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Time Machine

February 2024
1min read

The Witch of Wall Street

At the time of her death on July 3 in New York City, Henrietta (“Hetty”) Green’s $100 million estate made her the richest woman in America. She had inherited a million dollars each from her father and aunt in 1865, and from then until her death at eightyone, she was known as a shrewd, if obsessive, manager of money. News writers reported—and contrived—stories of her miserliness, dubbing her the Witch of Wall Street. When, during a buying panic in January 1883, she demanded the return of $25 million in securities and $475,000 in cash from J. J. Cisco & Co., the firm went bankrupt, and a series of brokerage failures followed. She was a master lender of money, but even as she was lending $4.5 million to the city of New York, stories were circulating of her failing to pay her streetcar fare, of her moving from one boardinghouse to another in order to avoid tax assessors, and, most famously, of her refusal to pay a doctor to care for her son Ned when he injured his leg in a sledding accident. Her parsimony led to the leg’s amputation.

During her forty years as a market force, Hetty Green survived many Wall Street panics and also instigated a few bullish surges. She spent her last years living with her daughter in a Hoboken, New Jersey, apartment, from which she made frequent trips to the Chemical National Bank in New York City to tally her worth. She was briefly unseated as America’s wealthiest woman when the banker Russell Sage left his wife $70 million in 1906, but that lasted only until Margaret Olivia Sage gave most of her fortune to a charitable foundation she established in her late husband’s name.

By the time she reached old age, Hetty Green was understandably wary of reporters—“They picture me heartless,” she explained—but she couldn’t resist offering her opinions now and again. When she took out a permit for a revolver, she said she needed it “mostly to protect myself against lawyers. I’m not much afraid of burglars or highwaymen.”

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