Witch of Wall Street or Modern Woman? Hetty Green

In 1834, in the prosperous town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Edward Robinson waited impatiently for the birth of his second child. Finally, on November 22nd the birth came. But Edward had nothing to celebrate. He was so disappointed that he refused to see his wife or his new baby. Her sin? She was a girl. Henry needed an heir and to him that meant a son.

Hetty Green’s first introduction to the world was seen as a tragedy instead of a joy and she soon came to realize what a disappointment she was. Her mother was not well, and was unable to have another child, so her father’s wish for a son was never fulfilled. When Hetty was two years old, she was shipped off to her grandfather to live with his family. Her parents did not want to see the constant reminder of their failure. Somehow, Hetty was able to build a satisfying life for herself. She was bright and soon learned that she could be useful to her grandfather by reading the market reports to him. She realized that her value to her family lay in how much she could help build up the family fortune.

Hetty Green

After Hetty’s grandfather died, Hetty returned to live with her family. When her mother died, her aunt took over as the person responsible for guiding Hetty into a normal social life. But Hetty was not like other young women of her time. Instead of being fascinated by clothes,  jewelry and parties, Hetty preferred to learn more about banks and bonds. Instead of spending hours being fitted for new clothes and attending parties, Hetty preferred to wear cheap, unfashionable clothes and to talk with men about whaling ships and railroads.

In despair of marrying Hetty off, her aunt sent her to New York to live with friends for a year, but despite all their efforts, Hetty resisted joining society. She left New York early and returned to New Bedford without having spent all of the money given to her for the year. Instead, she had bought bonds to increase the money. Her father was pleased to see what a good businessperson she was, but she still had no husband.

During the Civil War, New Bedford’s industry had changed. The discovery of oil and the development of commercial oil wells had ruined the market for whale oil. Hetty’s father moved his business to New York and Hetty spent her time partly in that city and partly with her aunt in New Bedford. In New York she met a prosperous young businessman, Edward Green, of Vermont. He and Hetty married in 1867, with the blessing of her father, but Hetty and her family insisted that the family fortune should be left to her alone when the older generation died.

Hetty was a brilliant businesswoman and continued investing money and reaping profits. Everyone agreed that she was a clever investor, but the men in her life, like most men at the time, clung to the belief that women should not control money. When her father and her aunt died in quick succession, they both left their money to Hetty, but they left it in trust funds, so that she was not able to make decisions about its use. This lack of trust in her abilities made Hetty furious and she sued to get control of her trust funds. There is still disagreement about whether or not Hetty forged her aunt’s signature on a document changing her will, but Hetty lost the suit and was not allowed to manage the money left to her.

During the prosperous decades of the post-Civil War years, High Society flourished in New York. Socialites like Mrs. Astor ruled society, sponsoring receptions, teas, and dances which dominated high society. Many of the men who were making the money to support this society did not participate in it. They let their wives and children dominate the social events while they stayed at home, moved to country estates, or in other ways found the time to carry out the business that enabled their families to live this lavish lifestyle. On this subject, Hetty joined the men.

Instead of spending her time socializing and managing the large households where parties were held, Hetty joined the men in escaping to quiet solitude and concentrated on business. Instead of buying a mansion, she lived in boarding houses where other people worried about preparing meals and keeping house. For this, journalists punished Hetty severely. She was a woman so she should have wanted to be part of high society. Reporters enjoyed tracking her down to the quiet boarding houses where she lived and publishing the addresses. Some reporters called her “The Witch of Wall Street” and she received constant solicitations from people who wanted money or jobs. But Hetty went her own way.

Hetty’s private life mystified the media, but she seems to have been satisfied with it. During her business career, while Hetty made millions of dollars, she also managed to live a fairly normal family life. She and her husband had two children. While they shared a fairly close personal life, they did not share their business affairs. Hettie was by far the better judge of how to make money, while her husband often made bad investments and lost much of his. Eventually they lived separate lives, but they never divorced and Hetty remained very close to her children. As she grew older, her son became her closest business confidante and handled many of her business affairs. When she died, she was buried beside her husband in his family plot in Vermont.

Hetty Green was the subject of much curiosity and wonder throughout her life. Perhaps the greatest mystery, one which her contemporaries never solved, was the question of how she could have handled her business career just as if she were a man. Reporters and gossips alike found it almost unbelievable that she did not crave fashionable clothes or jewelry and did not attempt to spend her time making calls upon the leading society women of her time. 

Some of these questions are addressed in a recent biography by Janet Wallach, The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age. (2012 Random House). Wallach gives a balanced account of Hettie’s life, one which makes her seem far more human than she seemed in many of the gossipy stories about her that appeared during her lifetime. Hetty Green may have been an eccentric in her time, but today she seems far more like a 21st century woman than like her contemporaries during the Gilded Age.