Hetty Green could pinch a penny till it begged for mercy. Green’s legendary stinginess and dour demeanor earned her the sobriquet “Witch of Wall Street,” but her business smarts put her on par with the craftiest financial wizards of the Gilded Age and made her the richest woman in the world. She used a simple investment strategy to compete with the likes of Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan: Buy low, sell high and never panic. Scrupulous investment in government securities, railroad bonds and real estate turned a $5 million inheritance from her father in 1865 into $26 million by 1885. Working from a borrowed desk at Chemical National Bank in Manhattan, and rumored to eat oatmeal warmed on a radiator, Green watched her fortune grow. She loaned New York City $2.5 million between 1898 and 1901, but was always wary of gold diggers and ignored most pleas for money. When she died in 1916, her estate was estimated to be worth $100 million (some $2 billion in today’s dollars). By then her pathological attachment to her money and determination to manage it herself had secured her legacy as a wizened crone: “I am in earnest; therefore they picture me heartless,” Green once said. “I go my own way, take no partners, risk nobody else’s fortune, there fore I am Madame Ishmael, set against every man.”
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.