The Witch of Wall Street – the legend of Hetty Green

There are people so odd, so easy to loath, that their character loses its human form and becomes the stuff of legends. One such person was the woman who went down in history as the “Witch of Wall Street.”  She was awarded the title of the world’s greatest miser by the Guinness Book of World Records, making her stinginess not just legendary but certifiable. She was known as the Witch of Wall Street and her name was Hetty Green.

Born in 1834 into a wealthy Quaker family, she inherited a few million which she steadfastly intended to invest rather than spend. Since she was a young teenager she happily took over accounting for the family business. Unlike most young ladies of her generation, she was more interested in working with money than in appearing pretty and attracting a good match. When she reached marrying age, her father sent her to New York with a full wardrobe of expensive and pretty dresses which she immediately sold in order to buy government bonds. From then on she followed a foolproof investment strategy – buy low and sell high.

Hetty didn’t have anything against marriage and eventually married a fine gentleman by the name of Mr. Green, but made sure that the prenuptial agreement would protect her fortune. The couple had two children together but their marital bliss was compromised by Mr. Green’s liberal spending habits. Hetty Green parted ways with her spendthrift husband but, despite living separately, came to his aid when he was preparing to meet his maker. Inadvertently his death contributed to her thrifty ways as she took to wearing exclusively black — a color not only appropriate for a widow but also one that didn’t require much washing or upkeep. This fashion choice also contributed to her public image as a witch.

She developed an investing strategy that made her the richest woman in the world, worth as much as $3.8 billion by today’s standards. Instead of a permanent, upscale residence, she chose to live in rented apartments in Brooklyn and Hoboken, NJ. She changed dwellings often, moving from one small, unheated apartment to another in order to hide from the press and tax collectors. She took varied routes to work and put the name of her pet terrier C. Dewey on the bell of her Hoboken apartment to quell her fear of assassination. She did not turn on the heat and or use hot water. She changed undergarments only after they had been completely worn out. She dined on pies that cost fifteen cents and had graham crackers or dry oatmeal for lunch. She accused servants of stealing and the local shopkeepers of cheating.

Hetty Green cartoon
Cartoon showing Hetty Green with the most powerful financiers in the U.S.

Hetty Green also suspected that doctors were out to get her. When her son got into an accident, she took him to a free clinic. In a standoff with the doctors who demanded payment, as the free services were reserved for the poor and Mrs. Green did not make the cut, she won by refusing to pay. Of course, her son’s leg eventually had to be amputated. To her credit, she equally insisted on not giving a penny to medical personnel despite her own medical condition – a hernia which she maintained via inserting a stick to keep it in place.

Even though she cuts a figure so striking that it practically becomes a cartoon, she was a woman way ahead of her time. Hetty Green died in 1916 as the richest woman in the world in an age before women even had a right to vote. She was an innovator in the field of value investing at a time when women were rarely trusted with money. Being a Quaker, she didn’t believe in flaunting her wealth or parading philanthropy. While robber barons displayed their charities, she quietly gave to charitable causes, supported families in need, and loaned money below market rate when needed.

Her stern image, legendary miserliness, and never-changing black dress created the legend of the “Witch of Wall Street.” The legend, however, overlooked her abilities to make decisions for herself, her defiant disregard for the pressures of public opinion, and her capacity to use her brains instead of looks. Perhaps nowadays some of these qualities might have earned her some credit?

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