Since March is Women’s History Month, I feel obligated as Groundworker-At-Large to contribute something to the zeitgeist on behalf of New Bedford. As usual, it’s not a stretch or, in this case, even a long distance, to find a subject that’s both homegrown yet has universal appeal.
Because just around the corner from this coworking facility at 1213 Purchase Street sits none other than the one-time home of one of the city’s most famous residents – and misunderstood women.
Known the nation and perhaps the world over as “The Witch of Wall Street.
And we all know what the word “witch” is a stand-in for…
Origins of “The Witch”
Hetty Green was by all accounts eccentric, miserly, and somewhat dour. These personality elements helped brand her in the press as “The Witch of Wall Street.” Also, her wardrobe was basic – as in basic black. You’d never find her at downtown’s fashion-savvy Calico, that’s for sure. Simple garments were cheap – and also a reflection of her Quaker background.
Many in Hetty’s times – especially the Quaker whaling captains of New Bedford, the 19th century social milieu she was born into – could also be described as eccentric, miserly and dour. A look at the portraits of them hanging in the New Bedford Whaling Museum or New Bedford Free Public Library offer confirmation.
However, unlike Hetty, they are all men – so usually don’t tagged with a pejorative title. In truth, she was one of them just arguably more so. But, as a woman who often beat men at their own game, Hetty was designated the “Witch.”
Their own game was the accumulation of vast wealth, and this Hetty did very well. So well that she bailed New York City out from municipal insolvency a few times, most notably during the financial crisis of 1907. (Yes, a hundred and one years before the financial crisis of 2008, mostly men were still mucking up the system!)
Hetty in New Bedford
Hetty was born Henrietta Howland Robinson in 1834 right here in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Robinson (née Howland), the richest whaling family in the city, according to sources.
Edward Robinson was a swashbuckling figure along New Bedford’s docks, and Hetty was often by his side. She learned about finance from him – but he kept her on a short financial leash as she grew up. It was until he died that Hetty finally received the portion of her mother’s estate that Edward had kept in trust – and away from her.
Later, she received a portion of her Aunt Sylvia’s estate – by what many believe dubious means. Lawyers and perhaps forgery were involved. But certainly not witchcraft. (1061 Pleasant Street – the building around the corner from Groundwork! I referred to and which is pictured above – was rented by Edward and Hetty from Sylvia for a time.)
Edward remained in New Bedford after his death; he’s buried in Oak Grove cemetery off of Parker Street. I found his grave to make sure he was dead. But Hetty left the city for Manhattan and married Ned Green.
Hetty takes Manhattan
The change in locale meant Hetty could come into her own as an investor on Wall Street. Otherwise, the marriage was one of unequals, as she far outshone Ned in all matters business. He actually attempted to use her fortune to buttress his own falling fortunes until she got wise to him and his schemes.
Thereafter, their’s was a marriage in name only, as Hetty’s capacity for business grew by leaps and bounds until she eventually became one of the richest women in the world through astute and diligent attention to her investments. Though, despite her severe popular image, she nursed Ned through his final years of life.
Another part of the Hetty Green legend is her reputation as the mother who was so miserly she wouldn’t pay for proper medical care for her son, known to us as Colonel Green of South Dartmouth fame. According to this legend, when he broke his leg she so skimped on the doctor’s bill that it had to be amputated.
The truth is much more complex. Yes, there’s much more to Hetty Green than the “nasty Woman” image, which exists in popular imagination thanks in no small part to a somewhat hyperbolic book called, “The Day They Shook the Plum Tree.” It played up the stereotype of Hetty as a wicked woman rather than what she was – a driven businesswoman, devout Quaker and quirky individualist. The same as many others in her class, but who happened to be all men.
For a better account of this fascinating woman, this writer recommends a more recent biography, “Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon,” by Charles Slack.
Despite the re-appraisal it offers, it’s still a laugh to see that the former one-time Green home on Pleasant Street now houses….Child and Family Services, Inc. It’s a cheap laugh at Hetty’s expense, as is the fact that the the Hetty Green Thrift Store is on the premises, too.
Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller or Morgan – Hetty Green’s peers – are remembered and sometimes reviled as Captains of Industry and Finance.
Green is “The Witch of Wall Street.”
It’s time she assumed her rightful place alongside those Gilded Age bastards as a person of preternatural ability but suspect compassion.
That’s true equality.
Hetty Green wasn’t “The Witch of Wall Street.” She just worked the system and became extraordinarily rich doing it at a time when a woman in finance was not socially acceptable. To combat this challenge, in the 19th and early 20th century, she had to become something wicked to be understood.
Hopefully today, we’d just call her “The Wolf of Wall Street” – and leave her gender out of it.