The Witch of Wall Street

The following is an article taken from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History.

She walked up and down Wall Street in rags -but in her day she was the richest woman in America. Meet Hetty Green, financial genius and obsessive skinflint.

The employees at Manhattan's Chemical and National Bank were too intimidated to laugh at the strange woman who visited their vaults on a daily basis, even though she had a laundry list of eccentricities as long as your arm. She wore clothes so worn out they were falling apart on her body, she never washed her underwear because it was "too expensive," and she spent almost every day locked in the bank's vaults eating raw onions and counting her riches. Had Hetty Green been a different kind of woman, those who saw her marching down Wall Street might have snickered. But Hetty's reputation  was every bit as formidable as her scowling, forbidding face.


Stinginess came naturally to Hetty's family. Born in 1835 to a family of wealthy blue bloods, including a father who wanted his daughter to manage her fortune well, Hetty could read the daily financial papers to her dad at age six and opened her own savings account at age eight. By 21, she was so miserly she didn't even want to light the birthday candles on her own cake because it would waste them. Eventually, the party guests convinced her to light them, but she blew them out immediately so she could return them to the grocery store for a refund.


This was the same birthday at which Hetty came into a multimillion-dollar trust. Almost a decade later, her father died and left her his vast estate. Hetty cleverly invested her money, increasing its value enormously. But she still wore secondhand clothes, took her meals in workingmen's dives, saw doctors at free charity clinics, and lived in cheap boardinghouses to avoid paying property taxes.


She was suspicious of the many suitors who courted her, believing they were all after her money. But at age 33, she agreed to marry businessman Edward Henry Green -after he agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement renouncing all rights to her money. Two children and a lot of angst later, Edward Green divorced her. When he died in 1902, Hetty Green moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, with her children and commuted daily to her bank in New York City.


Vowing to make her son Ned the richest man in the world, Hetty saved every cent she could. She gave up washing her clothes, never changed or washed her sheets, tried to evade paying bills, and went to bed at sundown to avoid burning candles. She never turned on the heat or used hot water.

But she refused to spend any money on her kids, either. When Ned broke his leg, she wouldn't take him to a doctor, saying it was too pricey. His gangrenous leg later had to be amputated. She forced her daughter Sylvia to wear old clothes, too, and she wouldn't let her date the "fortune hunters" Hetty believed were everywhere. When she finally let Sylvia marry, she forced the new husband to give up all rights to his wife's fortune.


Through it all, Hetty made one shrewd financial decision after another. She made terrific investments, owned thousands of plots of land, and had enough cash to make loans to major businesses -even New York City itself- extracting heavy interest on each loan.

But Hetty's penny-pinching ways continued. She spent hours each day counting her money. Her habit of walking down to her bank each day in a ragged, black dress with a scowl on her face earned her the nickname "the Witch of Wall Street."


Eventually, Hetty's health failed. She suffered from a painful hernia but refused to have an operation because it cost $150 (123 euros). She became even more paranoid and suspicious, believing kidnappers and murderers were after her and her fortune.

Eventually, her bad temper was the end of her. She reportedly died of apoplexy, in 1916, after an argument with a servant (not one of her own, of course).


Hetty Green left $100 million to her children, who, ironically, became some of the most generous philanthropists of their time, donating money to numerous museums, libraries, and civic institutions. Hetty Green would have been horrified to hear it.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

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This woman's story is really fascinating, but unfortunately, the bathroom reader is a little off on a lot of the details. She didn't die arguing with a servant, her son's leg was amputated years later, not due to gangrene or her stinginess.

Charles Slack wrote a great biography of her that sets the record straight on a lot of the more outrageous claims about her.
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Unsurprisingly, her children ended up being pretty weird. In addition to giving to charities, her son spent vast amounts of money on estates and.. ahem.. female companionship.
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Obviously a woman with a mental health illness that went unchecked throughout her life subjecting her children to the vagaries of her illness. It's not that mental health is something we made up now, but that it wasn't properly identified before.

Hygiene is one of the clearest signs of mental health, regardless of her "logic" behind it.
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