The Story of World's Greatest Miser of All Time
Yesterday, I told you the story of Mansa Musa, the world's richest person of all time.
Today, I want to share the story of Hetty Green, the world's greatest miser of all time – according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
She spent most of her days walking up and down Wall Street. Because of the way she dressed, people nicknamed her "The Witch of Wall Street." She wore the same creased, dirty, and faded black dress every day. In her hands, she carried a worn-out leather bag. It contained her day's supply of biscuits - because she did not want to buy food if she got hungry.
Those who didn't know her thought she was one of the dozens of homeless people who lived around Wall Street, but, at the time, she was America's richest woman and one of the world's wealthiest.
The story of Hetty Green is a story of a person so fixated on accumulating wealth that she did not care much about her comfort, safety, well being, or reputation. She lived an extremely frugal life, and her desire to preserve her money bordered on obsession. She lived in cheap rented apartments most of her life. If she travelled, she stayed in dingy backstreet lodgings.
When her two children were young, they dressed in second-hand clothes and lived without most of the luxuries associated with children from wealthy families. Her son, Ned, broke his leg when he was a child, and Hetty took him to a public hospital for poor people. When doctors discovered she was faking poverty and demanded payment, she took him home. She hoped the leg would heal itself with time, but it started rotting away. When she finally decided to take him to a paying hospital, it was too late; and the leg was amputated.
Hetty (short for Henrietta) was born in Massachusetts, USA, in 1834, to a wealthy family. Her grandfather was partially blind, and Hetty used to read out stock market reports and newsletters for him, which helped her learn about stock markets at an early age. At 15, she dreamt of becoming one of the wealthiest people in America - and she did.
She started accumulating when she turned 20. Her father bought her a wardrobe of expensive clothes to attract a wealthy suitor, but she sold the clothes and invested the proceeds in government bonds.
In her twenties, she did not date because she thought men were only interested in her money. Before she got married to Edward Henry Green at 32, she forced him to agree in writing that he would never lay claim to any of her money. Later, when Edward started being extravagant and using her money as if it was his, she kicked him out.
Hetty was an only child; so, when her father died in 1865, she inherited a fortune of $6,000,000 (equivalent to $92 million today). When she died in 1915, she had grown this fortune to $2 billion (equivalent to $60 billion today). In terms of wealth, she was in the same class as Russell Sage, JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and other financiers and tycoons of the day.
In her will, she split her wealth equally between her two children (Ned and Sylvia).
Unlike their mother, Hetty's children spent lavishly and partied wildly. Before they got married, Hetty forced them to sign agreements with their spouses, promising never to inherit any of their money. So, when Ned died in 1936, he left all his wealth to his sister, Sylvia.
Both Ned and Sylvia did not have children, so, before Sylvia died in 1951, she wrote a will that bequeathed all her wealth to charity. This was a rare act of defiance. Her mother never gave even a single cent to charity.
What made Hetty Green So wealthy?
Therese O'Neill, one of her biographers, describes Hetty as follows:
"Her handwriting was sloppy and riddled with misspellings, but she surely knew her numbers. More importantly, she knew how to increase them. She oversaw tremendous real estate deals, bought and sold railroads, and made loans. She was particularly adept at prospering during hard times - buying falling stocks, foreclosing properties, and even holding entire banks, entire cities, at her mercy through enormous loans. Depending on who you asked, she was either a brilliant strategist or a ruthless loan shark."
And she did all this without an office - because she did not want to hire office space. She mostly worked from banking halls, surrounded by piles and piles of paperwork.