Biographies & Memoirs



The horde of would-be trustees, heirs, and beneficiaries would have to wait more than a year for Justice Nathan Clifford to hand down his decision. Not surprisingly, the only parties assured of getting substantial chunks of Sylvia’s fortune were the teams of lawyers representing both sides—seven for Hetty; three for the trustees. Hetty’s side had included a former governor, John H. Clifford (no relation to the judge); the trustees’ roster included a former Massachusetts Supreme Court justice, B. F. Thomas. The reams of testimony (covering more than one thousand large pages) gathered from all those scientific experts and celebrities had not simply made for entertaining legal theater. It was also a world-class case of churning on the part of attorneys who, by the time they were finished, had racked up more than $150,000 in fees.

Hetty retreated into the company of the one man who had showed her unstinting loyalty—Edward Henry Green. In the two years since they met, Edward had barely experienced a time of peace, first supporting Hetty through the deaths of her father and aunt, then being plunged into Hetty’s bizarre world of intrigue, recrimination, scheming, and anger. While he was eager to help Hetty, Edward had put his own reputation on the line by making himself a party to her schemes; and, to the extent that he corroborated portions of Hetty’s fabulous tale of the “second page,” Edward Green quite probably lied under oath.

Hetty and Edward were married on July 11, 1867, more than two years after becoming engaged. The scene of their wedding was, significantly, not New Bedford. The ceremony took place in New York, at the Bond Street home of Henry Grinnell, the relative who had hosted her on her earlier visits to the city. Edward was forty-six; Hetty was thirty-three, well into her spinster years according to the customs of the times, but still a lovely young woman with a fair, clear complexion, blue eyes, and attractive figure.

Among the small wedding party was her maid of honor Annie Leary, a young society woman whom Hetty had met during her earlier stays with the Grinnells. Annie and Hetty were opposites in many respects and this, perhaps, helped explain their attraction. Leary, a Catholic, was one of six children of James Leary, a Manhattan hatter whose business was located at the corner of Broadway and Vesey Streets downtown. Leary made his fortune serving some of the most prominent New Yorkers, among them, John Jacob Astor. Annie reveled in her fortune, and in the power her money gave her, both to enjoy the finer things and to support charitable and civic causes. For her efforts on behalf of Catholic charities, in particular to help the children of poor Catholic immigrants, she would be named a papal countess. She spent much of her adult life in a large limestone house at 1032 Fifth Avenue. Although she never married, Annie was an extrovert, a social creature who loved to throw elegant parties with her home lit up and smart people coming and going throughout the night. She had a fondness for fine objects, with a special appreciation for large, ornate, gilt-edged mirrors. According to one count she had sixty-eight. Their enduring, lifelong friendship was a remarkable feature of Hetty’s life, given that Hetty has frequently been portrayed as a dour woman to whom friendship meant nothing.

Shortly after their wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Green sailed for England. This was more than just a honeymoon—they planned to live there, temporarily at least. While in Asia, Edward had developed a strong network of business contacts in England. But undoubtedly there were other reasons for the change of scenery. Hetty wanted to put as many miles as she could between herself and her recent past. Much of the testimony at the trial had been humiliating; every unattractive act or personal shortcoming was publicly exploited. New York, it seems, wasn’t far enough from New Bedford—an ocean would provide a more secure distance.

And then there was the looming issue of the trial, still waiting to be decided. This was a civil, not a criminal, trial, and Hetty had been the plaintiff, not the defendant. And yet the tables had turned during the course of the trial; as everyone knew, if the now-infamous “second page” was not genuine, then Hetty was by definition guilty of forgery. If Hetty was a forger, could criminal charges be far behind? Some of Hetty’s opponents had made rumblings about that possibility. Hetty may well have feared that she had finally gone too far. Some people suggested the relocation to England was a means of removing her from the arm of American justice. Hetty rejected any such insinuations as ridiculous. But still, she left.

One of the most persistent stories regarding the marriage is that Edward signed a prenuptial agreement laying no claim on Hetty’s fortune should she die first. It’s impossible today to verify whether such a document ever existed. But during this early phase of the Greens’ married life, Edward was making the choices about where and how they lived and he paid all the bills.

The Greens settled in London in the Langham Hotel, where they indulged Edward’s taste for the good life. The Langham, among the city’s first grand hotels, was just four years old when the Greens arrived in 1867, but already it was regarded as among London’s best and most fashionable addresses. It was located in Marylebone, in the northwestern portion of the city, along Portland Place. The Langham commanded fine views of Regent’s Park. It had been built for £300,000, with the latest plumbing and fire-resistant technology available. Four large pipes ran the height of the building, delivering water to each floor from tanks containing 50,000 gallons. The hotel boasted of its pure water sucked up from an artesian well sunk 365 feet into the ground. Shortly after the opening, the Langham became the place for visiting celebrities to stay. Guests included everyone from Napoleon III to Mark Twain. Twain wrote to a friend from the hotel in 1873, describing the rooms as “luxuriously ample” with fine views from broad windows out onto one of London’s best neighborhoods.

Marylebone was “the richest and most populous metropolitan parish,” according to The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland of 1868. The immediate neighborhood had a rich history. Boswell had lived in the area when he wrote his great biography, Life of Johnson, and Edward Gibbon had lived there for a time while completing his masterpiece, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Marylebone, according to the Gazetteer, “contained some of the finest squares, crescents, and mansions in the metropolis, including Cavendish and Portment-squares, Park-crescent and square, Manchester-square, Portland-place, the finest street in London, 100 feet wide, &c, and is inhabited by many of the first families in the empire, and likewise the Langham Hotel…. The inhabitants are chiefly gentry and trades-people, there being scarcely any manufactures.” It was, in short, just the sort of place Green adored, and just the sort of place for which Hetty liked to profess unbridled contempt.

The Greens lost no time in starting a family. Swathed in fine sheets and with all of the attentive care that the Langham staff could provide, Hetty became a mother on August 22, 1868, a littie over a year after she had become a wife. It was a boy. The Greens gave him a long name befitting his lineage and honoring both sides of the family: Edward Howland Robinson Green. To distinguish him from his father, the boy would be called Ned. The boy was less than three months old when word came from New England that Judge Clifford had reached a decision in the Aunt Sylvia case. The news couldn’t have surprised Hetty. The trustees had a much stronger case all along. But the decisiveness with which Clifford, on November 14, 1868, rebuked Hetty’s claims left little room for comfort.

The most damaging element of Clifford’s ruling was to exclude all portions of Hetty’s testimony related to the mutual wills she and Sylvia signed. Clifford’s basis for this decision was a Massachusetts law forbidding one member of a mutual will from testifying in his or her own favor, unless the other party was also alive and able to testify. Although the case was heard in a federal court, Clifford cited recent precedent that federal will cases should respect the laws of the state in which they are tried. Because of this ruling, it has been suggested that Clifford, in essence, tossed out the great will case on a mere technicality. In fact, Clifford’s detailed, exhaustive decision went on for some nineteen pages and left little wiggle room for Hetty’s side on any element of the case.

Even if Clifford had admitted (and believed) every word of Hetty’s testimony regarding the mutual wills, it is clear that his decision wouldn’t have changed, because he was deeply unimpressed by the wills themselves. “The two wills under consideration [Sylvia’s January 1862 will and Hetty’s from 1860] are not mutual wills in any proper sense, as recognized in the law of evidence or the decisions of the courts,” Clifford wrote, because they were signed at different times and because Hetty’s will left no money to Aunt Sylvia.

Ironically, the portions of the case that had made it such a crowd-pleaser—the mysterious contents of Aunt Sylvia’s hair-covered trunk, with its yellow and white envelopes being passed in the dim light after Sylvias funeral; and the star-studded testimony revolving around the forgery issues—had little bearing on the decision.

Clifford did not care whether the documents were genuine or forged, he said, or who passed them to whom and under what conditions, because, “viewed in any light, and assuming all the papers to be genuine, the evidence fails altogether, in the opinion of the court.” But the forgery portion of the trial was not a total waste of time—as Clifford himself predicted in his decision, the voluminous expert testimony would prove “highly important” in establishing rules of evidence in future forgery cases.

Hetty responded to the decision through her lawyers a month later with a notice of appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But before the appeal process began, Hetty and the trustees reached a compromise. Hetty agreed that each beneficiary would receive his or her bequest, plus 6 percent annually from the date of Sylvia’s death. But just when the matter seemed to have been settled, Hetty held up the process over the matter of taxes. She wanted the taxes on each gift deducted from the gift itself, or from the capital of the trust, rather than from the income. In other words, Hetty did not want to be paying the taxes on the gifts from her own income. It was a fairly nit-picking point, and yet the debate kept beneficiaries from getting paid for another year; the court decided that the taxes would be paid from the capital.

With the great battle at last over, the munificence from Aunt Sylvia, stalemated for seven years, began to flow in 1872 and spread around New Bedford like whale oil from a leaking barrel. Electa Montague, the loyal nurse now sixty-eight years old, received her $5,000 in cash, plus accrued interest. Pardon Gray, the old livery driver who had driven poor withered Sylvia on that shaded seven-mile ride from New Bedford to Round Hill, began to receive his modest stipend from the $10,000 placed in trust for him. Widows around town, those who lived to see the will enacted, saw their lives grow a measure more secure in their old age. In recognition of her $100,000 gift for the New Bedford Free Public Library and other educational purposes, the city erected a marble tablet praising Sylvia’s “enlightened liberality” in “extending to the children and youth of the city the means of wider and more generous culture.” The library placed a bust of Sylvia on its second floor.

Two decades later the city built a red brick schoolhouse and named it Sylvia Ann Howland School. The $50,000 she had left “to be divided among the poor, aged and infirm women of New Bedford, to the most neediest cases,” was used by the trustees to found a private charity. The New Bedford Orphans’ Home found itself with $20,000, and the City of New Bedford received $100,000 to pipe water into the city. Twenty thousand dollars went to establish a sailors’ home, to care for the men whose toil and risk had helped make the fortune possible. Sylvia, who spent so much of her life shut away from others, taking refuge from her tortured body in the pages of romance novels set worlds away from New Bedford, became a benefactress and public figure in death that she had never been in life.

Dr. Gordon, already receiving thousands of dollars each year in commissions as trustee, received a lump sum of $100,000 plus $15,000 for his wife and children, along with 6 percent accrued annual interest. Thomas Mandell, the head trustee, took home $200,000 plus interest. For all those lump payments, there remained a $1.3 million chunk of principal—enough to supply Hetty with an income of $65,000 a year for life. She also received a large up-front payment. Mandell had invested much of the estate in U.S. government 6-percent gold bonds, and reinvested both the interest and dividend. When the estate battle was settled, Mandell handed Hetty’s lawyer, William Crapo, a stack of bonds worth $600,000 face value. Their value on the market was worth considerably more than that. Crapo, who transferred the bonds to Hetty, noted dryly in his introduction to William Emery’s The Howland Heirs, “Mrs. Green apparently had not suffered by the long delay and expensive litigation.”

On January 7, 1871, thirty-five-year-old Hetty gave birth to the Greens’ second child, a girl, named Hetty Sylvia Ann Howland Green. The girl would always be known as Sylvia, rather than Hetty, and Hetty would point to her daughter’s name as proof of the love that had existed between Hetty and her aunt.

When the children were old enough, she took them for walks around London. Hetty prided herself on the Quaker traditions of home healing, and on her own abilities as a nurse. Years after returning to the United States, she recalled an incident that occurred one day as she walked with Ned and Sylvia on Prince of Wales Terrace, a small street on the south side of Kensington Road, near Kensington Gardens. The driver of a passing cart suddenly fell from his vehicle, Hetty told reporter Leigh Mitchell Hodges of The Ladies’ Home Journal. As Hetty told it, the man went into seizures and the small crowd that gathered had no idea what to do. Hetty told Ned to watch Sylvia carefully and stand next to a tree. “Mrs. Green sent one man for water and another for a doctor. Then with her handkerchief she washed out the cuts received in the fall, and bandaged them, and ordered the man carried into the shop nearby.”

“‘It wasn’t any more than I would have done for anyone,’” Hetty told Hodges. “‘But those simple folk would have let him bleed to death while they wondered what to do. You can imagine my surprise when, as I started back to the children, a footman in gorgeous livery bowed to me and said “The Marchioness of Something” wished to present her compliments and desired to see me. Curious to know what she wanted I followed him to a great house on the Terrace. The Marchioness came out and greeted me warmly. She said she had watched the whole proceeding from her window and wanted me to know how she admired what I had done. I was just the woman she was looking for. A charity hospital in which she was interested needed a superintendent. If I would accept the place she would have me appointed, and there was a cottage near the hospital in which my family might live.’”

Hetty continued: “‘I didn’t like to hurt her feelings by telling her I didn’t have to work for my living, so I thanked her and said I could not then accept the offer. She insisted, but I declined. As we walked home I noticed her footman following quite a way behind.’” The footman followed her and was stunned to see Hetty enter the Langham. He asked her identity at the front desk. “‘An hour or so afterward a note came from the Marchioness. She begged to apologize; she hadn’t the least idea who I was when she sent for me, and all that. A whole lot of tickets to bazaars and entertainments, of which she was a patroness, were enclosed. I sent these back with thanks, and a day or two after that called on her and told her she needn’t have offered any apology, as I indeed felt highly honored that anyone could consider me at all fitted for such a position as the one she offered me.’”

Edward spent his London years as a gentleman banker, serving on the boards of several London banks, making the rounds of clubs, and enjoying the life of a gentleman. Hetty was already busy tending to her fortune. The extent to which Hetty and Edward worked together on financial matters is unclear, and Edward may well have advised her on investments in the early stages. But she was already establishing the patterns of investment that would define her career, sticking with conservative instruments such as United States bonds, and having the cool head to stay on her course when others panicked. From the time she inherited her first lump from her father in 1865, Hetty had been buying up United States “greenback” notes.

The government had printed large quantities of these notes immediately after the Civil War, to cover its huge expenditures. The Union had won military victory, but people were still quite apprehensive about the prospects, particularly the economic prospects, of the ragged and still-fragile reunified country. Unease caused a rush to gold, and the greenbacks dropped to as low as forty or fifty cents on the dollar of gold. While others lost their nerve and sold greenbacks, Hetty bought. John T. Flynn, who wrote about Hetty’s career a few years after her death, summed it up nicely in his book, Men of Wealth:

Here was an excellent chance for any far-seeing person to pick up government securities at half their value. All it required was a little faith in the nation that had just demonstrated in a most extraordinary way its ability to come through a terrific civil war. Looking back at it now, the recovery of the country ought to have seemed a sure thing to any observer. The war had given an immense impetus to the resources of the continent—coal, iron, oil, copper, gold, and silver were just being discovered and developed. But for all that, the nation’s credit was at a low ebb and through 1865, 1866, and 1867 Hetty Robinson bought all the government bonds she could lay hold of.

She continued this strategy in England, claiming in a single year to have made $1.25 million from her bond investments alone. Her income from the two trusts was now very substantial. Her father’s estate of some $5 million, even under management she openly detested, was yielding her several thousand dollars per week in interest and dividends. She was able to put all of this money to work in U.S. bonds, and she began branching out in railroad bonds issued to finance the rapidly expanding rail network. With Edward handling the living expenses, Hetty had nothing to do with all of her money but to keep investing and reinvesting principal and income. Within a few years her fortune doubled, tripled, quadrupled.

“Two hundred thousand dollars is the largest sum I ever made in a single day,” she told Leigh Mitchell Hodges of her days in London, “though I’ve cleared more than that on single deals.” As her cash piled up and she sought new investments, she became a de facto bank. Her holdings, indeed, were growing larger than those of many banks of the day, in England or America. Banks in need of cash would sell Hetty loans they had made to parties using property as collateral. When inevitably some of the borrowers defaulted on their loans, Hetty began to accrue property. This was the beginning of what would become a real estate empire.

Hetty (and Edward) had also begun to invest in U.S. railroads, expanding rapidly in the wake of the Civil War. It was this interest, probably, that led to their family’s decision to return to the United States after six years in the winter of 1873–74. It was one thing to invest in relatively static U.S. notes from abroad, quite another to keep tabs on the volatile world of railroads, which were as full of potential disaster as of promise. In 1873, the markets were particularly uneasy. Banks had extended loans to hundreds of railroads, in various states of completion—some amounting to little more than grand words in a prospectus. Bonds for these railroads flooded the market. In the fall of 1872, within less than three months, three major U.S. banks—the New York Warehouse and Security Company, Jay Cook and Company, and the Union Trust Company—failed. Other banks soon suspended operations. To stem the panic, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days. The distress that lingered through the entire next year became known as the panic of 1873. Before it was over, some eleven thousand companies had failed, and combined losses reached $380 million. Under the circumstances, Edward and Hetty decided they needed to be closer to the seat of their respective fortunes. After a brief stay in New York, they headed north to Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont.

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