Sylvia married Matthew Astor Wilks in 1909 at the age of 38 after a drawn-out courtship of two years. He had $2 million of his own yet still had to sign an agreement waiving his right to Sylvia’s money, just like her own henpecked husband Edward Green years earlier.
Hetty conducted much of her business affairs at the offices of the Seaboard National Bank in New York, surrounded by trunks full of her papers and documents, as she had no intention of renting offices of her own. She moved from cheap lodging to cheap lodging to save on rent and evade Uncle Sam’s tax collectors.
She lived in Hoboken where the nameplate on her door bore the name of her beloved dog, C. Dewey, in order to throw tax collectors off the scent.
What she fed her dog is a mystery but she herself chose to live on cheap pies as well oatmeal heated over an office stove at the bank where she hung out. She wore the same black dress and undergarments day in and day out until they wore out. Since she only wore black dresses with a veil to cover her face so she wasn’t easily recognized, it was said she resembled a witch. But everyone knew her by her crow-like garb and hooded face.
Maids were instructed to wash only the hems of her dresses to save on laundry costs.
She considered the housekeeper too extravagant so did the grocery shopping herself. She even bought broken cookies since they were cheaper than whole ones!
Since comfort was secondary to her despite her bottomless assets she often wore newspapers under her clothes in winter to save on extra underwear.
She reportedly never used hot water or heating. Unlike most folk today her motive wasn’t environmental but to save a few cents at all costs.
Once she missed a two cent stamp. Thinking it may be in her carriage she woke up her groom and asked him to search it from top to bottom. No stamp was found so she carried on looking all over the lawn around the carriage herself. Then the scatterbrained miser found it in the pocket where she’d put it, and woke the groom again to tell him so.
As a snub to her husband’s family she served the refreshments for her mother-in-law’s funeral in chipped glasses. He angrily smashed his glass and marched from the room in a huff.
On one occasion she entered a fine shop with filthy blackened hands and began touching the merchandise. She told the shopkeeper she had been pulling nails from a piece of burnt wood to reuse. That’s serious recycling!
Not all the tales about her stinginess are true but where there’s smoke there’s fire!
What did she have to say for herself?
“My life is written for me down in Wall Street by people who, I assume, do not care to know one iota of the real Hetty Green. I am in earnest; therefore they picture me as heartless. I go my own way. I take no partner, risk nobody else’s fortune, therefore I am Madame Ishmael, set against every man.”
She wasn’t universally cheap. She spent money on her two children, possibly motivated by family love or at least by the thought that she may need them in her old age. And at least she had a dog, which indicates a tender streak, however deeply hidden.
Despite having only one leg Ned had an insatiable appetite for girls and his mom had no problem with this, although he was only able to marry his live-in prostitute Mabel Harlow after Hetty’s death, in case she was after his money.
Over the years Mabel secured Ned with a string of young female “private secretaries” whom he supplied with trust funds and paid for their education inn return for the entertainment they provided.
She suffered a bad hernia in later life but refused to part with the $150 it would have cost to operate.
She changed her faith to Episcopalian so she could be buried next to her husband in Bellows Falls after her death.
When she was 77 she contracted pneumonia from one of the cheap establishments she liked to live in. She then moved in with Ned and continued to pay him what she’d been paying for the downmarket lodging.
She suffered a stroke in April 1916 which left her partially paralyzed.
The Grim Reaper called for her on 3 July 1916 following an argument with a maid about the virtues of skimmed milk. She was 81. The cause of death was apoplexy: it seems she allowed herself to get pretty worked up over this petty issue.
Her estate was estimated at worth between $100 million and $200 million, which was divided between Ned and Sylvia.
After Ned’s death sister Sylvia donated his estate to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which they put to good use..
Ned and Sylvia turned out just the opposite to their miserly mum. Sylvia left her entire vast fortune to assorted charities, churches and other deserving organizations.
Hetty could have enjoyed her life so much more had she not been so stingy and obsessive -compulsive about making money just for the sake of it.