If the press now delight in deriding the devils of Wall Street—those bankers or hedge-fund managers whom the public deems responsible for the ongoing financial crisis—they derived equal pleasure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from their pillorying of that peculiar district’s “witch” for her parsimony. The Manhattan papers dubbed Henrietta “Hetty” Howland Robinson Green the “Witch of Wall Street” as much for her mode of attire (she habitually wore frumpy black dresses with heavy black veils, and she carried a large black reticule in which, rumor claimed, she kept a revolver) as for her uncanny acumen as an investor in bonds, real estate, and railroad stocks: Over the course of her long life, she grew the $5.7 million she inherited from her father into one of the country’s greatest fortunes, estimated on her death in 1916 to have been between $100 million and $200 million. Her strange career reminds us that, in the populist mind, the only sin greater than earning large sums of money is failing to spend it.
Green’s achievement as a businesswoman would have spooked the men who dominated the commercial exchanges during America’s Gilded Age. From the desk loaned to her at New York’s Chemical National Bank, where the clerks took care to protect her privacy, Green received entreaties from around the country—many from cities seeking loans for improvement projects. She funded, for example, the water-and-sewer system of Tucson, Ariz., and several times she loaned large sums to a cash-strapped New York City. When J.P. Morgan secretly gathered together a group of the nation’s leading industrialists to find the means to shore up New York’s two largest trusts in the wake of the stock-market panic of 1907, a lone woman clad in a black veil was seen to enter the negotiations in the early morning hours.
The public, however, was far less interested in Green’s financial wizardry than in her miserliness. The papers paid good money for “Hetty” stories, and reporters trawled the city for the reclusive figure—who, with her children, Ned and Sylvia, in tow, was known to move from one boarding house to another, from Brooklyn to Hoboken, not only to maintain anonymity but to avoid property-tax collectors. She could haggle over the price of a thirty-cent lunch with as much fierce determination as she could over a block of office buildings. She pulled nails from old boards and saved them for reuse, and she had a fondness for lawsuits: One of her most tenacious, lasting five years, involved the will of an aunt who left her estate to charity rather than to Green. But her most infamous act of meanness was her refusal to fund a knee operation for her son, who had a debilitating limp stemming from a childhood sledding accident. After home remedies such as tobacco-leaf poultices proved ineffectual, Green began to dress the boy in pauper’s clothes and present him for treatment at free clinics. But the ploys came too late: In 1888 the leg was surgically removed and replaced with a prosthesis.
About the only luxury Green allowed herself was revenge, which she exacted on a number of men who regarded the drawing room as the proper purview of women. Of these, she pursued none more doggedly than railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. When Huntington’s manipulation of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad bonds in which John J. Cisco & Son was heavily invested caused the firm to fail, Green was forced to cover her estranged husband Edward’s $702,000 debt to Cisco. Determined to get even, she bought up as many of that railroad’s outstanding bonds as she could, to vex Huntington’s efforts to convince bondholders to accept a lower rate of return. Later she outbid Huntington on the Waco and Northwestern Railroad, which he needed to further his expansion plans—a move that resulted in a protracted lawsuit between the two over land rights. When Huntington appeared in Green’s office at Chemical Bank and threatened her son, by that time a young man who had been representing her interests in Texas, she coolly pointed to a revolver on her desk. “Up to now, Huntington, you have dealt with Hetty Green, the businesswoman,” she later claimed to have told him. “Now you are fighting Hetty Green, the mother. Harm one hair on Ned’s head and I’ll put a bullet through your heart!” Huntington, it is said, left so quickly that he forgot his silk hat, which a servant retrieved the following day.
Correction: An article in the June 2009 issue (“Jewelry Collections,” page 172) listed an incorrect phone number for Cartier. The correct number for the company is 800.227.8437.