Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street, the richest woman in America

When Henrietta Howland “Hetty” Green, the Witch of Wall Street, died, the New York Times reassured its readers: “Stock Market Not Affected”.

The City of New York came to Green for loans to keep the city afloat on several occasions, most particularly during the Panic of 1907; she wrote a check for $1.1 million and took her payment in short-term revenue bonds.

Known as “The Witch of Wall Street”, she was an American businesswoman and financier. Probably the richest woman of her day, she died in 1916 worth from $100 million to $200 million ($2.18 billion to $4.36 billion in 2016). She would probably have been named the “Miser of Wall Street” or the “Bitch of Wall Street” if it were not for her general appearance.

The Witch of Wall Street usually wore Quaker dress and, later on, mourning clothes. Outdated long black dresses, which were said to actually be so worn and dirty that they began to turn a shade of green! Her personal hygiene was so poor and her body odor so foul, that her desk had to be maintained at a distance from others. The Guinness Book of World Records awarded her the distinction of being the world’s “greatest miser.”

There are countless stories of her stinginess.  She was known to arrive at the bank where she worked “with a metal pail containing dry oatmeal, to be mixed with water and heated on a radiator for lunch, so as to avoid a restaurant tab.” She was rumored never to turn on the heat or use hot water. She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out, did not wash her hands and rode in an old carriage.

She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One (possibly apocryphal) tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap.  A false but widely transmitted rumor still persists that she denied her son medical treatment for his chronic limp.

When her father passed away, he left Hetty between 6-$7.5 million dollars($100 million dollars today). According to the times, the inheritance should be placed into a trust fund and managed by – get ready for it – a male. She had to fight her own family and the standards of the day to get what was rightfully hers. She eventually won a portion of her inheritance and immediately began to invest in Civil War war bonds.

The Witch of Wall Street herself on making a fortune:

“There is no great secret in fortune-making … All you do is buy cheap and sell dear, act with thrift and shrewdness and be persistent,” she said.

Her advice to women on investing:

“I regard real estate investments as the safest means of using idle money… Let a woman watch and see in which direction a city is going to develop and buy there.”

You have to wonder if her appearance and hygiene was partly due to her frugality and shrewdness and partly to intimidate in a hostile male-dominated business environment. Was she crazy like a fox?

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.