Home / History / Henrietta Howland Green; Another Look at the “Witch of Wall Street”

Henrietta Howland Green; Another Look at the “Witch of Wall Street”

image_pdfimage_print

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.


The appearance that contributed to her infamous moniker (N.B. Whaling Museum)

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.


Green Counting House – Union & Front Streets (Spinner Pub.)

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.

Prev1 of 3
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse

About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

Check Also

Who Remembers….The Soda Fountain and Ice Cream Parlor?

Here is another installment in our Who Remembers? series. You can browse previous articles by …

13 comments

  1. Great article. You certainly nailed it on Hetty and her history. One small thing…the family picture is actually a wedding portrait. The man standing between Hetty and her daughter Sylvia is her new husband, Matthew Astor Wilks. Hetty looked perfectly hideous in that ‘mother of the bride’ outfit, but noticde that, unlike her everyday wardrobe, this one was clean…

    • Thanks Steve!

      Thanks for the correction. I’ve made the change in the caption.

      I agree with your comment about the atrocious dress. “Perfectly hideous” is too kind. 😉

      Best,
      -Joe

      • I have enjoyed this article and I think there should be more article put out like this. So the everyone can enjoy them. This is awesome and I would enjoy reading them. Thank you so much.

  2. What a great article. Most people like you’ve stated don’t know the history. Very interesting. There is one thing I would like to add or have you look into. There is a consignment shop on the corner of Cambell and Pleasant st. New Bedford. It is called HETTY’S. The ladies who run it said it was named after Hetty Green whom resided in the same building and or had an office upstairs. The building is on a corner and the shop is located in the basement. I used to gather many bags of clothing from that store as they would donate them to the Journey to Wholeness soup kitchen program. One time I was shown a staircase in that building that is a rare wooden free floating stairway. Which is hard to build. I believe pictures should be taken of it and posted. Carpenters and others would really appreciate that. I haven’t been in that building in over ten years. I was told that it took special permission at the time to even be there. I was given a special sneek peek at the time. If you ever get any pictures of this please post and let me know. It is an awesome site I will never forget. I really appreciate the work it took. Thanks Joe. David S.

    • Thanks for reading and the compliment Dave! It is much appreciated.

      Hetty’s Thrift Shoppe which is located in the basement of Child & Family Services was built by Charles Russel for Henrietta’s father, Edward Mott Robinson. It was Henrietta’s childhood home until it was converted into St. Joseph’s Hospital. Sadly, I could find no images of the free floating stairway, but I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for them!

      Best,
      -Joe

    • Just took a picture of the floating stairway, if you give an email address I can send it to you.

  3. Probably not relevant to anything, but I’ve always wondered why The Decemberists put a line about Hetty into this song.
    Line:
    “Hetty Green, queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab, know what I mean?”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJpfK7l404I

  4. Enjoyed your article! Heard lots of stories about Hetty Green and her strange ways. Will have to find the book and see if any are true or relative to her life.

    Thanks!

  5. I don’t know if it’s still in print, but might be available at the library, but I remember reading “The Day They Shook The Plum Tree” story about Hetty Green. I was a teenager in the 70’s when I read it, a book I found at my grandmothers house, but I don’t know when it was published. Interesting read though!

  6. Loved your article! I have read both books “Witch of Wall Street” and “The Day They Shook the Plum Tree” which you can take out at the local library. Born and still living in New Bedford I would of loved to have met Hetty! She certainly knew what she was doing, capable of, and set an example for women.

  7. Peter G Dufresne

    Joe;

    Are you familiar with the book “The Day They Shook the Plum Tree? about Hetty Green”. Great read , can’t seem to find a copy in circulation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »