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

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

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So how did an “angelic” attractive woman turn into a “witch”?
Henrietta Robinson was raised by her grandfather Gideon Howland and father, the aforementioned, Edward Mott Robinson. This Quaker family owned a rather large whaling fleet and made substantial profits in trade with China. She was surrounded by financiers and businessmen. It was an environment saturated with investments, deals, and accounting and it left a indelible mark on her. Indeed, by the time she was eight years of age, she had already established her own personal bank account.

History shows that her mother, Abby Howland, was sick on a relatively constant basis. When her father’s eyesight began to fail, and because illness made her mother incapacitated, Henrietta by the age of 6 began reading financial papers to her father. Surely there was a soaking up his experience and wisdom. By age 13, she rose within the family’s business and attained official rank as the bookkeeper. At 15 years of age, she gained schooling in Boston.

In 1864, at age 30, her father passed away. He left her between 6-$7.5 million dollars in liquid assets, equivalent to $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. Preferably someone trusty, like a relative. So cemented was this idea, that even Henrietta’s own family fought her to make her abide. Here was some more “fertilizer” to grow a witch. Henrietta had to battle the standards of the day and her own family to get what was rightfully hers. The setting was molding Henrietta and pressuring her into a set direction. She eventually procured a portion of her inheritance and began to immediately invest in Civil War war bonds.

A few years later, in 1867 she wed wealthy Vermonter Edward H. Green on the terms that their finances were kept separate, even in case of divorce. Having full control over her own finances, Henrietta was now positioned within history and ready to earn her name the “Witch of Wall Street.” She would have been named the “Miser of Wall Street” or colloquially (and perhaps chauvinistically) called the “Bitch of Wall Street”, if it were not for her general appearance.


Hetty Green at 18 years old (Whaling Museum)

She commonly wore the Quaker garb that her family was brought up in. Outdated long black dresses, which were said to actually be so worn and unkempt 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. Henrietta was sailing her own boat and simply wasn’t concerned with other people’s opinions of how she carried herself.

One has to wonder if her appearance and hygiene was partly due to her frugality and shrewdness and partly because of its intimidation factor as a woman among men in a male dominated business environment.

Wicked Witch of the East?
Being a “witch” worked within the historical context. She then would pursue a variety of careful, conservative, long-term investments in real estate (New York, St. Louis, & Chicago), railroad industry and government bonds. She would also float loans. She purchased movie theaters, office buildings, hotels, railroads, even cemeteries and churches. She was extremely calculated in her approach to determine what to invest her money on or what to purchase. Every investment was heavily researched. In spite of what many men thought, this woman excelled at math and economics. She was as capable if not more capable then her peers. Stereotype be damned.

Through a number of economic crashes, particularly those of 1857, 1873, 1893, and 1907, she was at her most frugal. This is when she would float her loans and snatch up any buying opportunity that presented itself because of the economic hardship. When it came to nearly all her financial dealings her general policy was to buy low and cash out when they reached a relative high. In 1905 she was quoted in the New York Times as saying “I buy when things are low and nobody wants them. I keep them until they go up and people are anxious to buy.”

Through this manner of dealing, her frugal disposition, and over the course of 50 years, she turned that early inheritance of a few million dollars into over $100 Million dollars. Historians have estimated that to be anywhere from half a billion to $4 billion dollars today. She was financially involved and networked across 48 states at some level making her the richest women on the planet.

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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.

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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

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