Who is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Greatest Miser”?

DBF

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
“By the time I was 15, I knew more about these things
than many a man that makes a living out of them.”
{1}

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The Tycoons of the Gilded Age
(LOC/Public Domain)

If you look quickly at this 1906 illustration you will find the person that holds (and still) holds the Guinness Book of World Records title the “Greatest Miser”. As you gaze around the table and see the great “Robber Barons" from the Gilded Age, “the movers and shakers and the money makers”, make sure to take in the figure sitting at the head of the table. That’s Henrietta “Hetty” Green and she was the only woman that was eligible to sit at the table with the other tycoons from the Gilded Age and she was the richest woman in America and she earned every penny and spent very little of her wealth.

890px-Hetty_Green_cph.3a42973.jpg

Hetty Green
(1834–1916)
(Public Domain)

She grew up in a home filled with love - - - the love of money. Hetty was born into a wealthy Quaker New Bedford, Massachusetts family that made their fortune on the water. Her father Edward Mott Robinson and her maternal grandfather Gideon Howland were partners in a successful whaling company. Hetty’s mother Abby Howland had given birth to a son that died and believing that she disappointed her husband by not producing a male heir sent her remaining child Hetty to live with her grandfather shortly after her birth.

Although Hetty was not a male heir she loved money and it flowed through her veins. She was reading financial papers to her father when she was six. Before she was ten years old, Hetty had been reading stock quotations to her grandfather who was suffering from bad eye sight. At thirteen she was employed as her family’s bookkeeper. When possible she went with her father visiting his storerooms, traveling with him as he visited with commodities traders and stockbrokers. The family also was successful trading with China. She entered Eliza Wing’s boarding school in nearby Sandwich while her father became the president of Isaac Howland Whaling upon the death of Gideon. She attended several schools from the Friends Academy and Anna Cabot Lowell’s Finishing school and by 1854 she was moving to New York to live with family. Before long she was back in New Bedford preferring to live between her father and her aunt. When Hetty was twenty, her father purchased a whole new wardrobe of beautiful stylish dresses secretly hoping that the wardrobe would attract a wealthy suitor for his daughter. Hetty sold all the dresses and bought herself government bonds.


"I believe in getting in at the bottom and out on top.” {*}

Hetty’s mother died on February 21, 1860 leaving Hetty a house valued at $8,000 or approximately a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money. Her father sold off his whaling fleet and moved to New York. It was here Hetty met her future husband Edward Green, although they would not marry until after the Civil War.

During the war Hetty invested in “greenbacks”. Greenbacks (so called because of the “green printing” on their backsides) were legal tender printed by the United States government that were not back by either gold or silver, only on the credibility of the United States government.

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The Reverse Side of a Greenback
(Public Domain)

Hetty saw an opportunity and purchased her share of greenbacks along with some railroad stocks. As she explained:

"I believe in getting in at the bottom and out on top. I like to buy railroad stocks or mortgage bonds. When I see a good thing going cheap because nobody wants it, I buy a lot of it and tuck it away." {*}

When the war ended there was more than $430 million in greenbacks. Questions arose as to the legality of these so-called greenbacks. It took a Supreme Court action to declare the greenbacks as legal tender. Some in Congress pushed for the resumption of backing United States paper money with a gold standard or specie. On January 14, 1875 Congress passed the Resumption Act. It also called on the Secretary of the Treasury Benjamin Bristow to redeem legal-tender notes in specie beginning January 1, 1879. {4}

It was estimated Hetty made millions on her war investment when she cashed in “on top”.


"Before deciding on an investment, I seek out every kind of information about it.” {*}

June 14, 1865 - the day Hetty’s father and mentor died was also the day Hetty skyrocketed into wealth. She inherited $6 million (worth $100 million today) and the knowledge and wisdom learned from Edward Robinson. She also lost her Aunt Sylvia Howland (her mother’s unmarried sister) who provided Hetty with another sizable inheritance. Hetty was alone, wealthy and soon to be married.

Having met Edward Green several years earlier the couple wed on July 11, 1867. She was thirty-three and her husband, a millionaire in his own right, was forty-four. Hetty was a woman ahead of her times when she asked and received a pre-nuptial agreement and a contract to keep their money separate. It was a wise move. Hetty’s father had written in his will that:

“Green would not inherit Hetty's money, which was to be ‘free from the debts, control or interference of any such husband’.” {2}

The first seven years of their lives were spent in London. She gave birth to a son Edward “Ned” and daughter Henrietta. While in London she continued to make money. After the returned to the States Hetty survived the Panic of 1873. One of her earliest lessons from her grandfather and father was the principle of never borrowing money. It was a lesson well learned. As other went into bankruptcy during the panic, Hetty sat comfortably and waited for a time to buy and sell.


"Just because I dress plainly and do not spend a fortune on my gowns, they say I am cranky or insane.” {*}

But is she worthy to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Greatest Miser? I’ll let you be the judge.​

She always found the cheapest restaurants in town sometimes spending a total of 15 cents a day on food. When the laundress was washing her dresses, she ordered her to just wash the bottoms of her dress around the hem for that is the only part that was dirty. She never used heat or hot water and ate cold oatmeal so she didn’t need heat to cook. She wore her undergarments that she changed only after they were worn out. She rode in an old carriage and once spent the whole night searching the carriage for a lost two-cent stamp.

She used an office at a bank so she didn’t have to rent a space. She worked out of boxes and trunks and made business deals and loaned money. She was active in real estate and investments. She was known to travel hundreds of miles to collect a debt of a couple of hundred dollars. After her children left the home Hetty sold it and lived in various apartments in New York City reportedly to avoid paying taxes.

And then there was the family members. Edward was not so wise in his investments and Hetty was not going to help him get out of his financial failures. The couple separated in 1885 but remained married. Perhaps what puts the “crown” on her title of Greatest Miser was the health incident with her son. As a child Ned had received a serious injury to his leg. Hetty and her son dressed in rags and traveled to a free clinic for treatment. Unfortunately for Ned, the doctor recognized Hetty and refused to treat her son declaring he knew who she was and knew she could afford the best care for the boy. She wasn’t going to do that and gangrene set-in forcing the boy to undergo an amputation. It was also reported that Hetty asked the bill sent to her husband and he paid for the surgery and the cork leg the boy was fitted with.


All you have to do is buy cheap and sell dear, act with thrift and shrewdness, and be persistent.” {*}

When her husband got sick she nursed him until he died in 1902. After his death as a woman of Quaker faith she always wore a black dress without any adornment and she’d wear one until she wore it out. As she walked the streets around the financial district in her black garb she earned another nickname: the “Witch of Wall Street”. When her daughter married she demanded her son-in-law sign a pre-nuptial agreement although his name Matthew “Astor” Wilks proved to Hetty that as a minor “Astor” he may not be a “gold digger”. Towards the end of her life she lived with her son. She died July 3, 1916 apparently after having an argument with a domestic over the value of skim milk. Reportedly she got so angry she broke a blood vessel in a major organ and suffered a series of strokes. Her estate valued at anywhere between $100 million to $200 million (anywhere from $2-$4 billion today) was split and enjoyed by her two children.

836px-Hetty_Green.jpg

circa 1905
(Public Domain)



On a personal note: This is my last thread on my research regarding the Panic of 1873 and the years that followed in what Mark Twain named the Gilded Age. I found Hetty Green’s story the saddest of all. From what appears to be the rejection of her mother believing only a male heir was acceptable for the Robinson/Howland fortune; to the suggested belief that growing up she learned money brought love and acceptance it’s no wonder when she was a grown woman she would be hesitant to part with her money. She was a woman growing up in a male dominated business and as a woman she had no rights of a vote as her counter-part Robber Barons did when they bought and paid for politicians. She had to fight for every transaction with one hand tied behind her back and despite it all she was a successful businesswoman. I think Hetty sums up her attitude when interviewed she told the reporter:

“I am not a hard woman, 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.” {6}

And what did her son Ned say in a July 4, 1916 New York Times story:

“Mother held herself aloof because there was nothing else she could do in her position. When it becomes known that a person has money to lend you have no idea of the requests that come for it.” {6}


* * *​


Sources
1. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/01/17/hetty-green/
2.
https://historicwomensouthcoast.org/hetty-green/
3. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-richest-woman-in-america-hetty-green-in-the-gilded-age
4.
https://kingfinancialcorp.com/hetty-green/
5. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/415/henrietta-howland-green
6. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/01/12/the-witch-of-wall-street-4/
{*}
https://see.news/witch-of-wall-street-worlds-biggest-miser/
{*} additional quotes from Wikipedia Hetty Green


The identification of the Robber Barons in the first illustration: J.P. Morgan as “Secretary of the Navy”, Thomas W. Lawson as “Secretary of War”, Thomas F. Ryan as “Attorney General”, James J. Hill as “Secretary of the Interior”, James H. Hyde as “Secretary Commerce”, Russell Sage as “Secretary of Agriculture”, Henrietta “Hetty” Green as “Post Mistress General”, Andrew Carnegie as “Secretary of State”, and John D. Rockefeller (the richest) as “Secretary of the Treasury.”


The Rest of the Story:
1
. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-panic-of-1873-meet-jay-cooke-part-1.177511/
2. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/the-panic-of-1873-president-ulysses-grant’s-crisis-part-2.177606/
3. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/surviving-the-panic-of-1873-j-p-morgan-had-a-nose-for-money.177772/
4.
https://civilwartalk.com/threads/“tain’t-that-the-truth-”-a-lesson-on-money-from-mark-twain.177944/
5. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/newport-rhode-island-all-that-glitters-is-but-gild.178053/
6. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/born-in-ireland-and-died-in-new-york-but-why-does-he-rest-in-piece-s.177289/
 
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Quaama

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Port Macquarie, Australia
Fascinating.

I find this hard to believe as an honest statement:
I am not a hard woman, 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.”
Refusing to pay to have your own son treated for a serious leg injury to the point where gangrene sets in and the leg has to be amputated seems more than hard to me, despicable would be more accurate word for such inaction.

Even in those times when cleanliness was poor I would not want to be downwind of her considering "She wore her undergarments that she changed only after they were worn out."
 

DBF

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 6, 2016
Refusing to pay to have your own son treated
Looks like it wasn't only her son - in her old age, she developed a hernia, but refused to have an operation, preferring to use a stick to press down the swelling.

As I said - I believe she suffered from mental illness beginning from a young age and her perceptions of money = love. I find her a sad, lonely and extremely wealthy woman.
 

NH Civil War Gal

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I had heard of her and read about her years ago. I think she must have been mentally ill in some way because it doesn't even make sense to have your son lose a leg, drive hundreds of miles over a small debt, stay up all night over a 2 cent stamp, especially not change your clothes and have issues of personal cleanliness.
 

Lubliner

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Perceptions can vary, but when I look into her eyes I see the steady and thoughtful eyes that do not flinch at suffering. Almost as if she were saying "Little do you know." And she is probably right. Being a privileged pauper in a very rich land, I have met her kind dozens of times. I like her after peering into her eyes. She makes me think---if someone was to expect something from her, it would be denied.
From my own understanding if you do not ask and hope for nothing more than the freedom to walk away without a confining contract, you have won her charm. But then I just proved how little I do know.
Lubliner.
 
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I had heard of her and read about her years ago. I think she must have been mentally ill in some way because it doesn't even make sense to have your son lose a leg, drive hundreds of miles over a small debt, stay up all night over a 2 cent stamp, especially not change your clothes and have issues of personal cleanliness.

Yes, I also find it unforgivable how she loved her money over her own son.
She may have had a hard life, but she herself was responsible for that hardship and probably for developing her mental illness (which sure meant no suffering to her, probably right on the contrary. She probably felt good at it!). She could have used her money to bring joy to others and find out that the greatest happiness is to make others happy. But no, she preferred to hoard her money instead and yet she praised herself to be a Quaker, a Christian. But being a Quaker only provided her with an excuse for being such an incredible miser. And being a miser is the most nefarious character trait to me, therefore I must say, she got the death she deserved, getting a series of strokes over an argument about skim milk. That is divine justice, it provided her with the chance to spend her last days regretting her wasted life. What difference could she have made with that immense fortune...
I always thought Scrooge McDuck was just a caricature, but it seems he was modeled after her. What a despicable person. Bah!
 

NH Civil War Gal

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Drew

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Thanks @DBF , for this. I hadn't heard of her.

"Greatest Miser" is a pretty tough call. J.D. Rockefeller and Doris Duke were both famously cheap, but at least in the end, each gave back to society.

Denying a child medical care is beyond belief, even pathological. Really sad.
 

Mike Serpa

Major
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Jan 24, 2013
I wonder, if she was asked, if she considered herself a Christian? How sad an outlook on life.
I don't know if she considered herself a Christian. (I hope I'm not posting this Bible verse out of context... James 2:15-17.) How could she be so cruel to her son? Imagine having millions of dollars, when millions of dollars were worth more than today, and not taking your son to the doctor because of your parsimoniousness. Then having the father pay for the amputation. I can't understand that amount of callousness.
 
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She sounds despicable to me, as do the majority of people with that amount of wealth who have a seeming inability to share it around. Using your wealth for influence does not count in my estimation either. She was mean and callous and seemingly unrepentant. Does her attitude align with mental illness? I'd say it's most suggestive of a personality disorder and some element of psychopathology - her extreme lack of empathy indicates to me she may have been a sociopath or even a psychopath. Control was her motivating factor. I'm given to that impression because she did not use her money even to her own or her children's benefit, but solely hoarded it as a means of control. No doubt her egregious disposition goes back to her childhood and the rejection she experienced then. It is a very sad story indeed and all the money in the world cannot buy someone like that happiness. She was more interested in the power of control. Which is why she fought to her last breath over the issue of skim milk. What a ridiculous way to die in your own blindness.
 
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Drew

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"I believe in getting in at the bottom and out on top.” {*}
Hetty’s mother died on February 21, 1860 leaving Hetty a house valued at $8,000 or approximately a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money. Her father sold off his whaling fleet and moved to New York. It was here Hetty met her future husband Edward Green, although they would not marry until after the Civil War.

BTW, the inflationary rule of thumb since 1860 is about 20 to one. An $8,000 property would be worth about $160,000 today and not a quarter million.

The sale of the whaling fleet is indicative of buying low and selling high, however. Whale oil was an expensive way to provide light after dark in the mid 19th century.

It was Rockefeller's "Illuminating Oil," kerosene, that was much less expensive to consumers but extremely profitable to his Standard Oil Company that put New England whalers out of business. It was Rockefeller's "Illuminating Oil" that got most Americans operating and reading after dark.
 

DBF

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Drew

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My Inflation Calculator:

https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1860?amount=8000

"$8,000 in 1860 is worth $253,507.47 today"

For more information on the transition from whale oil:

https://civilwartalk.com/threads/and-they-said-let-there-be-light.175936/#post-2293569

Thanks for this, @DBF and especially for the thread on whale oil. Fascinating stuff - the rate of change experienced by those living in the late 19th/early 20th centuries is mind boggling.

I'm sticking to my guns though, Standard Oil dominated the kerosene market and the rest, as they say, is history.
 
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