Henrietta (Hetty) Howland Robinson Green (1834-1916) – “The Witch of Wall Street”

Portrait of Hetty Green, age eighteen, 1852.
ODHS #2000.100.80.260

Hetty Green, by her nature, encouraged superlatives. Variously described over the years by writers, journalists and historians as: “The Richest Woman in America,” “America’s First Female Tycoon,” “The World’s Greatest Miser,” “The Scrooge of Scrooges,” “The Queen of Skinflints,” “one of the most amazing characters, man or woman that this country has ever produced,” and “one of the greatest individual practitioners of the art of finance capitalism ever to have lived.” Hetty became an American legend. 

Born in New Bedford, the daughter of a wealthy and successful Quaker New Bedford whaling agent and oil manufacturer, Edward Mott Robinson (1800-1865) and his wife, Abby Howland, the daughter of Isaac Howland Jr., another great whaling merchant, Hetty inherited a fortune at the age of 30. Through her whole upbringing, from a very young age, she assisted her father in his financial dealings even becoming his bookkeeper at the age of fifteen. As an adult she devoted her life to the acquisition of money, going so far as to challenge the will of her aunt, Sylvia Ann Howland in the famous court case Mandell vs. Howland for the $2 million residue of the estate of whaling agent Isaac Howland, Jr.

While shades of illegality, forgery in particular, shadowed some of her business dealings, she nonetheless continued her investments in Federal currency playing the Wall Street stocks market to great effect amassing a gigantic fortune in a short period of time. She bought stocks when they were very cheap and waited for them to rise before selling them to purchase railroads, banks and real estate. At the end of her life, the $7.5 million that she had originally inherited from her father had ballooned to between $100 and $200 million making her an icon of the “the Gilded Age” of American wealth at the expense of labor. She was an eccentric and notoriously stingy, said seldom to even change her clothes and late in life lived in a rented apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. The habit of frugality and independence stood her well as her husband, a China goods trader from Vermont named Edward Green was a spendthrift and undisciplined in his financial management. Hetty had taken the unusual precaution of a pre-nuptial agreement when they married in 1867. She had two children, Sylvia Ann Howland Robinson Green and Edward Howland Robinson Green, locally know in New Bedford as “Colonel Green.” The Green Estate at Round Hill in South Dartmouth, MA became in the 1930s a museum dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the last square-rigged American whaling vessel, the Charles W. Morgan.