Asleigh cut through the snowy streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts, during the early 1840s. People could not help but turn their heads as it passed. They all recognized the sleigh, the powerful black horse, and the man at the reins. Edward Mott Robinson was not a New Bedford native, but he had married into the richest whaling family in town. He had a dark, stern face with hawklike features. Black Hawk Robinson, they called him. He was known as a tough businessman, shrewd, unsentimental, thrifty, and cold. He spared little in the way of greetings to his fellow townspeople as the sleigh hurried along.
Sitting next to him, all but obscured under the folds of a thick buffalo robe, sat a girl of nine or ten. The sharp air flushed her cheeks. Her eyes were blue and lively. Lost amid the dark, arrogant ensemble of man, horse, and sleigh, the little girl was happy. She inhaled the fresh winter air and the smell of tobacco on her father’s clothes. For all his wealth, he did not smoke good cigars. They were cheap four-centers. When an acquaintance offered him a ten-cent cigar, he declined. If he learned to like a ten-cent cigar, the four-cent variety would no longer satisfy him. But the smell was indescribably sweet to the little girl. Hetty Howland Robinson wished these rides, with her father sitting close to her, could last forever.
As the sleigh reached the lower portions of the city, near the waterfront, the aromas of winter air and tobacco were overwhelmed by something baser and more pungent. Whale oil, spilled and leaked a little at a time from untold thousands of casks, coated the piers that poked into the Acushnet River, the streets along the waterfront, the sidewalks, the steps of shops and factories. Under the summer sun the rotting oil gave off a funk that permeated everything. In winter the odor was more muted, perhaps, but it never went away. One backstreet leading to the wharves earned the name “Rose Alley” when some optimist planted rosebushes in a vain attempt to mask the smell left by wagons carrying casks of oil. But if the rancid smell offended delicate nostrils, the residents of New Bedford were savvy enough to recognize that whale oil smelled like money.
Within a few blocks of the waterfront, blacksmiths made whaling irons and harpoons, rivets, and nails; coopers made casks; boatwrights fashioned sturdy whaleboats from local timber. The air rang with the clank of hammers on metal and the rip of saw blades through wood. Outfitters stocked dried apples, codfish, corn, tobacco, paint, canvas, and rum in quantities needed for voyages that often lasted three or four years. An equally furious and busy industry dedicated itself to converting oil and whalebone delivered by returning ships into lamp oil, watch oil, candles, hairpins, and corsets. Language in this part of town was coarse, direct, and loud. Robinsons voice could be heard above the din, shouting at dockworkers to speed up, to load and unload faster. Hetty loved to follow her father here, when he would permit. It was her favorite part of town.
The headquarters of Isaac Howland Jr. and Company were in a three-story building at the foot of Union Street, next to the wharves. It was a serious, sturdy building of simple architecture, made of stone and brick. On the first floor was a store for outfitting the company’s ships with supplies. On the third floor, artisans fashioned sails and rigging. But the second floor was the financial heart of the company—the counting room. Here, Robinson and a small staff of managers and clerks tabulated profits and losses, expenses, insurance costs, and wages, and kept track of the ever-changing price per barrel of oil. Here, all of the blood, violence, romance, lore, and adventure of whaling on high and distant seas were reduced to a pure essence of dollars.
Perhaps the only thing about Black Hawk Robinson that could be described as weak was his eyesight. And so from a young age Hetty read the financial news to her father, and to her maternal grandfather, Gideon Howland, a partner in the firm. She read shipping statistics, tariff news, currency debates, the latest on securities and investments, and trade news from New York. She absorbed everything. By the time she was fifteen, by her own reckoning, she knew more about finance than many financial men. Occasionally she would detect in her father’s stern face something like approval, some faint signal, almost akin to forgiveness, for her double sin of having been bom a girl instead of a boy, and for having been healthy and strong and full of life when her infant brother died. Looking back on her childhood many years later, Hetty would recall, “My father taught me never to owe anyone anything. Not even a kindness.”
Here, then, was New Bedford during the 1830s and ‘40s, when Hetty was a child. The first great oil fortunes in the United States were established not by Texans poking into the hard-baked earth, but by New England mariners roaming the seas in search of whales. The original whaling capital, the island of Nantucket, faded in the early 1800s when newer, larger ships outgrew the limitations of Nantucket’s shallow harbor. The industry moved west to the mainland and New Bedford. By 1839, 212 of 498 American whaling ships called New Bedford or neighboring Fairhaven home.
The prime quarry was the sperm whale, which had the biological misfortune to possess the best oil. Not only was the oil derived from its blubber superior to other whales’, but the sperm whale had another feature that hunters found irresistible. Located at the top of its enormous head was a case containing up to 500 gallons of pure, fine oil just waiting to be scooped up. In a business where almost nothing came easy—from stalking and killing an animal the size of one’s ship to “trying out” book-sized chunks of blubber over a deck fire belching black, greasy smoke—baling the case provided a sort of orgiastic release for crewmen. They clambered up the enormous head, carefully split it open so as not to spill any of the precious fluid, and dipped round-bottomed buckets, affixed to the ends of poles, into the cavern. Whalers called the oil spermaceti because, exposed to air, it thickened to the consistency of human seminal fluid (hence the sperm whale’s name). As the case emptied, a crewman or two would slide in to obtain the last precious drops.
At the end of a long voyage, a fortunate ship might groan back toward home port bulging with 4,000 barrels of oil—worth more than $100,000—destined to grease the nation’s machines and illuminate its nights. America ran on the by-products of slaughtered whales. Their oil lubricated watches, clocks, and guns. Wealthy young women wore corsets of whalebone and perfume containing ambergris, a waxy substance found in the whale’s intestines.
Located on the western banks of the Acushnet River, about forty miles south of Boston, New Bedford was a curious amalgam of refinement and roughness. Oil revenue didn’t just enrich individual whaling families; it also loaded municipal coffers—through personal estate taxes, real estate taxes, and poll taxes levied at $1.50 per voter—with enough money to turn New Bedford into a model of civic pride. In an age when one could expect to sink to one’s ankles in mud, muck, and filth just to cross a busy New York City street, several of New Bedford’s prominent thoroughfares were paved and their sidewalks flagged.
The central part of New Bedford was laid out in a neat grid of wide, tree-lined streets set on ground that rose rapidly away from the riverfront. In 1840, New Bedford spent more than $66,000 for highways, street lighting, and other civic improvements. The town’s population increased fourfold from 1830 to 1840, from a little over three thousand to more than twelve thousand. The city boasted a membership library with more than five thousand volumes, a lyceum that offered winter lectures by out-of-town dignitaries who received honoraria to speak, two medical societies, and an athenaeum. New Bedford had an active abolitionist movement, supported by both black and white residents, and was the terminus for hundreds of slaves, including Frederick Douglass, escaping the South via the underground railroad. Although Quaker families—Hetty’s included—often shipped their children off to private Quaker schools—many of the city’s three thousand school-age children attended good public schools. Benjamin Evans, boys’ principal at the Charles Street School, earned $600 per year. His counterpart, girls’ principal Julia H. Haskell, received $300.
“There were two New Bedfords in this early day,” local historian Zephaniah Pease wrote, “one a fair and dignified village on the hilltop, where were patrician mansions, with opulent gardens, the homes of the whaling merchants and captains. The other was made up of squalid sections where the sailors and those who preyed upon them [lived], the saloons, where delirium and death were sold, the boarding houses, the dance halls and houses where female harpies reigned and vice and violence were rampant.” Returning sailors could relieve years of pent-up lust and thirst at brothels and saloons that flourished in red-light districts with colorful, Dickensian names such as Hard Dig and The Marsh.
Herman Melville stayed in New Bedford briefly before shipping out aboard the Acushnet in January 1841—the voyage that provided the raw material for his masterpiece, Moby Dick. In the book, he noted New Bedford’s contradictions. “A queer place,” he called it. “Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.” And yet a few blocks away at the bustling waterfront, “actual cannibals stand chatting at street corners; savages outright; many of whom yet carry on their bones unholy flesh.” In addition to cannibals, Melville might well have seen Edward Robinson, shouting at sailors and dockworkers to pick up the pace. He might have seen Hetty, just past her sixth birthday, padding along at Robinsons heels.
Hetty Howland Robinson missed by one thin branch of the family tree the right to call herself a Mayflower descendant. Her direct ancestor, Henry Howland, was born in Essex County, England, and arrived in the New World with his brother, Arthur, aboard either the Fortune, in 1621, or the Ann, in 1623. Their brother, John, landed shortly before them aboard the Mayflower. The brothers settled in Plymouth, acquired land, and for more than twenty-five years prospered as farmers.
In 1648, a new type of Christianity, Quakerism, originated in England and spread quickly to the New World. The name was first given to the group as an insult, because followers of founder George Fox trembled when filled with the word of God. They refused to doff their hats to other men, saving this as a sign of respect for God, and dressed in conspicuously plain garments. These habits made the Quakers seem exotic and strange, but at heart theirs was a rather simple and lovely idea—that God lives within each person. They sought a closer communion with their Maker by stripping away the bureaucratic layer of priests, bishops, ministers, and other holy middlemen represented by organized religion. They met as “Friends,” each individual sharing his or her experiences with God. Detractors misconstrued this as a Quaker claim that every individual was God, hence free to ignore Scripture if so moved. In fact, Quakers adhered closely to the established scriptures, and members could be evicted for straying too far in their personal beliefs.
The Howlands must have been extraordinarily moved by this new religion, for converting involved heavy risks. Quakers were persecuted on both sides of the Atlantic, and nowhere with more fervor than by New England Puritans. The irony of Puritan intolerance—given their own history of persecution at the hands of others—is well known. They harassed Baptists, Episcopalians, suspected witches, and anyone else whose faith deviated, or seemed to deviate, from their own. But they harbored a special distaste for Quakers. The first Quakers to arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Mary Fisher and Ann Austin, were arrested and jailed, their trunks searched, books confiscated and burned in the public market. Other Quakers were whipped, imprisoned, or even hanged, or else tied to the back of a cart and paraded from village to village for public ridicule.
The Howlands, prominent figures in Plymouth, were stripped of public positions and fined for attending and hosting Friends meetings and refusing to pay taxes for the militia. When the pressure became too intense, they pushed southward. In 1652, Henry Howland, Hetty’s direct ancestor, became an original purchaser of the Dartmouth settlement, forerunner to New Bedford.
In a more congenial and accepting environment, away from the Puritans, New Bedford’s Quakers excelled first at farming, then at fishing, and finally at whaling. As their fortunes rose, they lived a peculiar contradiction of their own making. They believed in humility, thriftiness, hard work, plain dwellings and furnishings, and modesty in both dress and behavior. They had no idea what to do when, applying these godly virtues to whaling, they found themselves becoming as rich as sin.
Hetty was never devoutly religious, but traditions of Quaker living filtered down to her and collected in concentrated form. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that she was solely a product of Quakerism taken to extremes. And yet those aspects of her personality that so confounded and fascinated the public during her years of great celebrity—her toughness and piousness, her accumulation of money and her seeming inability to enjoy spending it, her arch disapproval of those who did spend their money, her ability to claim poverty and humility while hording a fortune of epic proportions—all of these things can be traced back to that small world, at once drab and colorful, of the New Bedford Quakers.
Hetty’s father, Edward Robinson, was born in Philadelphia in 1800 to a prominent old Quaker family with long roots in Rhode Island. His ancestors, as Hetty always loved to tell people, included a former deputy governor and landholder, William Robinson. Edward Robinson started his career manufacturing cotton and wool in Rhode Island with his brother, William. But he soon became involved with the more profitable oil trade and around 1833 moved to New Bedford to be closer to the center of things. By nature an ambitious, aggressive man, Robinson determined to get ahead however he could. He naturally gravitated toward the most powerful whaling firm, Isaac Howland Jr. and Company.
For several generations, Howlands had turned to the sea for their living. It was Isaac Howland Jr., born in 1755, who laid the groundwork for the whaling fortune that would accrue to Hetty and give her the starting point for her own financial empire. Isaac started modestly in business, but exhibited a thriftiness and an eye for opportunity. He noticed that sailors returning from the West Indies often wore silk stockings purchased on the islands. Isaac bought the soiled stockings off the sailors’ legs, gave them a good, careful wash, and sold them at a profit to wealthy gentlemen of the town.
A tiny man, said to weigh less than 100 pounds, but with uncommon energy and drive, Isaac started Isaac Howland Jr. and Company in the late eighteenth century as a merchant shipping business. He also ran a store selling goods imported from Europe and the West Indies, as well as local produce. But as the whaling trade shifted center from Nantucket to New Bedford, Isaac recognized the potential and began investing in whaling ships about 1815. Isaac Howland Jr. and Company would grow into one of New Bedford’s most active and successful whaling companies, with more than thirty ships.
In addition to the usual hazards associated with extended sea voyages during the early nineteenth century (storms, navigational error, malnutrition, potentially violent natives), hunters chasing sperm whales faced still another danger. The sperm was the only whale known to aggressively defend itself, including attacking whaleboats or even the mother ship by turning its massive head into a battering ram. Such cases, while relatively rare, were the stuff of legend. The ordeal in 1820 of the Nantucket whale ship Essex, rammed by an enraged whale, her surviving crew reduced in starvation to eating dead comrades, was lodged in the consciousness of every sailor. In a business fraught with dangers, both physical and financial, Isaac Howland Jr. and Company went to extraordinary lengths to protect its ships. They were outfitted with only the best rigging and supplies, often produced in their own New Bedford stores. And while the company lost its share of ships and men, most stories told about Isaac Howland Jr. and Company were of successful voyages and fantastic takes on the high seas.
Isaac’s land-based pursuits also met with great success. He was a founder and director of the city’s first bank, the New Bedford Commercial Bank, as well as the Bedford Commercial Insurance Company. He was a founder of the First Aqueduct Association, started in 1805 to supply the city with water. Privately, Isaac became one of the city’s predominant moneylenders, foreshadowing one of the crucial methods that his granddaughter Hetty would one day use, on a much larger scale, to build her fortune.
In this tight-knit Quaker community, Isaac Howland’s daughter, Mehitable, married her second cousin, Gideon Howland Jr., in 1798. In 1806, Mehitable gave birth to a daughter, Sylvia. Mehitable died in 1809, shortly after giving birth to a second daughter, Abby. By the early 1830s, when Edward Robinson arrived in town, Isaac had passed on much of the operation of Isaac Howland Jr. and Company to his son-in-law Gideon. Sylvia and Abby were by now of marrying age. With their mother dead, the girls were the sole direct heirs to Isaac Howland’s fortune, worth more than $270,000, or, nearly $6 million by today’s standards. Sylvia, ill her entire life with spinal ailments and numerous other health problems, was an invalid. An ambitious young man determined to marry into the wealthiest family in town had one choice: Abby.
Robinson’s hard work and business instincts alone would probably have been enough to ensure his rise in business. But he left nothing to chance. He began to woo Abby right away. He had been in New Bedford less than a year when he solidified his position in the whaling company by marrying the boss’s daughter. It would be difficult to envision a couple more extremely opposite than the headstrong Robinson and the delicate, retiring Abby. Abby, while physically stronger than her sister, was almost preternaturally shy and unassertive. Hetty herself rarely spoke of her mother in her later years. William Emery, the Howland family’s official genealogist, provided one of the few available descriptions: “Mrs. Robinson is recalled as a lady of a most pleasant and kindly disposition.” It does not require a cynical nature to divine that these were not the attributes in Abby that Edward Robinson found most appealing.
Edward and Abby were married on December 29, 1833. From a financial perspective, Robinson’s timing could not have been better. Just two weeks later, Isaac Howland, the founder, suffered a massive stroke and died. With Sylvia and Abby as Isaac’s only direct heirs, Robinson immediately became a major force in Isaac Howland Jr. and Company. Isaac left a total estate of $271,527.21. Edward assumed control of $90,000 (almost $2 million today) as manager of his wife’s interest in the estate. Thomas Mandell, a partner in the firm, took over another $40,000 to handle in trust for Abby. The balance of the estate, some $130,000, went to Abby’s sister, Sylvia.
In the summer of 1834, Abby and Edward moved into a large, leased house at 43 Seventh Street, on the corner of Seventh and Walnut. The house became available through the sudden and tragic demise of a happy family in a manner that would be astonishing in modern times but was all too familiar in the early nineteenth century. Captain Moses Gibbs, partial owner of two whaling ships, secretary of the Mechanics Insurance Company, and well on his way to becoming a pillar of the business community, had built the home for his bride, Mary. Then suddenly, within the space of two months in the spring of 1834, illness swept through the house, taking Moses, Mary, and a two-year-old son. A daughter, the lone survivor, went to live with her grandparents. On June 25, an auctioneer sold off the family’s possessions. The now-empty house was put up for lease and a short time later Edward and Abby moved in.
For all of New Bedford’s prosperity, 1834, the year of Hetty’s birth, had been a difficult one all around. In New Bedford as around the nation, a short supply of hard currency was driving otherwise healthy businesses into bankruptcy. New Bedford sent a delegation to petition Congress to liberalize the money supply, saying “trade and confidence are in a great measure destroyed and business stopped.” In August and September cholera swept through New Bedford, carrying away several dozen residents (the Gibbs family may have suffered from an earlier outbreak) and making scores more seriously ill. This swift-moving and often fatal bacterial disease, native to Asia, periodically ravaged ports such as New Bedford, where each incoming ship might bear a new round of infection. Doctors, as yet unaware of bacteria, attributed cholera in part to “suppressed perspiration” caused by drinking too much cold water on hot days. They slathered mustard poultices on the afflicted, prescribed laudanum, and restricted water intake—a treatment that only intensified suffering and hastened death since the primary danger from cholera and its related diarrhea and vomiting is dehydration.
The coup de grace of this miserable year came at five-thirty on the chilly Tuesday morning of November 18, when a fire broke out in a shoe dealer’s Water Street warehouse. A light rain hardly checked the flames. The fire, refreshed by a breeze blowing from the east, spread quickly to surrounding buildings. Captain Caleb Thaxter watched in dismay as his uninsured store next door was consumed by the blaze. Captain William Blackmer lost his house, barns, and shed, but fared better than his neighbor, having had the foresight to insure his property for $5,000. The fire shifted hungrily toward First Street, consuming several houses in its path.
Among the townsfolk roused by the clatter of fire wagons and shouting voices was surely Edward Robinson, whose new home was only a few blocks north of the blaze. Robinson must have hurried down to the scene, like other residents, to do what he could to help the fire company. It would have been in his famously domineering nature not just to help but to marshal forces and begin giving orders. By 8:30 A.M., crews had the fire under control. Robinson would have noted with satisfaction that no buildings or property belonging to Isaac Howland Jr. and Company had been damaged. And as New Bedford residents, soot-streaked and exhausted, staggered home to breakfast or perhaps a brief rest before the start of another workday, Robinson would have made his way back to the house at the corner of Seventh and Walnut to calm the nerves of his bride, Abby. Frail by nature, Abby was by now confined to bed, nine months pregnant and ready to give Edward Mott Robinson the only thing as valuable to him as his fortune; an heir to perpetuate the name of Robinson: a son.
Two or three days later, on November 21, 1834, Abby gave birth to a healthy girl, Hetty Howland Robinson.* Robinson spent little time doting over a daughter he had not wanted and a wife who had disappointed him. He poured his energies into the business. By the following summer, he moved his family to a home he considered more worthy of his rising status in New Bedford, a granite, Greek Revival mansion at the corner of Pleasant and Campbell streets, in the northern end of New Bedford. The house, which he leased for $920 per year, was a large square structure, with six fireplaces and three full floors, flanked on either side by large porches. It was big and institutional enough in its appearance that in later incarnations it would serve as New Bedford’s first hospital, St. Joseph’s, and, after that, as a convent.
Hetty would remain in this house only a short while. She was a lively child, with a pretty face and blue eyes, and much too robust for her mother. Before her second birthday, with Abby pregnant again, Hetty’s parents shunted her off to the home of her grandfather, Gideon. Gideon shared the home with Sylvia, as well as Ruth Howland, the late Isaac Howland’s second wife. Although Hetty would return to her natural parents from time to time, her grandfather’s house would be her principal home through much of her childhood. The elderly Ruth and the invalid Sylvia shared mothering duties as best they could so that the energies of the frail Abby could be spared for childbirth. On May 20, 1836, Abby gave birth to a son, whom the couple named Isaac Howland Robinson. Here was the heir that Robinson had so desired. Young Isaac had only to survive in order to grow into a fortune that, as the sole male heir, he would one day rule uncontested. Robinson would mold the lad, shape him—teach him to be thrifty and tough, to avoid debt, to demand a hard day’s work from employees, to value financial gain over sentimentality, to prosper, to trust no one. But it was not to be. The baby lacked Hetty’s strength and vigor and died in infancy.
While baby Isaac’s physical presence was brief and tenuous, his death would have a huge and lasting impact on the family, on Hetty, and on this story. For Abby, weakened both physically and emotionally by the birth and the loss, there was no question of having more children. Isaac’s death effectively removed whatever affection there had been between Abby and Edward. For Edward, the loss reinforced his belief that the world was a hard place where only the strongest survived; he became harder. But the greatest impact would be on Hetty, still too young to mourn her brother’s death. Had Isaac survived, it is difficult to imagine her evolving into the larger-than-life figure who dominated newspaper headlines for decades. His death left her as the lone direct heir to the fortune—which not only increased her wealth but intensified the sense of isolation that she carried throughout her life. She could not help but see the disappointment and bitterness in her father’s eyes.
Hetty did not return immediately to that unhappy household following Isaac’s death. She remained at her grandfather’s home. Abby, though not absent entirely from Hetty’s life, receded as the central female figure in her life. Undoubtedly the happiest times of Hetty’s young life were spent not in New Bedford proper but at Round Hill, an ancestral family farm located seven miles away at the seashore at South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. The centerpiece of Round Hill was a large farmhouse, the first sections of which dated to the early eighteenth century. The house, added to by subsequent generations, sat on high land with excellent views of Buzzards Bay and the Elizabeth Islands. The house was in many ways the heart of the Howland clan. It had been the site of many Quaker meetings.
When Hetty was a girl, the extended Howland family held yearly reunions at Round Hill. These formal events drew a hundred or more relatives. The group gathered under a large tent near the farmhouse in the afternoon. After a reading from Scripture, the company enjoyed a large feast, then took a collection to pay for the meal, usually around $60. Hetty may have attended these meetings, with Sylvia or Abby. She loved the open spaces at Round Hill, the walks down to the sea, and especially, the horses. By six she was learning to drive a carriage, and all of her life she prided herself on her knowledge of horses.
She was also, in the absence of a strong, consistent mother figure, and with a father whose attentions were at best uncertain, developing into a willful and headstrong child. When Hetty was six or seven, her family instructed a servant to take her to see a dentist on the upper floor of a building on Union Street. William Crapo, a New Bedford schoolboy, was visiting the office at the same time. Crapo (pronounced CRAY-po) would grow up to become one of New Bedford’s leading citizens—attorney, industrialist, banker, and three-term United States congressman. As an attorney for Hetty’s father, Aunt Sylvia, and for Hetty herself, Crapo would find himself inextricably intertwined in her personal and legal affairs. Crapo, four years her senior, understood Hetty as few others did; he was able to speak to her with a directness and irreverence that few others dared—and Hetty liked and respected him for it. Even in their later years when Hetty would make Crapo the subject of one of her innumerable lawsuits, they never lost their mutual affection and their ability to tease one another.
Crapo had not yet met Hetty when he sat in the dentist’s office. But he never forgot what he saw. As the dentist approached her chair, Hetty screamed and yelled, flailing her arms and legs. The dentist tried different approaches, but each time Hetty beat him back. At last, the servant produced a silver half-dollar from his pocket and told Hetty the money was a gift from her mother, so long as she behaved herself and allowed the dentist to do his work. The girl stopped screaming and looked at the silver piece. After a moment she reluctantly allowed the wary dentist to proceed. When he was finished, Hetty snatched the half-dollar from the servant’s hand and, still smoldering, walked out the door.
Only later did Crapo meet Hetty and make the connection; but the scene stayed with him for the rest of his life as representing two of Hetty’s defining characteristics: her fiery stubbornness and her love of money. If most children’s natural inclination is to spend any booty immediately on candy or toys, Hetty showed no such urges, even as a child. Chances are that the half-dollar she earned at the dentist’s office went into a box in her room for safekeeping. She received an allowance of $1.50 per week, but, unlike other children with money in their pockets, she showed no desire to spend it. When she was eight, she later claimed, she marched down to a local bank, savings in hand, and opened her first account.
Her guardians sent Hetty away to school twice. The first time, when she was about eleven, she was sent to a Quaker school at Sandwich on Cape Cod, run by a woman named Eliza Wing. It was an austere, unforgiving, humorless place, where Hetty and the other girls were given simple food, plain rooms, and copious readings in the Bible, and were generally drilled in the virtues of self-denial. She spent a year at Friends Academy, a Quaker School in New Bedford, when she was sixteen, but missed most of the spring term with illness. Not long after that, she was sent to an altogether different school, run by Mrs. James Lowell in Boston. This was a sort of finishing school for young ladies from good Boston families. It was Aunt Sylvia who pushed for Mrs. Lowell’s school, in the hopes that it would rub off some of Hetty’s rough edges and make her a lady.
But none of these institutions made as much of an impression on Hetty as did the education she received in the area where well-brought-up girls were not expected to spend much time at all, the center of New Bedford business, the waterfront. As an older woman, Hetty told journalist Leigh Mitchell Hodges the origins of her interest in commerce: “My grandfather’s eyesight was failing and my father’s, too. And as soon as I learned to read it became my daily duty to read aloud to them the financial news of the world. In this way I came to know what stocks and bonds were, how the markets fluctuated, and the meaning of ‘bulls’ and ‘bears.’”
During these times, Hetty received the closest thing to warmth and approval that she would ever get from her father. More than a half century later, in a March 1900 article for Harper’s Bazar about women and money, she recalled fondly: “When quite a child I was required to read the reports of the stock markets and of various business transactions to my father who would carefully explain to me those things I did not understand. I was also obliged to keep a strict account of personal and household expenses. All these things were most useful in forming the mind for business responsibilities when it became necessary to assume them.”
She could not have had a better teacher than Edward Robinson. He may have married into money, but he was hardly a dandy looking for an easy life. He seized the opportunity and brought Isaac Howland Jr. and Company to its greatest heights. He was feared along the docks but always respected. His nickname, “Black Hawk,” owed itself to his dark whiskers and a certain hawklike arrangement of his features; but it also gave an effective description of a man who was dark by nature and observant of everything around him. Gideon Howland, Hetty’s grandfather and Edward’s father-in-law, died in 1847, when Hetty was thirteen years old. With the exception of minor bequests to some relatives, Gideon passed along his estate, including his interest in the whaling company, to his daughters, Abby and Sylvia. This not only enriched Robinson, it consolidated his control. Thomas Mandell, a longtime employee, was a minor partner. As a woman and an invalid, Sylvia, despite her considerable financial interest in the company, had no role in its daily operations. Edward Robinson had virtually full control over the most powerful whaling company in the country. An anonymous New Bedford writer, quoted by Howland genealogist William Emery, called Robinson “the very Napoleon of our little business community” in 1852. “If his life and faculties are spared to him to old age, he will be one of the richest men in New Bedford, and his daughter will be an heiress of immense wealth, both from her father’s and the Howland side.”