Hetty Howland Robinson Green, financier, was born on November 21, 1834, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, one of two children of Edward Mott and Abby Slocum (Howland) Robinson. Her Quaker family had amassed, on her mother's side, a fortune in the nineteenth century in whaling and foreign trade. When her brother died in infancy, Hetty became the sole direct heir of her family's wealth. She attended private schools in Massachusetts, but her childhood education also focused on business, and she learned from her father how to deal with competitors and protect family interests. By the early 1870s she had inherited her mother's and father's estates, as well as money from her mother's sister, although she failed in her effort to secure the entire estate of her aunt. Still, these bequests became the nucleus of holdings that earned her the distinction of being the richest woman in America.
In 1867 Hetty Robinson married Edward Henry Green, a Vermont millionaire with worldwide business and trading interests. They spent the early years of their marriage in London, where their son and daughter were born. During this time Hetty Green increased her fortune by successfully speculating on the price of United States greenbacks. The Greens moved to New York City in 1874, and Hetty continued to increase her wealth through government bonds and railroad stocks. She also bought land in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and other fast-growing urban areas. As an investor and a reliable loan source, Mrs. Green possessed a striking sense of business acumen and good timing, and thus she saw her wealth increase many times over during her lifetime. She also displayed traits of eccentricity that led her to be called the "Witch of Wall Street." She dressed in old clothes, sought free treatment at charity clinics, and lived in boardinghouses in New Jersey, avoiding, for tax purposes, permanent residence in New York City. She separated from her husband over financial differences in the 1880s, but reestablished a cordial relationship with him before his death in 1902.
Through her son, Edward Howland Robinson Green, Hetty became active in business dealings in Texas. Her involvement in the state stemmed both from an interest in linking short stretches of railroad track into a transcontinental railroad line and a desire to occupy her son with worthwhile business dealings. In Waco in 1892 she had Edward bid on a fifty-eight-mile section of the Houston and Texas Central Railway that ran from Bremond to Ross. Edward Green outbid the agent of powerful railroad builder Collis P. Huntington and purchased the line for his mother; it came with more than 250,000 acres of land as well as a franchise to build the line farther north to the Red River. In the same year Hetty Green purchased fifty miles of track between Garrett and Roberts, known as the Northeastern branch of the Texas Central Railroad. By the end of that year these properties were consolidated into the Texas Midland Railroad, with Edward Green as president. Hetty Green never lived in Texas, but she kept a close eye on her son's work here, which was based in Terrell. Ultimately, her railroad properties were extended to 100 miles of track. She encouraged Edward to buy good equipment but determined after the initial purchases that she would not pursue extensive expansion in Texas. The section of the Houston and Texas Central she had purchased made her the despised enemy of Collis Huntington and led to extensive litigation and personal battles between the Greens and Huntington. In 1895 Huntington got the property back, but Hetty continued to battle with him in other business matters.
Towards the end of her life she became increasingly reclusive. She died in New York City on July 3, 1916, and was buried beside her husband in an Episcopalian cemetery in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Her estate, valued as high as $100 million, was willed to her two children. The state of Texas, upon her son's death, entered into extensive litigation to determine its share of his wealth.