Archive for the ‘Victorian Women’ Category

CORNELIA CONNELLY (1809 – 1879) Mother & Nun Who Founded a Religious Order

In Catholic Church, Italian History, Victorian Women on July 25, 2011 at 10:44 AM

Mother Cornelia Connelly

When someone tried to tell Cornelia Connelly what to do, she responded with stubborn determination, choosing what she knew was right for her.  The primary guiding force of her life was her faith, and she was willing to obey God and sacrifice whatever He asked of her.  When she made that promise, however, she had no idea how heartbreaking that sacrifice would turn out to be.

Connelly was born into a prominent Philadelphia Episcopalian family.  Her father died when she was nine years old and her mother died five years later. The fourteen year old girl and her five siblings were not orphaned, however, as several relatives incorporated them into their families.  Connelly was adopted by a half sister, Mrs. Montgomery, and was given classes in music, painting, modern languages and the social graces.

Mrs. Montgomery took seriously her responsibility to prepare her charge for a proper suitor, but she was no match for the curate of St. James Church.  Pierce Connelly was charming if not handsome, intelligent and an ambitious, charismatic minister.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Montgomery did not think his family was of worthy social standing, and she forbade Connelly to marry him.  That wasn’t a compelling enough reason for Connelly to stop seeing him, and   she ran away to live with her sister, Adeline Duval, who was much more sympathetic to matters of the heart.

Connelly was 22 years old and Pierce was 27 when they got married in December 1831.  The groom undoubtedly promised to love his bride until death separated them, and the bride in turn promised to obey her husband.  Whether he kept his promise or not depends on a definition of love, but she obediently followed him until it conflicted with her commitment to God’s will.

As newlyweds, the couple moved to Natchez, Mississippi where Pierce became the rector of Trinity Church.  One year later a son, Mercer, was born followed by a daughter, Adeline, in early 1835.

A CONVERSION EXPERIENCE                         In August, Pierce had a crisis of faith and renounced his Anglican Orders in order to study Roman Catholicism, which in his mind necessitated selling their property and going to Rome.  Connelly believed in the sincerity and integrity of her husband’s calling and found virtue in converting to Catholicism herself.  She followed her husband’s lead, but she did it her way.  Pierce was adamant about waiting to take the sacraments in the holy city, but his wife was ready immediately.  When the voyage from New Orleans was delayed several weeks, Connelly was received into the Catholic Church and took her First Communion before leaving the States.

After 60 days at sea and a stop in southern France, the Connellys final reached Rome in February 1836.  Pierce was received into the Catholic Church on Palm Sunday.  As a married couple with two children coming all the way from America to join the Church, the Connellys were a novelty.  They quickly integrated into local society, had an audience with Pope Gregory XVI and were frequent visitors of the influential Borghese family.  A son, John Henry (“Harry”), was born while they were in Europe.

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU PRAY FOR                        About a year later, the Connellys had to return to Louisiana to take care of a financial crisis, and Pierce got a job as an English professor, giving them a place to live on campus.  Another daughter was born, but she died after only a few weeks.  For a couple of years the family lived an idyllic life, and Connelly blissfully filled her days teaching with the nuns at the Convent of the Sacred Heart.  One day while watching the children play outside, Connelly prayed, “My God, if all this happiness is not to Thy greater Glory and the good of my soul, take it from me.  I make the sacrifice.”1  The next day while Harry was playing with the dog, he fell into scalding liquid in the sugar boiler and subsequently died in Connelly’s arms.

To further deepen his faith, Pierce went on a retreat in October 1840 and had another epiphany: he was being called into the priesthood.  He revealed his decision to his pregnant wife, and she dutifully accepted it as God’s will, although the implications for the family were drastic.  He made it clear that for them, following God’s will would require immediate celibacy, and eventually they would have to live separately.  Connelly was heartbroken but willing to make whatever sacrifices God required of her.  In January she went into retreat where she reaffirmed her commitment to her own spiritual journey, and in March her son Frank was born.

The following year Pierce had an opportunity to work in England as a tutor and to give Mercer an English education.  He and his son left in May 1842, and Connelly and the two younger children joined the Sacred Heart community, living in a very small cottage next to the convent.

Because he was married, approval for Pierce to become a priest had to come directly from Rome, and Connelly had to accompany him there to sign a petition for separation.  Before leaving Louisiana, conflicted Connelly offered her husband an opportunity to change his mind and reconcile the marriage.  He remained steadfast in his desire to join the priesthood even if it meant splitting up the family.

POVERTY, CHASTITY & OBEDIENCE                       In the fall of 1843 Connelly and her husband presented their petition to Pope Gregory XVI, and the following spring they were granted a Deed of Separation.  Pierce began his ecclesiastical studies, and Connelly, who had become a postulant in America, remained true to her calling and entered the Sacred Heart convent.  Mercer and Adeline were at boarding school, but Connelly was able to keep young Frank with her.

Pierce visited his family weekly, and when he was ordained, he said his first mass at his wife’s convent.  It was a very emotional experience for Connelly to receive Holy Communion from her husband and for Adeline to receive her First Communion from her father.

In the 1840s there was a sectarian movement whose aim it was to influence Britain toward being a united Catholic state.  It seemed logical that raising children with a Catholic education would be a good place to start.  Because of her talent for teaching and compassion for children, Connelly was handpicked to start a convent school in Derby, England.  By now she was accustomed to following God’s orders for her life, so she packed up the children and went to Derby.

“Sister Connelly” started wearing a habit in December 1846, and some months later she took her temporary vows.  Rather than join an established order, it was Connelly’s mission to found a new order which she called the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ).  As Superior, she and the nuns that joined her opened a boarding school for girls with a full curriculum including English, foreign languages, social studies, arithmetic, music, art, and needlework.

Connelly devoted her full energy to the success of the school until Pierce became dissatisfied with his status again and swept up his wife into another drama.  Pierce had gone to England to resume his work as tutor, but that didn’t last.  Money was tight, and he wanted to be more integrated into Connelly’s life and work.  On March 4, 1847 Pierce showed up unannounced to Connelly’s convent and demanded to see her.  For the first time, she did not acquiesce to his demands and refused to see him.  Her decision was supported by the bishop, but Pierce was not amused.

TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS                                Pierce tried various ways to regain control of Connelly.  She had submitted the Rules for her new order to Rome, modeling them after St Ignatius.  Pierce went back to Rome and made an attempt to get the Vatican to support his efforts, insisting that she use St. Francis de Sales as the model.  Then, he began writing to her directly, requesting a personal visit.  When she didn’t reply, Pierce convinced himself that Bishop Wiseman was manipulating her.  He could feel his wife slipping out of his grasp and claimed he feared for the future of his children.

In October, Pierce’s next move was to demand that Connelly not take her final vows on the grounds that since they were still legally married, he would be responsible for any debts she or her order might incur.  Connelly’s religious journey stayed its course, however, and she took her final vows in December, becoming Mother Connelly.

Pierce retaliated against his wife’s defiance by assuming custody of the three children and taking them to Italy without her permission.  This left her with two choices: give up her religious life to be with her children or give up her children.  In the face of the ultimate sacrifice, Connelly prayerfully refused to submit to her husband’s ploy, writing in her diary, “I Cornelia vow to have no future intercourse with my children and their father, beyond what is for the greater glory of God, and is His manifest will through my director, and in case of doubt on his part through my extraordinary [confessor].”2 She never saw Mercer again.

This was not the decision that Pierce anticipated, and he couldn’t accept it.  He went back to Derby a few months later and demanded to see Connelly.  Again she refused.  He flew into a rage and would not leave the waiting room for six hours, trying every way he could think of to get to his wife, to no avail.

This left Pierce with only one card left to play.  In January 1849, Connelly received a subpoena to appear in English court.  Pierce was suing her for restoration of conjugal rights.  Connelly was not only concerned about the outcome of the trial, but also that Pierce would exhaust his ability to provide for the children in attorney’s fees and that he would mislead the children away from the Catholic Church.  By now he had renounced his vows and reverted to Protestantism.

Connelly vs. Connelly came before a judge in May, but the defendant did not appear.  With her life’s work at stake, her counsel cited the legal separation granted them in Rome.  The judge ruled in favor of Pierce saying that the decree of separation from Rome did not hold up legally in English court.  Connelly’s attorneys filed an appeal which went to court in 1851.  This time a Judicial Committee ruled in Connelly’s favor, and since Pierce had no further financial means to pay his legal bills, he was forced to drop the case.  Connelly was able to continue her mission, but the children stayed with their father.

Connelly was able to compartmentalize the heartbreak she felt at losing her family and focus her outward attention on her mission.  The Society of Holy Child Jesus expanded, establishing convents with schools in other English towns, France and Philadelphia.  Connelly wrote the Book of Studies in 1863 as the basis for her curriculum, which emphasized compassion, imaginative teaching, the importance of the arts, and lots of outdoors activities for developing youngsters.

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON                           It seemed that Connelly was destined to have nothing come easy for her, and getting her Rules for the SHCJ approved by the Vatican was a lesson in patience and steadfastness.  Twenty-seven years after Connelly submitted her first draft, Bishop Danell summoned representatives from each convent to convene for the purpose of debating the Rules and electing a Superior General.  Connelly was respected by most of the nuns in her order, but there was some dissension in the ranks which she was totally unaware of.  At the gathering, Reverend Mother Connelly was elected as Superior by a majority vote, but Bishop Danell appointed himself as Bishop Superior of the Institute, rendering Connelly’s authority ineffective.  In addition, he substituted some rules that he concocted for those that the sisters had been living under for almost three decades.  Connelly had no choice but to accept them.  Until Connelly’s Rules were approved, the nuns were restricted to only taking the temporary vows and were not able to fulfill their spiritual commitment with final vows.

Connelly’s health was another nagging issue over many years.  She suffered from rheumatic gout, and bronchitis.  She became bedridden and was given last rites in January 1878.  She managed to hang on another 15 months, and the reward for her endurance was that in January 1879, Bishop Danell allowed her novices to take their perpetual vows.

Three months later Connelly was given Last Rites again, and on April 18, 1879 she died, 33 years to the day after she left Rome to start her order.  She was given a Requiem mass and was buried at the convent in Mayfield, England.  Eight years after the death of their founder, in August 1887, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus was informed that the Pope had approved their Rules as Connelly had written them.  Today, Connelly’s legacy through the Society of the Holy Child Jesus has established convents and schools in the United States, Europe and Africa.

QUESTION:  What would you be willing to sacrifice to stand up for something you believe?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved

1Mother Marie Therese,p. 27

2Wadham, p. 114


Mother Marie Therese, Cornelia Connelly, A Study in Fidelity.  Great Britain: The Newman Press, 1963.

Wadham, Juliana, The Case of Cornelia Connelly: Wife, Mother, Nun-Saint.  New York: Pantheon Books, Inc., 1957.

GERTRUDE BELL (1868 – 1926) Explorer, Instrumental in Founding Iraq

In adventure, Biography, Explorers, Feminists, People from England, Victorian Women on January 12, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell followed where her curiosity led in ways no woman had before.  She broke the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming a friend and confidant to numerous sheiks in Mesopotamia, with enough influence to be considered one of the founders of the country of Iraq.  The literal heights she scaled and emotional low she felt bookmarked her remarkable professional life as someone who intimately understood that home is where your heart is.

Bell had an upper class upbringing near Newcastle, England.  Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, inherited a fortune from the Bell Brothers Ironworks, but education was a priority, and he studied in Edinburgh, at the Sorbonne and in Germany.  He married Mary Shield, but she died three weeks after Bell’s younger brother, Maurice, was born.  Sir Hugh was devoted to his children, but he was lonely and knew the children needed a mother.  He married Florence Olliffe who was easily integrated into the family.

Bell’s commanding, adventuresome spirit manifested itself early on, and she took it out on her little brother.  One time when she led the terrified boy along the edge of the greenhouse roof, she crossed handily but he slipped and fell, and it was his turn to break through the glass ceiling.

Formal elementary education was traditionally reserved for boys, so while her brother was at boarding school, Bell spent lonely days devouring books from the family library.  When she was 16, she was sent to Queen’s College in London and excelled in every class except scripture, declaring herself an atheist because she did not believe a word of the Bible.  Ironically, as an adult she would carve out a life for herself in the cradle of the world’s three most important religions.

She matriculated at Oxford University, and Bell’s confidence and intellect had prepared her for the rigors of such a demanding education.  During her oral final exam, when the professor, a distinguished historian, asked a question about Charles I, Bell had the audacity to say that she held a different opinion of the monarch.  Then, when another professor asked about a German town that was on the left bank of the Rhine, Bell casually contradicted him before answering, saying that she was positive town was on the right bank because she had been there.  Her assertiveness did not blight her evaluation, and she set her first record as a woman by becoming the first female student to receive the highest grade possible in Modern History.

Bell came out as a debutante in London and was presented to Queen Victoria.  But if the goal of the formal debut was to find a husband, no one suitable presented himself.  Without romantic prospects or many career options, she jumped at the opportunity to go with her aunt and uncle to Persia.  Sir Frank Lascelles was the British ambassador to Tehran.  Six months before leaving, Bell started learning Persian and was able to understand the locals when she arrived in June 1892.

This was the beginning of two great love affairs.  First, she was totally captivated by the people and culture of Persia, her introduction to the Middle East.  Second, she was smitten by the British legation secretary, Hon. Henry Cadogan.  Finally she had found someone to give her heart to and who returned her affections, and they got engaged.  When her parents heard of the impending nuptials, they didn’t approve because Cadogan didn’t earn enough money in foreign service to support their daughter well enough, and he was a gambler.  Bell was heartbroken, but she obeyed her parents and returned to England.  One year later Cadogan died of pneumonia.

During the ensuing years, Bell studied Persian and Arabic.  Ultimately she would become fluent in both languages as well as German, French and Italian.  She continued to travel, following her personal philosophy of the pursuit of personal happiness coupled with the moral responsibility for the welfare of others.  She became proficient in horseback riding, hunting, dancing, shooting, fishing, gardening and mountain climbing.

AIMING FOR THE TOP      In 1899 Bell made her first major ascent, climbing to the top of the Meije in the French Alps, over 13,000 feet.  There were no proper clothes for female climbers then, so Bell took off her skirt when she and her guides roped up together and continued in her underclothes until they descended back to the glacier.  After more hair-raising, confidence-building ascents, Bell decided to be the first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörnerrange in the Swiss Alps.  She accomplished her goal during two weeks in 1901 wearing a blue climbing suit with pants, although she always changed back into her skirt at base camp.  Of the nine peaks, she was the first person to summit seven of them.  One mountain top was named after her, Gertrudspitze.

After her record-breaking mountain climbing adventures in Europe, Bell headed east to a warmer clime.  When she was 31 years old she went to Jerusalem at the invitation of friends.  Her days were filled with language lessons (Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish), horseback riding and socializing.  Bell rode “astride” the horse for the first time, and the sisters at the local convent stitched a long, split skirt so she could still be ladylike.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE JOURNEY      From Jerusalem, Bell took extensive journeys into the desert on horseback accompanied only by cooks, muleteers and her guide, all local men.  During her first expedition she painfully learned the need to protect herself from the severe desert environment.  From then on, she wore the traditional keffiyeh (scarf) over her hat and around her face and a lightweight veil with eye holes.  She covered her feet with cloth so the sun wouldn’t scorch them through her boots, and she made a muslin sleeping bag to protect against sand fleas while camping at night.  To help pass the time while crossing the vast landscape, Bell learned how to read and nap on horseback.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, age 41 (photo: University of Newcastle)

In addition to learning survival techniques for traversing the desert, Bell had to learn the protocol of presenting herself to the sheiks of the tribes as she passed through their territories.  Her knowledge of history and languages and the fact that she was a woman traveling alone impressed and endeared her to most of the sheiks.  Because of the style in which Bell traveled, her small entourage became a substantial caravan.   She earned the respect of the local rulers, and they referred to her as Queen.  In camp she always had two tents for herself, one that was erected immediately with a writing table and comfortable chair.  The other had her convertible bed and a bath, which was prepared for her as soon as a fire was built and hot water was available.  In her trunks she packed clothes for every occasion.  When she was in a city she had evening dresses and fur coats.  She carried linen skirts, sweaters, scarves, boots, hats veils, parasols, lavender soap, hair brushes, Egyptian cigarettes in a silver case, insect powder, maps, books, and blankets.  For dining she had a Wedgewood dinner service, crystal glasses, linen tablecloths and silver candlesticks.  She had binoculars and guns to give as gifts to the important sheiks, and she carried her own weapons, cameras and film hidden under her petticoats.

Bell’s curiosity about the Middle East went way beyond tourism.  She took courses in archaeology and cartography, and she was an accomplished photographer.  It became her mission to document ancient ruins and the current landscape, and she published numerous books of her work and experiences which, in many cases, became the definitive reference for the region and influenced policy decisions.

LOVE AND LOSS        Despite a deep affinity for the people and places of the Middle East, Bell’s heart and mind were distracted by the growing affections for an Englishman, Major Charles (“Dick”) Doughty-Wylie, a decorated war hero.  Unfortunately, Dick was married.  The pair shared a common view of the world and enjoyed each other’s company, but the time they could spend together had many limitations.  The couple’s correspondence from various foreign lands evolved from conversational to include the passion and angst of distant love.

Bell wanted to serve her country in World War I, so in November 1914, she went to France to work for the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department.  She took the initiative to create a workable system to keep accurate records of the wounded soldiers.  Surprisingly, despite her apparent restlessness, she found she loved the desk work.

With his wife in Europe, Doughty-Wylie sent word to Bell that he would be in London for a few days before being deployed to the front lines.  Bell jumped at the opportunity to be alone with him.  They spent four days together, and this time, there was only one limitation that imposed itself.  Bell’s Victorian morals would not allow her to consummate the relationship since Doughty-Wylie would never get a divorce.

Bell returned to France, and Doughty-Wylie was deployed to Gallipoli.  He was killed heroically in a battle with Turkish troops.  Bell had been called back to London to set up a new office for Wounded and Missing.  She found out her lover’s fate when, at a party, someone casually mentioned what happened in Gallipoli.  For the second time in her 47 years she was devastated by losing the love of her life.

A NEW HOME       Since Bell had spent almost two years in the Arabian Desert as an explorer, cartographer, photographer and archaeologist and was an expert in the policies and personalities of the region, she was summoned to Cairo, Egypt with the rank of Major.  She was the first woman officer in the history of British military intelligence.  The British agenda included fighting the Turks to retain access to oil and preventing India from annexing Mesopotamia.  Bell’s desire was for a unified Arab nation, but she acknowledged that that would be impossible and worked to establish independent Arab states.

Bell moved to Basra and was given the title of Oriental Secretary with status as an Assistant Political Officer.  She was instrumental in establishing order in the Basra vilayet (province).  In April 1917, Bell was 49 years old, and she moved to Baghdad to continue her work.  This would be her permanent home for the rest of her life.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION          In Baghdad, Bell became active in nation building.  The British occupied Iraq, fighting the Turks for rights to the oil, but mistakes were made, and the occupation was becoming very expensive for Britain.

In 1918, the incoming Judicial Officer, Sir Edgar Bonham-Carter, after conferencing with Bell, took the first steps toward creating an independent nation by setting Arabic as the official legal language of Iraq and establishing a new court system for civil and Sharia law in an effort to appease Sunnis and Shia.  Five new schools for girls were opened with female faculty.

Eventually boundaries were agreed upon to divide Mesopotamia into individual countries, and Bell and her colleagues lobbied to have Faisal ibn Hussain, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Sharif Hussain ibn Ali, installed as the first ruler of the self-governed new Iraq.  Faisal officially became king in 1921, and Bell’s dreams of Arab independence were realized.

Bell knew Faisal personally, and he enjoyed her company and relied on her as a confidant in political matters.  He commissioned her to help design the first flag and his personal standard.  Because of Bell’s extensive archaeological expertise, Faisal appointed her Director of Antiquities.  Her first duty was to write antiquities laws that would balance the rights of the host nation and excavators.  Bell established the Baghdad Museum, maintaining that Iraq had the right to own its past.*  The principal wing of the museum was named after her.  Bell continued to go on many archaeological digs, and she won a coin toss for a Semitic statuette from 2800 BC.

LEAVING GRACEFULLY        When Bell was 55 years old, she had a third love interest, but this relationship never matured beyond a friendship.  For all her physical activities, she was sick a lot during her life.  She was a chain smoker, and she suffered from malaria twice, jaundice and bronchitis.  In 1925 Bell went to London for a visit.  Her family had lost their fortune and was forced to give up their mansion, which was demolished.  Bell’s doctor advised her not to return to the oppressive climate of the Iraqi summer, but Baghdad was her home, and she could not stay away.  When she returned she contracted pleurisy.

With her ill health, financial troubles, no husband and reduced political responsibility, Bell became depressed.  On July 11, 1926 she came home exhausted from the heat after a swimming party.  She told her maid to wake her up at six am and went to bed early.  Her maid dutifully checked in on Bell after a couple of hours and found a suspicious bottle of pills on the bed stand.  Bell died in the early hours of July 12 of an overdose, two days before her 58th birthday.

The British government duly honored Bell for her work.  In October 1917 Bell was made a Commander of the new Order of the British Empire, and five months later she received the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.  When she died, King George V sent his personal condolences to Bell’s parents.

*  This is the same as the National Museum of Iraq that was looted during the war in 2003.

QUESTION:  Do you agree with the saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”  Why?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Howell, Georgina, Gertrude Bell Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Wallach, Janet, Desert Queen The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia.  New York: Nan A. Talese, 1996.

Winstone, H.V.F., Gertrude Bell.  New York: Quartet Books Inc., 1978.

HETTY GREEN (1834 – 1916) Miserly First Female Tycoon

In American History, Biography, Feminists, Guiness Book of Records, Millionaires, Victorian Women on November 3, 2010 at 8:11 PM

Hetty Green and Dewey

Henrietta Howland Robinson learned everything she needed to know about financial matters from her grandfather and father.  She took to heart her dad’s advice to “never owe anyone anything, not even a kindness,” which didn’t endear her to very many people.  But when cities and banks are turning to you for a bail out, it doesn’t really matter what other people think.

Green was born into a Quaker family from New Bedford, Massachusetts.  She was the only heir to a fortune made from whaling.  Her mom was sick a lot, so Green lived with her grandparents for most of her childhood.  Her grandfather’s eyes were bad, so she read the financial news to him, and by the time she was fifteen years old, she knew more about stocks and bonds than most men in the business.  She opened her first savings account when she was eight, depositing the $1.50 she received for a weekly allowance in it.  Her first business responsibility was to keep strict accounting of personal and household expenses, a practice that served her well in the future.

Green’s formal education was spotty.  She was sent to a Quaker girls’ school on Cape Cod at eleven years old, where she learned frugality.  Whatever the students didn’t eat at the previous meal, they had to eat at the next.  The school directors impressed upon the privileged students that if the rich girls didn’t learn how to economize there wouldn’t be any money left to educate the poor girls.  At 16 she attended the Friends’ Academy in New Bedford for a year, but she missed the spring semester because she got sick.  To learn the social graces, she went to finishing school in Boston for a little while.  Green was considered attractive and enjoyed going to balls and parties.  One season her dad gave her $1200 for clothes.  Green spent $200 and put the rest in savings. 

In 1861 Green moved with her father to New York.  It was there that she met Edward Henry Green of Bellows Falls, Vermont, an occasional business associate of her dad.  Six months later they were engaged.  Edward was 14 years older than Green, an easy going Episcopalian who enjoyed the finer things in life.  He had his own wealth, and the only thing Edward and Green had in common was a love for money.  Green was 30 years old when they married in 1867, and shortly after the wedding the couple moved to London.

When her father died, Green inherited five million dollars which generated several thousand dollars a week in interest.  She invested in U.S. bonds, railroad bonds, and real estate.  The largest amount of money she made in one day was $200,000.

During the post-Civil War railroad expansion, railroad bonds flooded the market causing three banks to fail in 1872.  During the following year over 11,000 companies went bankrupt and the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days.  In this environment, the Greens wanted to be closer to their investments, so they returned to the States settling in Edward’s hometown in Vermont.  They brought with them a son, Edward Howland Robinson Green (known as Ned), and a daughter, Hetty Sylvia Ann Howland Green, who went by Sylvia.

MAKING MONEY, NOT FRIENDS                    Green didn’t fit in too well with her husband’s people.  She butted heads with Mary, the housekeeper, claiming that she was wasteful, and she did all the grocery shopping herself, buying broken cookies because they were cheaper and returning the berry boxes for a five cent refund.  At the reception for her mother-in-law’s funeral, Green served the guests with chipped every-day glasses, not the fine crystal.  This made Edward furious, and he smashed a glass before marching out of the room.

Stories circulated around Bellows Falls about Green’s stinginess, and she supported her reputation with her behavior.  One time she was missing a two cent stamp, thinking she lost it in her carriage during an outing.  Late that night she woke up the groom and insisted that he thoroughly search the coach. When that proved unfruitful, she made him return to the hotel where she spent the afternoon and search the lawn, also to no avail.  After the man had gone back to sleep, Green woke him up again to say that she found the stamp in her pocket where she had put it.

Another time, Green went into a shop and started touching the merchandise with her filthy hands.  She admitted to the distressed shopkeeper that she had been pulling old nails out of a piece of burned wood to reuse.  She was often criticized for her dowdy appearance and even scrimped on laundry.  When Green took her skirts to the cleaners, she insisted they just wash the hems since they were the only part that got dirty.   

For Green, every decision was based on a monetary consideration.  When her son, Ned, hurt his knee jumping onto a sled, Green allegedly dressed them both up in ragged clothing and took him to the free clinic. 

HOLDING THE PURSE STRINGS                        Green’s parsimony put her in a position to have an amazing amount of leverage.  In 1884, her fortune equaled over $500,000 in cash and more than $26 million in bonds, mortgages and other securities which she held in the vaults of John J. Cisco and Son, a well known Wall Street bank.  Edward also had his in assets at Cisco, although Green insisted that they keep their fortunes separate. 

Railroad bonds took a dive and some of Cisco and Son’s biggest investors defaulted, including Mr. Cisco and Edward Green.  Cisco continued to give Edward credit for investments because Edward intimated to the bank that he could use his wife’s money as collateral.  All he accomplished was to increase his debt, and Edward became Cisco’s biggest debtor while Green was their biggest depositor.  Green’s refusal to cover her husband’s debt led to the collapse of Cisco and Son. 

Green tried to move her assets to another bank, but Lewis May, the new assignee to Cisco, engaged her in a standoff that eventually wore here down.  She finally agreed to pay over $422,000 to cover Edward’s debts.  Then, she took her securities to Chemical National Bank.  Every day Green went to work at Chemical National to manage her portfolio, arriving at 7:00 each morning.  She brought dry oatmeal for lunch, adding water and heating it on the radiator.  She wore a black veil over her hat to obscure her identity as she walked around Wall Street.  People said she looked like a witch, and she was nicknamed The Witch of Wall Street.

The Cisco debacle was effectively the end of the Green’s marriage, although she and Edward never divorced.  Green took the kids and moved from Bellows Falls to Brooklyn, New York and later to Hoboken, New Jersey, renting from month to month to avoid paying property taxes.  In Hoboken, the nameplate next to Green’s doorbell read “C. Dewey,” her beloved dog, to maintain her anonymity.  Her five-room apartment cost $23 a month.  On the mantle Green displayed a bouquet of roses made from dyed chicken feathers because it was cheaper and lasted longer than a bouquet of real ones.

Green’s fortune continued to grow, and she became the go-to person for loans.  In 1898, the city of New York was broke, so Green loaned the city $1 million at only 2% interest, and another $1.5 million in 1901.  Green kept the city afloat again in 1907 by giving $1.1 million in exchange for short-term revenue bonds at 5.5%.  In 1900 Tucson, Arizona needed new water and sewer systems, so Green bought the entire $110,000 bond issue.  In 1911 Green loaned $325,000 to the Roman Catholic Church of St. Ignatius Loyola at 4.5%. 

Her children were a big part of Green’s life.  Ned was groomed to take over Green’s fortune.  He moved to Texas and became the president of Texas Midland Railroad Company.  He lived with Mabel Harlow, a former prostitute that he referred to as his “housekeeper.”  In 1910 at Green’s request, he dutifully returned to New York, with Mabel, and formed the Westminster Company to directly oversee Green’s fortune.

Sylvia was a shy girl, and she stayed by her mother’s side until she met Matthew Astor Wilkes. They were married in secret to avoid publicity, and Wilkes was paid $5,000 to sign a prenuptial agreement giving him no claim to Sylvia’s inheritance.

Edward and Green maintained affection for each other.  At the end of his life, he moved to be close to her, and she nursed him during his final days.  He was 81 years old when he died, and his estate was worth a mere $24,000. 

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU                      When Green was 78 years old she started preparing for her passing.  She was baptized in the Episcopal Church so she could be buried next to Edward in an Episcopal cemetery.  On April 17, 1916, Green had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed on the left side.  After several more minor strokes, Green died on July 3 at 81 years old.  Ned arranged for her body to be transported in his private railroad car from New York to Bellows Falls, Vermont, a luxury Green would never have approved of.  She was buried next to Edward, and her tombstone reads: “Hetty H. R. Green.  His Wife.”

There was no inventory of Green’s assets, but her estate was valued at between $100 million and $200 million dollars.  In her will she gave everything to her two children.  The Guinness Book of World Records awarded her the distinction of being the world’s “greatest miser.”

QUESTION:  How much money do you think you need to be rich?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Slack, Charles, Hetty, The Genius And Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2004.