Because of the business I’m in (regurgitating information for fun and profit), I end up doing a lot of reading. Like, a lot. I’m not at the point where I read 500 pages a day like Warren Buffett has famously suggested, but I’m easily past 100, and probably approaching 200.
And to be honest, a lot of that is wasted time. I read annual reports of companies that I never end up investing in. I read news stories about stupid crap, like when Kim Kardashian wrote about her experience catching Bruce Jenner in a wig circa 2002. Hell, I sometimes even read my own stuff from a few years ago, giggling like a schoolgirl at my jokes about boobs.
But recently I stumbled upon something that is so entertaining, so delightfully over the top that I just can’t help but to share it with the world. Her name is Hetty Green, a woman who was fondly referred to as the “witch of Wall Street”, and she is absolutely delightful. Here’s her story.
(Much of this is from Wikipedia. I’ve spiced it up a little.)
Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 21st, 1834 to Edward Mott Robinson and his 14-year old wife (unconfirmed, but I like to think so) Abby, who were the richest whaling family in town. By the time she was six she was glued to her father’s side, reading financial reports with him and by the time she was 13 she was doing the family’s books. Nobody likes a brown nose Hetty.
Hetty’s mom kicked it in 1860, when Hetty was 24, leaving her $8,000. Shortly after that, her aunt also took a long dirt nap and Hetty got $20,000 from her estate. Finally, her old man died in 1865, leaving her $5 million. Altogether, Hetty’s venture capital was worth the equivalent of $78 million in today’s dollars.
Shortly after her father died, Hetty also had to deal with her aunt also passing away. You’d think Hetty would have been a little bummed out after losing her aunt and her father in the same year, but no. Once she found out her aunt left her $2 million estate to charity, Hetty TOOK THAT BITCH (her estate anyway) to court, producing an earlier will that promised everything to Hetty while having a clause that invalidated all future wills. HOW CONVENIENT.
Hetty didn’t get all of her aunt’s money, but after five years of legal proceedings did walk out of the court room $500,000 richer.
Hetty’s getting lucky
Once she became rich, Hetty decided it was time to get married. In 1867, she paired up with Edward Henry Green, who was a member of a rich Vermont family. Even so, she made his ass sign a pre-nup, because if we’ve established anything at this point, Hetty is a little greedy.
Shortly after the marriage consummated, the couple moved to London because Hetty’s cousins were trying to find her to sue her for forgery about the previously mentioned aunt’s will. Her two children were born in London, Ned in 1868 and Sylvia in 1871.
Hetty’s marriage collapsed in 1885, although she would remain friendly with Edward until his death in 1902. The reason why is absolutely hilarious. Hetty made it clear their finances were separate, which Edward seemed cool with. She started investing heavily in the financial house J. Cisco and Son, all while the bank was lending her money to her husband without her knowledge. The bank just assumed she knew about it, on account that they were married and it was 1885. Hetty withdrew her money from the bank and ol’ Eddie left the house.
Weird and cheap
After Edward left, Hetty really started to turn into Trent Hamm.
She would never turn on the heat or use hot water. She would pick a dress and undergarments out and wear them until they were black and literally falling off. She wouldn’t wash her hands, and found the cheapest, oldest carriage she could for riding around in.
The stories surrounding Hetty are legendary. Rumors at the time said she once drove through half the night looking for a stamp that cost two cents. Another story is that she instructed her laundress to only wash the hems of her dress to save money on soap. Remember, at this point, the woman was worth at least $100 million in 1890s dollars.
But this next story truly takes the cake. When her son Ned broke his leg, Hetty tried to have him admitted to the free hospital. When they realized they were dealing with the richest woman in town, they wanted her to pay. According to lore (which, by the way, her biographer contends isn’t true) she stormed off and took Ned home. When his leg didn’t heal properly it was later amputated. HETTY THAT’S GOOD CHEAP HUSTLE.
Once Ned and Sylvia moved out, Hetty continuously moved between apartments in New York and New Jersey, not wanting to establish residency anywhere in fear that tax authorities would find her. She also suffered from a hernia, but refused to get it operated on because the procedure would cost $150.
Hetty Green died in 1916 from Apoplexy (the bleeding of internal organs) after arguing with a maid about the virtues of skimmed milk. She was 81. People estimated her net worth was between $100 and $200 million, worth a few billion today, making her the richest woman in the world at that time.
Green was famous for investing conservatively. She usually stuck with just bonds, lending heavily to the U.S. Government, City of New York, and the railroads, as well as having a vast collection of mortgages. She did not appear to favor stocks, but also apparently owned whole railroads. So I’m not exactly sure about that.
If you’re interested in reading more about Hetty Green (I know I sure am), two titles look promising. The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age and Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon both look like they’d be pretty entertaining reads.