Bellows Falls buzzed with the impending arrival of Edward Green and his family in the spring of 1874. Despite its somewhat remote location, thirty miles north of Bratdeboro and tucked away on a bend in the Connecticut River, this was no hayseed town. The name came from an early settler named Benjamin Bellows, but the rather industrial image it conjures is appropriate. The village was founded principally on paper mills and the transportation industry. A man-made canal cut through the heart of town, and by the mid-nineteenth century Bellows Falls was an important railroad junction, connecting Burlington and Montpelier upstate with Hartford, Boston, New York, and New Hampshire. There was a prosperous downtown with good hotels and fine old homes lining a promontory overlooking the river. Visitors were not uncommon. But this was no ordinary arrival.
Edward Green, the scion of a prominent Bellows Falls family, was returning to his hometown as a wealthy man of the world. The Tuckers, on his mother’s side, owned the toll bridge leading from Bellows Falls across the river to Walpole, New Hampshire. His father, Henry Atkinson Green, had come to Bellows Falls from Massachusetts and established Hall and Green, a large store on the river side of the main town square. Older residents remembered Edward Green as a tall, lanky, affable youth who loved to play along the river with other boys, watching and imitating the river men who guided their craft through the canal that bisected the town. One day, as Edward stood on a wooden bridge watching his hero, Jack Adams, navigate the canal, he leaned so far over the barricade that he fell twenty feet into the water and nearly drowned. Jack Adams added to his local legend by fishing the boy safely out of the water; Edward added to his reputation as a bit of a dreamer.
But in the years since he had left town, no one could deny that Edward Green had made his dreams come true in the most spectacular fashion. His mother, Anna, had kept the town well informed of Edward’s progress, his business successes and his adventures in Asia. As a bachelor, Edward had returned from time to time, bringing along a bulldog and a manservant. He spent money freely, wore fancy clothes, and impressed old friends with snippets of Chinese and other languages he’d picked up overseas. He invariably bore expensive gifts for his beloved mother, including an ornate Chinese lacquer workstand, embossed with gold figures and set on thin legs supported by golden dragons. When he learned that his mother planned to visit New York, he directed her to buy furs and charge them to his New York agent. When she returned with a nice but not exceptional mink coat, Green gave it to his sister and replaced his mother’s coat with Russian sable. He sent her money regularly from the Philippines, particularly after his father’s death in 1863, and bought her a neat cottage on Henry Street, one of the most prominent residential streets in town. And now, to top off his legend, Edward was returning home with two children, ages six and three, and a fabulous millionaire wife.
Anticipation over Edward’s arrival was overshadowed by the gossip, excitement, and expectations surrounding his wife. Edward was rich, but his wife had money on a scale that people in Bellows Falls could not comprehend. What would this woman be like? Would she be dour or sweet? Would she put on airs or mix with the common folk? Was there a house in town grand enough to suit a woman of her wealth, or would she direct Edward to build for her some Xanadu on a hillside? Would she hold grand balls and elegant teas? Would they be invited? What gowns and jewels would she wear? What should they wear? Just how did one behave in the presence of so much money?
It is safe to say that when the Greens stepped off the train in their new home, the reaction was not so much disappointment as quiet wonder. At forty-one Hetty still had a pretty face and a fine complexion, but her dress was downright homely. Her hair looked as though she hadn’t given it a thought. She spoke not in the low, regal manner they might have expected, but in harsher, earthier tones, and, when angered, she could cuss like a dockworker. Within a few weeks of her arrival, if any of the townsfolk even remembered their predictions of aristocracy in their midst, it was only with an ironic laugh.
The Greens moved in with Edward’s mother, into the house on Henry Street that Edward had bought as a gift. Nobody was more shocked by Hetty than Anna Green’s Irish cook and maid, Mary. On the day of the Greens’ arrival, Mary spent all day in the kitchen, preparing a homecoming feast. She curled her black hair and put on a crisp white muslin uniform with a starched overskirt and ruffles. She did not greet the family at the door, but waited in the kitchen in order to make a proper appearance. When the family was ready to eat, Mary adjusted her uniform, took a deep breath, and entered the dining room. The heiress staring back at her wore old, soiled-looking garments. Later, Mary swore that Hetty’s hands were not clean.
Hetty and Mary disliked each other from the start. Hetty thought Mary wasted money shopping for family meals. In fact, she considered Mary herself a wasteful expense and would have fired her had she not been Anna’s maid. Hetty insisted on doing most of the shopping herself, and would return to the house bearing the cheapest flour she could find, and bags of broken cookies that grocers sold cheap. Grocer Patrick J. Keane said she always redeemed her berry boxes for a nickel refund, and asked for—and received—free bones for the family dog.
A half century later, Mary, interviewed by a Bellows Falls historian named Lyman Simpson Hayes, was still scathing in her assessment of Hetty Green. One day, Mary recalled, Hetty brought from the butcher “a bit of meat no bigger than half my hand. And one would eat the meat and the other gnaw the bone.”
People began to view Edward in a different light. He had not changed so much in personality—he still loved the companionship of friends, loved a hearty laugh over lunch downtown, was still generous on an individual basis with friends in need. And yet to the extent that any marriage is a battle of wills, Hetty clearly held the upper hand. Her parsimony ruled the home and Edward, instead of insisting on the luxuries he adored, quietly acceded. When the Greens first arrived in town, they took pleasure rides in Edward’s barouche, a fancy, four-wheeled carriage with a collapsible top, double seats facing each other inside the carriage, and an outside front seat for the driver, along with a pair of fine horses. Hetty decided the rig was too fancy. She sold the carriage and horses, and paid $10 for an old horse and a modest jump seat wagon, barely large enough to fit the family. In the subtle way that reputations shift, Edward was no longer the conquering hero to the admiring throngs of Bellows Falls, but a man making the best of a difficult situation.
Edward’s mother was no match for Hetty’s forceful nature. Anna had no doubt expected to live out her remaining days in genteel comfort and contentment, surrounded by Edward, his bride, and the two grandchildren. Instead, she found herself sharing her suddenly too small home with a loud, opinionated woman who questioned every incidental expense, harangued her beloved maid, and didn’t even bother to make herself presentable. Neighbors on Henry Street were shocked one day to see Hetty on the roof, seated, wearing hoop skirts, hammering away. Why pay workmen for a simple repair job?
It was all too much for Mary. She threatened to quit. Anna, terrified at the prospect of days alone with her daughter-in-law, begged her to stay. Mary agreed, and remained until the next summer, when on June 28, 1875, at seventy-three, Anna died. Regarding Anna’s death we have only Mary’s wholly biased and nonmedical diagnosis that distress over Hetty’s overbearing ways sped her decline. At any rate, Anna’s funeral led to one of the few times that Mary (or anyone else) saw Edward react violently to Hetty. As the family gathered for a postfuneral dinner, Edward raised a drinking glass to his lips and noticed it was old and cracked. This was not his mother’s prized crystal, but cheap kitchen ware.
“Where is the crystal?” he asked evenly.
Hetty told him she’d packed it away. No point risking valuable heirlooms when everyday glasses hold liquid just as well. Edward stared at the glass, his face slowly flushing with anger. He stood, hurled the glass against a wall, shattering it, and walked out of the room.
At other times, Edward’s protest was more reserved. One day, as he headed to the station to catch a train for New York, Hetty discovered that he had forgotten to take along an extra pair of pants. She followed him to the train and handed him the pants, which he took without comment. When the train rolled out of the station, Edward discreetly tossed them into the canal below.
Soon after that, Hetty and Mary had the mutual pleasure of parting company. Mary dragged her bags to the door and insisted that Hetty open and examine them so she could never accuse Mary of stealing. They argued over her final paycheck. Hetty refused to pay. Mary found Edward having lunch with some friends at a hotel. She approached his table and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time I had my pay?” Green, chagrined, sent to the hotel’s office for pen and ink, and promptly wrote Mary a check for the full amount.
In 1879, five years after the family arrived in Bellows Falls, Edward Green made what would prove to be the last major material purchase of his life, his final grand gesture in the face of Hetty’s irresistible penury. He bought a large, square, yellow brick home on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River, around the corner from Henry Street. Built in 1806, the house had been owned by his grandfather, owner of the toll bridge. Known as the Tucker House, it was an imposing structure with immense chimneys and a widow’s walk crowning the roof. The house occupied a choice piece of ground just south of the town square, at the corner of Church and Westminster Streets. From a rocking chair on the broad front porch, you could look down to the river or across to the sheer face of Mount Kilburn in New Hampshire.
Inside, the house was dominated by a wide central hallway and a beautiful winding staircase. On the left side were two large rooms connected by a wide passageway; on the right, a parlor and a dining room. Among the furnishings was a portrait of Hetty, painted years earlier, which hung over the mantelpiece. There were also a few valuable pieces that Edward had picked up in the Far East, including the Chinese lacquered stand Edward had bought for his mother. Hetty may well have disapproved of the purchase of the Tucker House. It was too big; it cost too much to heat. It was said that in later years when she stayed there she added makeshift partitions to cut the size of the rooms, and the expense of fuel. But she grew undeniably fond of the house. For a woman who had shuttled from house to house from infancy, the Tucker House became the closest thing she would ever have to her own home. Even when she moved away from Bellows Falls, she returned often to the refuge of its walls.
When the children were old enough, they were enrolled in local schools. Sylvia attended the rectory school at Immanuel Episcopal Church. She was a shy girl by nature, overshadowed throughout her life by a strong and domineering mother. She seems to have had few close friends at any period of her life, but one of her first became one of her best, Mary Nims. Mary lived outside the village center, so she carried a lunch to eat at school while the village children went home. Sylvia ate a hurried lunch at home, then rushed back to school to keep Mary company. Mary recalled Sylvia as a shy but sweet girl who always shared her candy. “Her school dresses were clean and inexpensive. She wore glasses and a stiff little sailor hat that was too small for her was perched on her head. When we all dressed for last day exercises she appeared in a very elaborate dress made with many ruffles of white embroidery that looked like a Godey print. She said it came from England.”
Once the town folk got used to the fact that Hetty Green would not reign as the queen of Bellows Falls, they began to see her, with a mixture of consternation and affection, as a celebrated oddball. Hetty stories developed into a local currency; everyone had at least two or three, and they were handed down by word of mouth, some even to this day, until it is not always clear which are apocryphal and which based on fact. She was, as one local historian put it, “at once the pride and pain of the town.”
Stable hands traded stories about Hetty’s penny-pinching over the family’s carriages and horses. Boarding a horse for the winter, she drove a hard bargain with one stable owner, refusing to pay more than two dollars per week. When the owner informed her that such a small payment could buy only hay for feed, no grain, Hetty is supposed to have replied, “Just hay, then.” The next spring, Hetty discovered the horse looking thin and haggard. The hostler is said to have fed the horse grain from his own pocket. But a winter epidemic had besieged the horses. When the hostler explained the situation to Hetty, she was unimpressed. She refused to pay the bill, saying, “If the horse had had decent feed he would not be so thin.”
Local merchants and others with whom Hetty traded heard her talk at length about her Aunt Sylvia’s estate—in particular about the large number of people awaiting their share of the fortune. “They’re only waiting for me to die so they can have my money,” she would say. “But I’ll fool them. I’ll take such good care of myself that I’ll never be ill. They’ll see who laughs last.”
Among the most celebrated stories in town concerned her obsessive search for a postage stamp. The story began when Hetty took a daylong drive with her horse and carriage, returning the rig to the stable in the evening. “Some time later, after bedtime, there came a knock at the hostler’s door,” Lyman Simpson Hayes wrote. “Mrs. Green presented herself to say that while absent that day she had bought a two-cent stamp which she was now unable to find. The man must get up and help her look for it. With a groan he arose, lighted a kerosene lantern, and the two searched the wagon and stable, but without success. The next move was to The Island House, a Bellows Falls hotel where she had spent some time in the afternoon. Together on hands and knees by the smoky gleam of the lantern they searched the grassy lawn inch by inch, to no avail. Long after his visitor had departed, when silence had descended upon the stable, the hostler was again aroused to be informed that the valuable piece of property had at last been located—inside her clothing, where it had been placed for safe keeping.”
Merchants reportedly tried to lie low when they saw Hetty Green approaching. She was known to demand the cheapest possible goods and, still, to haggle endlessly over a bill. One shopkeeper remembered that Hetty had come into his shop and, as was her custom, began handling the merchandise. The storekeeper watched in dismay—her hands were black. She explained that she had been pulling some reusable nails out of some boards that had been damaged in a fire in her barn. When she brought her skirt to Wheeler’s Laundry, she is said to have asked that only the bottom portions be washed—the parts that swished through the alternately muddy and dusty street.
In later years, when the family traveled and rented out the Tucker House for periods while they were away, Hetty rented a room over a Bellows Falls bank to store some furniture. A cat apparently entered the room and, unable to find a way out, began to wail. Hetty had taken the key with her to New York, so someone raised a ladder at the rear of the building, broke a window, and retrieved the cat. Months later, Hetty is supposed to have returned to Bellows Falls and found the broken pane upstairs. Fearing she might be charged for the breakage, and as yet unaware of the cat incident, Hetty supposedly picked up a loose cobblestone and presented it to a bank employee, saying, “There’s a lot of glass broken upstairs. Don’t expect me to pay for it. Someone threw this stone through the window. I found it on the floor up there.” As Hetty marched out, the cashier turned the stone over and discovered that it was still damp on one side—a sure indication that Hetty had just picked it up from the street.
Whether consciously or not, Hetty courted the reputation that followed her throughout her life. The more outrageous tales were merely extensions of her habits and behavior and the way of life she followed. More than most people, she had the resources to create for herself any life and any reputation she chose. For her children it was another matter entirely. Ned and Sylvia spent their early years living an odd double life as rich kids whose mother behaved as if they were poor. They wore ill-fitting clothes and got used to being pointed to and whispered about, not out of jealousy, but out of pity.
Ned’s awkwardness was accentuated by a pronounced limp, the result of a childhood sledding accident. The accident is generally believed to have occurred in Bellows Falls during one of the family’s first winters there. But Mary Nims remembered Hetty saying the accident took place earlier, in New York, shortly after they returned from England. “She told my mother that during their first winter in New York there was a snow storm and they bought Edward a sled so that he might slide with the other boys in the park. He had never before seen snow so his enthusiasm over the sport was so great that he injured his knee jumping onto his sled.” As for the nature of the injury, it does not seem to have been a fracture, because Edward continued to walk on the leg after it happened. According to some reports, he dislocated his kneecap. At any rate, the problem was chronic and worsened over time.
Of all of the myths and legends about Hetty’s miserliness handed down from generation to generation, the most persistent and unflattering is that she allowed her son’s leg to worsen over the years because she was too cheap to seek the care of doctors. As with most myths, the actual story is more complex. It is true that Hetty’s contempt for doctors and their bills, exceeded only by her contempt for lawyers, led her to take advantage of doctors in ways that were unseemly. Fearful of being charged a millionaire markup should she and Ned use their real names and visit doctors in their offices, Hetty was not above hauling her son to a free clinic, dressed in tattered clothes, where those same doctors volunteered their time. For her to take advantage of doctors’ goodwill in this manner was of course reprehensible. For her to even think of money when her son’s well-being was at stake was inexcusable, except to say that Hetty Green never thought of anything without evaluating its cost, and never received a bill that she did not question.
And yet the suggestion that Hetty stood by cavalierly while Ned’s leg withered away is both inaccurate and unfair. In fact, Hetty did seek medical care, repeatedly. Her son was the principal love of her life. Looking across the broad canvas of their odd but loving relationship, their devotion to one another until the day Hetty died, it is inconceivable that Hetty would have endured Ned’s suffering in order to save money. It is equally inconceivable that Edward, for all of his acquiescence to Hetty in other matters, would have allowed Hetty to neglect Ned’s condition. Without knowing the exact nature of the injury it is impossible to say whether this treatment or that might have saved the leg. But the Greens did try. When not seeking formal medical opinions, Hetty, who always fancied herself a nurse, tried innumerable home remedies in her futile effort to make her son whole again. The first time Mary Nims met the Greens, Hetty was on just such a mission.
“We heard much gossip about the fabulous Mrs. Green and her peculiar way of living, so when the Greens in their ancient carriage drove into our yard, there was considerable excitement,” she recalled in memoirs written decades later. “It was a warm day and the blinds on the south side of the living room were closed. From behind this screen a little girl friend and I, with our maid, had a good view of the visitors and made appreciative comments. Mr. Green, who was driving, did not get out of the carriage. His wife did, and attended to the errand on which they came, while two children, a girl my age and a very lame boy, played about the yard.
“My father raised tobacco and Mrs. Green had heard that tobacco leaves bound on Edward’s leg would loosen the contracted ligaments,” Mary recalled. “He furnished Mrs. Green liberally with the dry tobacco leaves and had an interesting talk with Mr. Green about Manila and his experiences with earthquakes.”
Hetty’s homegrown tobacco remedy failed to correct Ned’s condition, as did all of the other cures suggested by laypeople and physicians alike. Ned was tall, like his father, and as he grew his weight put added strain on the weakened leg.
For all of the oddities that others saw in Hetty and her family, these years in Vermont were the most outwardly conventional of her life. Edward traveled frequently to New York on business by train, leaving Hetty behind with the children. Hetty was still a relatively obscure figure on Wall Street in comparison with her husband. He was an active trader in railroad stocks and bonds, and for a time served on the board of directors of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, in which he was a heavy holder. He conducted his transactions through John J. Cisco and Son, a prominent Wall Street financial house. When Edward traded, he did so with his own money. Hetty had laid down the law in no uncertain terms that he was not to use her principal in his transactions. Hetty did her banking with Cisco as well. She had a little over a half-million dollars in cash deposits with the bank, a fraction of her overall wealth but enough to make her Cisco’s largest depositor. The rest of her fortune, now totaling more than $26 million in mortgages, bonds, and other securities, and growing all the time, was stashed safely in Cisco vaults, away from the hands of Edward, Cisco partners, or anyone else. She visited New York only on occasion, and concentrated on keeping her house and raising her two children. All of that was about to change.