The Witch of Wall Street: the Legend of Hetty Green

There are people so odd, and so easy to loath, that their character loses its human form and becomes the stuff of legends. One such individual was a 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 only legendary but certifiable. The Witch of Wall Street was named Hetty Green.

Born in 1834 into a wealthy Quaker family, she inherited a few million that she steadfastly chose to invest rather than spend. She happily took over accounting for the family business since she was a teenager. Unlike most young ladies of her generation, she was more interested in working with money than in appearing pretty and attracting a good match. Upon reaching marrying age, she was sent to New York by her father with a full wardrobe of expensive and pretty dresses that she immediately sold to buy government bonds. From that point 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 soon parted ways with her spendthrift husband but came to his aid when he was preparing to meet his maker. Inadvertently his death contributed to her thrifty ways as she, from then on, 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 world’s richest woman, worth as much as $3.8 billion by today’s standards. But instead of a permanent, upscale residence, she chose to inhabit rented apartments in Brooklyn and Hoboken, NJ. She often changed dwellings, moving from one small, unheated apartment to another to hide from the press and tax collectors. She took varied routes to work and put “C. Dewey,” the name of her pet terrier, 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 she had completely worn them 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, since the free services were reserved for the poor and Mrs. Green did not make the cut, she won by simply refusing to pay. Of course, her son’s leg eventually had to be amputated. To her credit, she insisted equally on withholding every penny from medical personnel who could have cured her own medical condition – a hernia which she maintained via inserting a stick to keep it in place.

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

Her stern countenance, infamous miserliness, and never-changing black dress created the legend of the “Witch of Wall Street.” However, this image 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 her looks. Perhaps some of these qualities might have earned her some credit nowadays?

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