Biographies & Memoirs


There have been two previous mainstream nonfiction books dealing with Hetty: Hetty Green: The Witch of Wall Street, by Boyden Sparkes and Samuel Taylor Moore, published in 1935, and The Day They Shook the Plum Tree, by Arthur H. Lewis, published in 1963. The Sparkes and Moore book, first published in 1930 as Hetty Green: A Woman Who Loved Money, and reprinted in 2000 by Buccaneer Books, was well researched, and the authors were able to interview some acquaintances of Hetty’s who by now are of course no longer living. In a few cases I have used anecdotes that could only have come from their interviews, and I have cited these instances in my chapter notes. The Lewis book dealt mainly with the fortune as it was handed down to Hetty’s children. The author’s research papers, on file at the Temple University archives in Philadelphia, yielded many magazine articles, newspaper articles, and other leads.


John Steele Gordon’s concise and highly readable history of Wall Street, The Great Game, was a great help to me here and elsewhere in terms of understanding the evolution of finance in America and placing Hetty in the context of her times. Other useful books included Charles R. Geisst’s Wall Street: A History, and Charles P. Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics, and Crashes.


For presenting the history of New Bedford and of the Howland family, I drew on many resources, ranging from whaling books and old city directories to a physician’s handwritten diary from the cholera outbreak in 1834, the year of Hetty’s birth. But two volumes deserve particular mention. The first is William M. Emery’s The Howland Heirs, a monumental genealogical work written in 1919 by the historian who after Hetty’s death was assigned to untangle the enormous list of Howland descendants in line for a portion of Aunt Sylvia’s trust fund. More than just a genealogical table, The Howland Heirs is loaded with family history and colorful anecdotes, and was a constant reference guide for me during the writing process. The second is Leonard Bolles Ellis’s History of New Bedford and Its Vicinity, an enormous, kitchen-sink history that always seemed to yield just the fact or detail I needed.


Outside of trial lawyers, historical researchers are among the few people who think litigation is great. Old court records, when you can find them, yield wonderful details. Records of the 1867 lawsuit filed by Hetty against Aunt Sylvia’s estate are especially revealing. Lengthy testimony by Aunt Sylvia’s domestic staff helped me to re-create in Chapters Two and Three the atmosphere of her lonely life in New Bedford and at Round Hill, and the tumultuous impact that Hetty had when she visited. Given the animosity between Hetty and the servants, it is not surprising that much of their testimony casts Hetty in a negative light. Hetty’s own testimony mainly concerns the making of the wills rather than domestic details. The servants also had a financial interest in seeing Hetty lose the case, because the will Hetty was contesting included bequests to them. Still, the servants’ testimony comes off by and large as plain, straightforward, consistent, and believable. Many of the scenes of Sylvias domestic life are re-created from their testimony.

The account of Hetty dancing with the Prince of Wales on page 19 is adapted from the unpublished memoirs of Walter Marshall (see notes for Chapter Fifteen).


Information on the capitalists who became known collectively as the robber barons came from various biographies of the men, and from Webster’s American Biographies. Another good source was Gustavus Myers’s polemical classic, History of the Great American Fortunes, first published in 1907. Myers’s book is an unabashed, 700-page slam against big money in all forms, and must be read as such. He can find barely a redeeming quality in any of the people he writes about. Still, his research was enormous, and the book sheds fascinating light on the origins of the wealth of some of America’s richest families.


The two letters from Edward Green I cite are in the collection of the New-York Historical Society. The description of the trial came almost entirely from the voluminous court records. The expert testimony of Agassiz, Holmes, and others represents one of the most exhaustive scientific examinations of the issue of forgery. Although the judge ironically never considered forgery in rendering his decision, the case was studied closely by attorneys in subsequent forgery cases because of its clinical treatment of this emerging science.


When I was looking for a description of the London neighborhood where Hetty and Edward lived, the Internet paid off. I found a copy of The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland for 1868, offering detailed descriptions of St. Marylebone. Thanks to British genealogist Colin Hinson, who painstakingly transcribed the Gazetteer onto his Web site, and who gave me permission to quote from it.


Bellows Falls, Vermont, is a village within the town of Rockingham. Among several local histories I consulted, Lyman Simpson Hayes’s 1907 History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont was especially helpful in providing information on the village as well as on the Green family. Even better was an unpublished paper by Hayes, called “Hetty Green at Home: Reminiscences of Her Neighbors at Bellows Falls, Vermont,” on file in the Rockingham Free Public Library. Hayes interviewed many town residents and recorded their impressions of her as well as some of the more delightful and colorful stories from her times there. The Arthur Lewis papers at Temple University contained a typescript of memoirs by Mary Nims Bolles, the lifelong friend of Hetty’s daughter, Sylvia. These memoirs contained many interesting details about Hetty, Edward, and the children.


The Cisco bank failure was widely covered by the New York newspapers, and Hetty figures largely in the stories. The New York World and the New York Daily Tribune were especially exhaustive in their coverage, and for much of the information for this chapter I owe thanks to those un-bylined reporters of yesterday.


The New-York Historical Society was an excellent resource for information on the extraordinary wealth accumulating in New York during the Gilded Age—the lives the wealthy led and the homes they built. Robert Stern’s New York 1900 offered detailed description of the fabulous pleasure palaces these lightly taxed captains of industry erected for themselves along Fifth Avenue. Stewart Holbrook’s The Age of the Moguls, with its section on “What They Did With It,” was also useful. Alexander Noyes’s Forty Years of American Finance (1865–1907) was extremely helpful in describing, on a year-by-year basis, the prevailing economic conditions of America during the years when Hetty was most active.


The exact details surrounding the loss of Ned’s leg are vague, and separating the myths from the reality is difficult at best. A search for records of Dr. McBurney’s operation at Roosevelt Hospital unfortunately came up empty. Assessment of the popular myth that Hetty caused her son to lose his leg out of miserliness and spite must therefore fall into the area of educated guesswork. Hetty’s behavior with doctors was certainly unattractive. But, based on her obvious love for her son, and her many unsuccessful efforts to correct his condition over several long and painful years, it is inconceivable to me that she would have allowed her son to lose his leg out of fear of paying a doctor’s bill.


Hetty’s acquisition of the Texas Midland Railroad, and Ned’s subsequent improvements, are recounted in S. C. G. Reed’s authoritative History of the Texas Railroads. The story of Hetty’s pistolpacking confrontation with Collis P. Huntington comes from the Sparkes and Moore book, The Witch of Wall Street. Most of the information regarding the Chemical National Bank and its president, George Gilbert Williams, came from files in the JP Morgan Chase Archives in New York. A 1902 profile of Williams by Edwin Lefevre, author of the Wall Street classic Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, was particularly helpful. The clipping does not identify the journal in which the article appeared.


Hetty’s interminable legal battles with her father’s appointed trustees were given extensive coverage in the newspapers. The New York Times was my primary source in re-creating the fight. Sylvia’s letters to her friend, Mary, survive under a glass case at the Rockingham Free Public Library in Bellows Falls.


For the information about Hetty’s friendship with James and Michael Smith, I must thank Hoboken resident Lisa Conde. Lisa and her husband, Tom, live in Michael Smith’s old house, and happened to come across records detailing Hetty’s loans to him. Lisa showed me around the house and shared information she has collected on the brothers. The incident involving Hetty, Edward, and William Crapo at the New York rooming house is drawn from Henry Howland Crapo’s The Story of William Wallace Crapo. The book contains a delightful chapter on Hetty. The story of Hetty’s reaction to news of Collis P. Huntington’s death first appeared in the Sparkes and Moore book, The Witch of Wall Street. The story of Hetty’s fears of being poisoned in New Bedford, at the end of the chapter, comes from William Emery, the official Howland genealogist, who described her fears in an article for the New Bedford Standard-Times, June 13, 1948.


The causes of the panic of 1907 were legion, and my description is by necessity greatly simplified. Alexander Noyes’s Forty Years of American Finance (1865–1907), published just as the country was emerging from the crisis, offers an excellent view of the crisis as it unfolded. More modern perspective can be found in John Steele Gordons The Great Game, and Charles P. Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics, and Crashes. The solution to the crisis, worked out by J. P. Morgan and others including, apparently, Hetty, was supposed to stabilize the banking system by ensuring a flow of cash to forestall panics. The ensuing establishment of the Federal Reserve system did, in fact, stabilize the banking system, but not so much as Morgan and the others had hoped. A little over two decades later, of course, the markets collapsed again and hundreds of banks failed, leading to the Great Depression. Hetty’s plaintive question to Annie Leary on page 171 originally appeared in The Witch of Wall Street. The story of Hetty’s beauty treatments was detailed in the New York Times of May 28, 1908. The description of the Earl of Yarmouth lawsuit appeared in several Times articles in 1901.


According to popular legend, Hetty’s beloved dog, Dewey, is buried in the Hartsdale Canine Cemetery in Westchester County, New York. Founded in 1896, it claims to be the nation’s oldest pet cemetery, and its roster of departed dogs includes many owned by entertainers, politicians, and other celebrities. Given Hetty’s love for Dewey, she might well have splurged on a fine resting place for the animal. Unfortunately, the cemetery’s roster of permanent guests includes none named “Dewey.” Even with Hetty’s penchant for secrecy, it is hard to imagine her burying the animal under a pseudonym. And so Dewey’s final resting place, like many other Hetty legends, remains an intriguing mystery.


Walter Marshall, Colonel Ned Green’s personal secretary in Terrell, came with Ned to New York in 1911. It’s safe to say that Marshall liked his New York job less well than the Texas one—a major reason being his rather contentious relationship with Hetty. Marshall’s unpublished memoirs include a chapter detailing his trips with Hetty to her locked vault containing her prized possessions. Barbara Fortin Bedell, who at this writing is preparing Marshall’s memoirs for publication, shared with me a chapter describing Marshall’s trips with Hetty to the locked vault.


It is difficult to spend much time around Colonel Ned Green and not be impressed with his insatiable curiosity, his scale of living, his humor, and, in his own way, his large heart. Condensing his later years into a single chapter was a difficult task. The Noel Hill collection, referenced in my acknowledgments, yielded many interesting details, including correspondence between Ned and Sylvia, a list of items at Round Hill and cars kept on the property, contracts, financial records, and photographs.

Arthur Lewis’s 1963 book, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree, and John M. Bullard’s The Greens As I Knew Them (1964) also provided interesting and quite different perspectives on the Colonel. Bullard was a New Bedford attorney who worked with Ned and was interviewed by Lewis. Bullard’s privately published book counters the fairly cynical and dismissive portrait of Ned offered in Plum Tree. I also consulted Bullard’s papers and notes for the book, which are on file at the Harvard Law School Library.

A note on the name “Round Hill”: Over the centuries, the property has been referred to as both “Round Hill” and “Round Hills” to such an extent that either choice can be considered correct. Ned used the singular on virtually everything relating to the property, and for consistency I have done the same throughout the book.


The descriptions of Sylvia’s friendship with Helen Guild both as children in Bellows Falls and as elderly women in Greenwich came from a lengthy interview Guild gave to Boston Globe reporter Frances Burns shortly after Sylvia’s death (“She Loved Toys Because She Hadn’t Had Them as Child,” March 4, 1951). The description of her friendship with Mary Nims Bolles came from letters between the two from the Rockingham Free Public Library in Bellows Falls, and from Mary’s memoirs. The distribution of Sylvia’s estate was widely covered in newspapers nationwide.

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