Hetty Green was the richest woman in America during her era. Possessing a keen eye for potential market fluctuations and an innate sense of timing, she was able to turn a modest inheritance into a fortune.
Green was ahead of her time. Her profound intelligence in money matters and commitment to financial independence was not considered such a virtue. Instead, negativity and exaggerated stories followed her around, especially related to her frugality. Undeterred, Green blazed a new trail for women as financial leaders.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we delve into the fascinating story of this financier.
Financial Literacy Came Early
Hetty Green was born in 1834 in New Bedford Massachusetts. Her maiden name was Robinson and her father owned what was then the largest whaling company in New Bedford. Whaling was big business in those days.
Green’s maternal grandfather, Gideon Howland was also quite wealthy. And in fact, he became the conduit through which Hetty Green would develop her financial literacy skills.
Due to poor eyesight, Green was given the job of reading financial papers for her grandfather when she was only six years old. Undoubtedly, this early exposure to the financial world would set Hetty Green up to become a major player in the American stock market scene. She opened her first bank account at the age of eight.
Green’s father left the whaling industry, moved to New York and established himself in the cargo industry. After the death of her mother, she moved to New York where she began to assist her father in building a portfolio of bonds, stocks, and real estate.
Pay Yourself First
The first installment of real wealth came to Green upon the death of her father in 1865, when she inherited five million dollars. She immediately became one of the richest women in America. She used this inheritance to make her initial foray into the world of investments.
Hetty Green used her inheritance to purchase post-Civil War reconstruction bonds issued by the government. Already a risk-taker, Green had no qualms about investing in a government that many others considered to be unstable. Her foresight paid off. By 1874, her initial investment added 1 million dollars to her portfolio.
Ironically, those who expressed no confidence in the government put their money into the railroads. Railroad bonds collapsed in 1872, bringing three banks down with them. With typical foresight and confidence, Green grabbed as many railroad stocks as she could at the depressed prices.
Hetty Green was A Great Example of Grit
There were many disappointments in Hetty’s financial life. The natural heir to several family fortunes, she often found herself either cut out or with her inheritance placed in trusts that she did not control.
Nevertheless, Hetty developed strategic investment insights, learning how to find the opportune time to purchase stocks. She bought stocks when prices were low and sold when the price was high. She was not one to invest and hold. Timing was everything and at this, she was a genius.
Green engaged in substantial research, reading all the literature that was available to her. She availed herself of the expertise of others. Green accomplished all of this with a finishing school education where she learned how to set the table properly and entertain guests.
At her death in 1916, Green’s estate was worth more than $100 million in liquid assets. All of this from her $6 million inheritance. Today her estate would be worth around $2.5 billion.
Later in life, she would bail out New York City three times to help it avoid financial crises. She became well-known as the richest woman in New York.
“Witch of Wall Street”
So how did Hetty Green come to be called the “Witch of Wall Street”? After her husband’s death in 1902, she donned the typical black widow’s clothing and she wore this color for the rest of her life. Obviously, this was before black became fashionable. And she was often criticized for her frugality. However, she was a generous donor to pediatricians, Barnard College and the Nurses Home.
“Queen of Wall Street”
Hetty Green also earned the nickname, “Queen of Wall Street.” In a male-dominated world, Green found herself sitting before the top male financiers of the day as a much-sought-after expert on the topic of investment and high finance. She survived the 1907 panic due to her ingenuity and rock-solid investment research. She was one of the few with a liquid portfolio, which allowed her to pick up stocks at bargain prices.
The Importance of Financial Literacy
Hetty Green revealed her philosophy on life during a series of interviews. She believed that women should become financially literate, whether they would inherit money or not. She believed that all women should know about bank accounts, bonds, interest rates, mortgages, and other financial matters.
Hetty Green set many records, becoming a dominatable force among her male colleagues. By all accounts, she was one of the most astute investors of her time. She was forthright and perhaps intimidating. Her promotion of financial literacy and independence for all women is a legacy that survives to this day.