Separating the chaff
Generally speaking there are two groupings of folks when the name Hetty Green is uttered. One side – the most common one – can be summed up in the quip “Ah….the Witch of Wall Street.” The other is the “I know the name. Just unsure about who she was.” group.
Some will bring up her son Colonel Green, perhaps a mention of a “dish” on an island, and almost always what follows are a few anecdotes; a mixture of truth and urban legend, none of which paints her in a decent light. Here are the most memorable:
- “Isn’t that the rich lady that spent a a night trying to find a 2 cent stamp?”
- “That’s the mean bitch that tried to have her son Ned admitted to a free clinic, to save money, and his leg ended up being amputated!”
- “She refused to use heat or hot water.”
- “That’s the lady that saved money on laundry detergent by only having the soiled portions of her clothing washed.”
- “Hetty Green is the tight-fisted lady that was once carrying $200,000 in bonds on an omnibus, yet when a passenger mentioned that she would have better been served with a personal coach she replied with ‘Perhaps you can afford to ride in a carriage—I cannot.’“
Funny how people are remembered for the mundane things.
I bring these things up first to clear them out of the way, so we can get to some real “meat.” There is a wealth of literature out there discussing these stories. Volumes have been written. Wikipedia, YouTube, and Google cover the same old ground: Hetty Green the miser, the witch, the shrew. If you grew up in the region, and have clicked on this article, you likely have read up on our “antagonist” Henrietta Howland Robinson. You’ve heard the anecdotes and urban legends. To cover what is readily available is to insult the readers and practice redundancy. So, perhaps we can cover those things less oft mentioned. Not unavailable. Not unknown, or secret. Just rarely focused upon.
I won’t take a revisionist angle and try to paint Hetty as a misunderstood, philanthropic angel. Those ill words aren’t untrue ones. They’re pretty accurate for the most part – urban legends excluded. The truth about many historical figures -excepting the Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Stalins of the world – is somewhere in the middle. Rarely are the highlights the genuine article. I’d like to drag her somewhere closer to the middle. Not dead center – because that would be overcompensation and false – but somewhere else beside the extreme right. Let’s focus on a different element of the bouquet.
An unusual upbringing
The woman Henrietta Howland Robinson, was born to Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland right here in New Bedford in 1834. This was a time, where a male-led society deemed women incapable of a business mind-set, or financial matters. There was no shortage of men that simply felt women just couldn’t handle math, especially within the context of economics. Some men were downright hostile to the idea of a woman holding a higher position within a company, let alone having a major presence in the larger regional or national economy.
This historical context is often left out of the recounting of Henrietta’s life. How was a woman to gain rank within a business environment with the societal obstacles of the day? Certainly, politely pussy-footing about wouldn’t be sufficient. Asking nicely would get one nowhere. Having a special knack, high intelligence, or high academic degree wasn’t enough. Liquid capital wouldn’t even suffice. What the time needed was a pit-bull, a Godzilla, a witch. Only this “monster”, stoically and steadfastly, could break these rigid barriers down. Only a Witch of Wall Street could set a precedent in a male dominated society. Armed with finances, a woman with a specific disposition and traits, born in a family with financial leanings created a “perfect storm” of sorts. She may have been the “Witch of Wall Street”, but she was also the boon for feminine societal progress. Here’s our Henrietta dragged slightly closer to center.
She didn’t start out as a “witch.” In fact, there is quite a bit of mention about her rather attractive appearance in her younger years. She had fair skin, “angelic blue eyes”, and was referred to as “…a good-looking woman.”
Further illustrating a personage that isn’t accurately portrayed as a wretched miser, she would earn the moniker “the pride and pain” of Bellows Falls, Vermont the hometown of her eventual husband Edward Henry Green.
By age 20 there were attempts by her father to “present” her to society armed with the finest wardrobe to attract suitors. Showing the frugality and shrewdness that she would be legendary for, she sold those clothes and invested the money in the stock market.