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The 'Witch of Wall Street' was a miser

Published July 14. 2012 09:01AM

A century ago, Edward Howland Green, an American businessman and the only son of the penny-pinching Hetty Green, would have been a good candidate for "The Bachelor" reality television show, had it been around at the time.

In an opinion in September of 1911, a writer for the Tamaqua Courier said that Edward or "Ned" as he was known, had received a total of 6,242 marriage proposals, which the writer said was a world's record at the time.

A hard partier and lavish spender, Ned was often seen in the company of attractive young women, and they were reportedly well paid for their services.

"The 6,242 who have submitted their charms to the inspection of Green are simply following the way of the modern world," the Courier writer stated.

Ned and his mother would also have been prime subjects for the lenses of today's paparazzi. While Ned held the record for marriage proposals, his mother, nicknamed "the Witch of Wall Street" by the media, was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the World's Greatest Miser.

Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in 1834 to Quaker parents in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the family owned a large whaling fleet and profited from the China trade.

Hetty showed an early aptitude for marketing and numbers. At the age of six, she was reading financial papers to her father and at 13, she became the family bookkeeper.

At the age of 15, she went to a school in Boston and would marry silk trader Edward Green. When her father died in 1864, she inherited $7.5 million (about $110 million in today's adjusted inflation dollars) in liquid assets, and against the objections of most of her family, invested in Civil War war bonds.

Dealing mainly in real estate, railroad investing and loans, Hetty eventually became the first women to rake in a fortune on Wall Street. During the Panic of 1907, when New York City needed loans to stay afloat, Hetty wrote a check for $1.1 million.

Although her detail-oriented strategy led to a personal fortune, Hetty's frugal ways were also legendary, a quality which many felt was due in part to her Quaker upbringing. There were many examples of why she was rated by Guinness as the World's Greatest Miser.

In an era when few women would dare travel unescorted, she often went thousands of miles just to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars. She also rode in an old carriage and in her residence, never turned on the heat or used hot water.

In some cases, frugality trumped personal hygiene. She reportedly never washed her hands in order to save money on soap and instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dress. In fact, she reportedly wore the same old black dress constantly and changed undergarments only after they had been worn out.

That plain black dress was what inspired many to begin calling her the "Witch of Wall Street."

There were many other stories about her legendary thriftiness. She ate mostly pies that cost 15 cents. Another said that she spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents.

Hetty conducted much of her business at the offices of the Seaboard National Bank in New York. She was surrounded by trunks and suitcases full of her papers because she did not want to pay rent for an office.

Hetty's penny-pinching ways also extended to family life. When Ned broke his leg as a child, Hetty tried to have him admitted in a free clinic for the poor but was recognized, and stormed away. She procrastinated about seeking treatment for her son, turning instead to home remedies. Later, after years of unsuccessful treatment, the leg was amputated and Ned ended up with a cork prosthesis.

Hetty lived out her later years in inexpensive lodgings in Hoboken, N.J. When she died on July 3, 1916, she was thought to be the richest woman in America. Ned and his sister Sylvia each inherited half of their mother's fortune of $150 million

Although Ned ended up with a prosthetic leg, he grew to be 6'4" and 300 pounds, a giant of a man in any era of time.

After studying real estate law at Fordham College, his mother sent him to manage the Texas Midland Railroad, which she had acquired by foreclosure. He turned the ailing enterprise into what one reporter called "a model railroad boasting the first electrically-lighted coaches in the state."

This was just one of Ned's many successful business ventures.

He also became active in state politics and although a Republican, was a high- ranking staff member for the Democratic governor of Texas.

While he had his mother's business sense, Ned's personal life was the kind in which today's tabloid papers and television entertainment shows would have had a field day.

Since Hetty strongly opposed the idea of her son marrying, he had to wait until after her death in 1916 to wed his longtime companion Mabel E. Harlow, a prostitute.

After Ned's death in 1936, his widow and his sister fought over the estate, estimated to be worth $44,384,500. Ned had gotten Mabel to sign a prenuptial agreement which limited her to a $1,500 monthly stipend, but she challenged it in court and eventually ended up settling for $500,000.

Today, Tom Cruise would consider that kind of payout a bargain in his divorce settlement with Katie Holmes.

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