During the Gilded Age, when men dominated the financial sector and women were relegated to domesticity, one woman regularly bailed New York City out from financial ruin. Henrietta Robinson, who later became known as Hetty Green, was once the richest woman in the world in the 1800s — but she was far from a reckless spender. In fact, her famous frugality actually won her the title of the “greatest miser” by the Guinness Book of World Records. Quirky as she was wealthy, her all-black outfit and her presence in the NYC financial sector earned her the nickname, ‘The Witch of Wall Street.’ What’s more, of all the places Hetty could have lived in the world, she chose to make Hoboken home. Read on to learn all about Hetty Green, the world’s richest woman and former Hoboken resident.
A 6-Year-Old Stock Trader
Henrietta (“Hetty”) Robinson was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1834 to a wealthy whaling family. Devoutly religious, her Quaker family championed prudence, austerity, and hard work. By the age of 6, Hetty was reading financial papers to her father — who encouraged her financial literacy. She soon learned to read ledgers, trade commodities, and by 13, she became the family bookkeeper.
When her father passed away and left her a small fortune (estimated in the $5 – $7 million range), it was Hetty’s crafty investment skills, frugality, and determination that turned her into the richest woman in the world.
“I buy when things are low and nobody wants them. I keep them until they go up and people are crazy to get them. That is, I believe, the secret of all successful business.”
Hetty turned an annual profit of $1.25 million and admitted that the most she ever earned in a single day was $200,000. She explained: “I believe in getting in at the bottom and out on top… When I see a good thing going cheap because nobody wants it, I buy a lot of it and tuck it away.” This strategy would eventually become known to economists as “contrarian investing,” but at the time, it was revolutionary.
Partly from stinginess, but also due to her Quaker upbringing, Hetty wore one, old, black dress and undergarments which she changed only after they’d been entirely worn out. The cheerless, black ensemble earned her the nickname, “The Witch of Wall Street.” Yet, by 1905, she was New York’s largest lender, and during the Panic of 1907, she wrote New York City a check for $1.1 million.
Despite her wealth, she was known for going to extreme lengths to preserve her fortune. When her son, Ned, suffered a leg injury, Hetty wasted so much in finding a free clinic that Ned’s case became incurable and his leg required amputation. In her old age, Hetty developed a hernia, yet refused the operation, opting to use a stick to press down the swelling. She refused to pay for hot water and carried her unwrapped lunch (a ham sandwich) in the pocket of her dress which she would eat when she wasn’t munching on her favorite snack — onions.
She also refused to spend money on an office, and instead squatted amid her financial papers on the floor of the Chemical National Bank at 270 Broadway in Manhattan.
What’s Love Got to Do with It?
It seems that when Hetty was not bailing out New York City, she was bailing out her husband. She rescued her husband, Edward, in 1873, 1875, and in 1884. In 1885, the collapse of Edward’s financial house put added strain upon Hetty. With Edward’s $700,000 debt, banks refused to allow Hetty to transfer her $26 million in stocks, bonds, mortgages, or deeds until his debts were paid. As the Week-End Magazine put it: “Hetty was never one to throw good money after bad. When she found that her husband was unprofitable and she was forced to cover his losses, she dropped him.” That same year they separated, but remained married — reconciling later in life.
One reason Hetty chose to live in Hoboken rather than New York was to save money. Were Hetty a permanent New York resident, she’d have to pay $30,000 in taxes. Instead, she chose to move between Brooklyn and Hoboken to avoid the expense, always traveling under an assumed name. Her preferred alias was “Dewey,” in honor of her dog named Dewey — a Skye terrier.
Hetty lived in Hoboken for $19 a month on the second floor of the “Yellow Flats” at 1203 Washington Street, but the door bore the nameplate: C. Dewey.
When Hetty received a $2 tax bill for her dog’s license, she chose to flee Hoboken, vowing never to pay. In the end, her daughter settled the $2 dog licensing fee.
Hetty also owned property in Bergen County — on Tenafly Road in Englewood. While living in a squalid shack, she sold morning newspapers for a penny less — after she’d read them.
Taxes, Social Justice, + Income Inequality
While so much of Hetty’s story appears whimsically comedic today, one criticism still reads like something from The New York Times.
Three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan chastised Hetty by objecting, “Mrs. Green owned $60 million in property and has an income of $3 million. But by living in a boarding house and spending only a few hundred dollars a year, she paid less in federal taxes than a workingman who got $500 a year to spend on his family.”
Death + Taxes
At the time of Hetty’s death in 1916, her $4 billion net worth ($108 billion today) would dwarf the current richest woman alive — Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (of France) at a mere $74 billion. Both New York and New Jersey vied for shares of her estate under the inheritance-tax laws. But, as the Week-End Magazine put it: “[New York and New Jersey] made prolonged, expensive efforts. But Hetty, posthumously, won out. Hetty Green couldn’t escape Death — but she did manage to escape taxes.”
Final Advice for Women
“A girl should be brought up as to be able to make her own living…”
“Whether rich or poor, a young woman should know how a bank account works, understand the composition of mortgages and bonds, and know the value of interest and how it accumulates.”