Women Who Rocked the Finance World — Hetty Green

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The finance world was largely male-dominated to date. That’s no secret. But many women also made their mark on the industry and not only in recent years.

Yes, there have been feisty females throughout the ages who have pushed for change. And as Contentworks is a financial services marketing agency spearheaded by female CEOs with a passion for equality, we’ve been delving deeper into the lives of these game-changers for #WomensHistoryMonth

In this article we’ll be looking at rule-breaker and financial revolutionary Hetty Green.

The Witch of Wall Street — 1834–1916

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Walking along Lower Manhattan donning a disheveled black dress with frayed hems, Hetty Green could easily have been mistaken for someone battling the challenges of a poverty-stricken lifestyle. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

Dubbed ‘The Witch of Wall Street’ due to her dark, dismal sense of fashion and unkempt appearance, Hetty was actually a financially savvy American businesswoman who invested in stocks and bonds. She had a knack for real estate deals snapping up foreclosed properties and buying and selling railroads.

Excellent Strategist or Ruthless Loan Shark?

This talented lady with an exceptional skill for reading stock market reports would also issue high-interest loans to banks and cities in crisis in order to turn over a significant profit.

Powerful establishments were often at her mercy. And while some would call her an excellent strategist, others may be more inclined to use the term ‘ruthless loan shark.’ Collis P. Huntington, the man who built the Central Pacific Railroad and personal enemy of Hetty, called her “nothing more than a glorified pawnbroker.” That said, it’s no doubt she was an astute businesswoman with an eye for market movements.

Hetty told the New York Times in 1905: “I buy when things are low, and nobody wants them. I keep them until they go up and people are anxious to buy.” She proved this in 1907. Sensing the market to be overvalued, she called in all her loans. Then, when the market crashed, she swooped in and bought low following a similar model set by today’s vulture capitalists.

The Richest Woman in the United States

Unlike other women who made it big in the finance world, Hetty Green’s is not a rags-to-riches tale. Far from it. She was a Quaker born into a family that had made millions from their whaling fleet and shipping interests. Her grandfather encouraged Hetty to read financial papers and stock reports. This led to her managing the family’s sizable accounts by the age of 13.

When her father bought her a wardrobe of brand-new clothes in order to attract a suiter and get married, Hetty sold the garments and bought government bonds with the money instead. This was the start of a finance-led career which saw her turn an inherited sum of $6 million into $100 million before she died in 1916. That would equate to about $2.3 billion in today’s climate. Therefore, it’s no wonder that she was labelled the richest woman in America.

In fact, as you can see in the picture below which appeared on the cover of Punch in 1895, she was ranked alongside wealthy financiers including Russell Sage and George J. Gould!

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The World’s Greatest Miser

So, what did she do with all that money? The answer is, very little! Obsessed with not spending, Hetty was very frugal by nature. Her desire not to part with cash saw her listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the World’s Greatest Miser. Some even believe she had a mental illness due to her extreme desire to hold onto every single penny.

Reports suggest she only owned a single dress. She dressed her kids in dirty, second-hand clothes. And when her son Ned had a leg injury, she took him to a free clinic available for the poor. When the doctors recognised her and asked for money, she left and decided to treat the leg herself using homemade remedies such as “oil of squills” and “Caster’s Little Liver Pills.”

Eventually, Ned’s leg got so bad, it needed to be amputated due to gangrene. Ned’s father Edward paid for the operation from his own dwindling cash supply rather than haggle with Hetty Green. For this, Hetty neither seemed concerned or phased by her son’s new disability which was largely caused by her not wanting to pay for care! He had to wear a cork prosthetic for the rest of his life despite growing to 6ft 4” and weighing some 300 pounds.

Hetty’s frugal attitude towards healthcare also applied to her own medical needs. Instead of paying $150 for hernia treatment, she told the doctors they were a “bunch of robbers” and continued to push the swelling back in using a stick propped in her underwear. Nice!

Financially Independent and Emotionally Anxious

Hetty was, of course, financially independent. Even to the extent of keeping her finances separate from her husband who liked to spend cash freely. This was an extremely uncommon move for a woman at the time and one even the banks found hard to accept. Fed up with husband Edward’s frivolous lifestyle, she kicked him out of the family home.

From there, Hetty moved with her kids to one unheated apartment to the next in a bid to avoid the press, tax collectors and robbers. She wouldn’t even walk to work the same way every day due to an intense fear of being kidnapped. It’s thought she was so paranoid that she wore safe deposit keys to many different banks on a chain around her waist. And slept with a revolver literally tied to her hand when staying in unfamiliar territory such as motels.

Self Defense

The media enjoyed focussing on Hetty and zooming in on her miserly ways. Following the death of her husband, Hetty took to wearing dowdy widows’ reeds which confirmed her reputation as The Witch of Wall Street even further.

Hetty did defend herself, however. “I am not a hard woman,” she told a reporter. “But because I do not have a secretary to announce every ‘kind act’ I perform I am called close and mean and stingy. I am a Quaker, and I am trying to live up to the tenets of that faith. That is why I dress plainly and live quietly. No other kind of life would please me.”

Rebellious Children

Hetty died in 1916 at the age of 81. Her children Ned and Sylvia gained her inheritance but responded in very different ways. Ned was rebellious and adopted a lavish lifestyle full of abundance and adventure. He even married the prostitute lover who his mother had hated.

Sylvia, however, did not change her life much as she married a wealthy man in later life. That said, she did make one very significant and interesting move that probably would have made Hetty turn in her grave. When Sylvia died in 1951, she left her whopping $443 million fortune to charity!

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