The sad story of a poor little rich woman

Hetty Green lived in poverty and dressed in rags. She was known as the Witch of Wall Street.
Hetty Green lived in poverty and dressed in rags. She was known as the Witch of Wall Street.

SHE WAS POOR, and those who did not know her pitied her.

She was a pauper, and those who did not know her sadly shook their heads as she walked past, a lonely woman on a lonely street, condemned to wander aimlessly on the wrong side of the tracks on the wrong side of town.

Hetty Green was one of life’s unfortunates.

And she could not escape the misery of her existence.

She never turned on the heat in her room.

She never used hot water.

Heat and hot cost too much.

She owned one dress. It was black. And Hetty wore it every day, never changing the dress or her undergarments until the seams fell apart and the material fell off her shoulders in frayed strips of rotting rags.

Clothes cost too much.

She only washed the dirtiest part of her dress, the hemline, for one reason.

Soap cost too much.

She ate mostly pies, the kind that she could buy for fifteen cents apiece, and she warmed her oatmeal on the radiator of the Seaboard National Bank in New York.

No one bothered her.

They left the poor lady alone.

Those who did not know Hetty grieved for her. They felt so sorry for her.

She suffered so much. She had so little. Life had been so cruel to her. When her son was a child, he broke a leg, and Hetty carried him to the free clinic for the poor. Even the free clinic rejected her. In time, his leg had to be amputated.

She couldn’t pay for treatments.

Treatments cost too much.

Hetty just did not spend money. What she had, she kept.

After all, she might need another black dress someday.

She did need one the day they buried her, a lonely woman from the lonely streets in a lonely grave.

When she died in 1916, Hetty Green’s net worth was estimated at somewhere just on either side of $200 million. That would be about four billion of today’s dollars.

She would be known as the World’s Greatest Miser.

She would be recognized at the Witch of Wall Street.

She had been, without dispute, the richest woman in the world.

Hetty Green played a man’s game on the stock market, and she played it better than the men.

She had, in fact, never been poor. Her father had owned a large whaling fleet, and earned a sizable fortune trading with China. Hetty was reading the financial papers to him by the time she was six years old. She became his bookkeeper at the age of fifteen. And she inherited more than seven million dollars at the time of his death.

She was smart. She was tough. She was shrewd. When others panicked during hard times, Hetty just smiled, stuck to her game plan, and kept raking in money. Others were folding, and she was quite pleased to take the money they were losing.

She invested most of it in Civil War bonds, and she chose the winning bonds issued by the winning side. Hetty put her money in real estate and railroads. Not even she realized how much money she was earning each year.

Only one thing was for certain.

Hetty Green wasn’t about to spend any of it.

She walked in regularly to the Seaboard National Bank in New York, was always able to find an empty desk, and conducted her business in a back corner because she did not want to pay rent.

Rent cost too much.

She never stayed long in one place, sometimes moving weekly from one small apartment in Brooklyn Heights to another in Hoboken. Back and forth she went, making sure she never hung around in one place long enough to arouse the curiosity of tax officials.

Taxes cost too much.

She had no intention of paying them.

She didn’t.

As Hetty grew older, she began to suffer from the affliction of a bad hernia. The pain was tough, and then it grew unbearable.

“We’ll operate,” the doctor said.

“No, you won’t,” Hetty said.

“Why not?” the doctor asked.

“The operations costs too much,” Hetty said.

She chose the pain. She refused to pay $150 for the doctor to make it go away. But then, what would you expect from a woman who searched through her carriage all night because she had lost a two-cent stamp?

She found it. It was, she thought, a night well spent.

But, alas, Hetty Green died, and much to her consternation, I’m sure, she couldn’t take it with her.

Her daughter stuck a million dollars in the bank and gave the rest of the $200 million to churches and hospitals and colleges.

And her one-legged son?

He swore he would never live the life of a pauper again. He took his inheritance, went out, and promptly bought a diamond-encrusted chamber pot.

That’s life.

That’s the way some people live it.

You can’t make this stuff up.


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  • Anna Celeste Burke

    what a tragedy in so many ways–fascinating too!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Every one has a secret, Anna, and, as you say, that’s what makes them interesting and why they show up in so many of our novels.

  • Poor woman, but she had children – and a mental illness in a time when those weren’t recognized or dealt with. A hoarder – but of money.

    And a financial genius in a time when women weren’t recognized for the ability.

    Thanks for telling me about her. I’ll say a prayer.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, Hetty seems like a living, breathing character who stepped off the pages of a Charles Dickens novel.

  • Don Newbury

    Fascinating! This is the woman believed to be the first to climb over the gate to save the hinges….

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Don, if she had saved the hinges, I’ll guarantee you she sold them and buried the coins.

  • Catherine Green

    What a fabulous story! I feel sorry for her son, though…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Catherine, when it’s all said and done, the son was the ultimate victim. He became rich, but could the money ever erase the scars?

      • Catherine Green

        I think we can apply that question to many other families in this world…

  • Bill Nicholls

    Miserable old bag, she deserved what she got, I despise people like that. Did they bother to put a headstone over her or did it cost too much. At least others go to enjoy the money and I hope her kids enjoyed it

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Bill, she was old and miserable. She had money. She never had a life. She never allowed herself to have a life. At least, as you say, her money did some good after she had wasted the chance to make a lot of people happy.

  • Vishal Bheeroo

    It’s a brilliant story weaved and the complexity in Hetty’s character has been so well developed. Compelling story.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Vishal. I have been fascinated by the character ever since I ran across her story. I can tell her story, but, alas, we’ll never know what happened in life to turn her that way, and that’s my regret.

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