Again, quoting from Thorndike's The Very Rich:
Hetty Green, The Richest Woman
It was an age when men of wealth thought it only right and natural to live with all the ease and show that their fortunes made possible. But not Hetty Green, the richest woman in the world and in some ways the strangest. One of the living landmarks of Wall street in the age of Morgan and Schiff, she wore, year in and year out, the same voluminous dress, originally black but turing slightly brown and green with age. Sewn inside her petticoat were many pockets, each large enough to hold the contents of a safe-deposit box. She lived, most of the time, in furnished rooms, now in Manhattan, now in Brooklyn, now across the river in Hoboken. Each day she would travel by public bus or ferry to her Wall Street "office, " which was the vault of the Chemical National Bank. Here she would sit on the floor, clipping coupons, reading the financial news, and receiving callers, among them some of Wall Street's most eminent figures. They came to pick her brains and sometimes, in moments of crisis, to ask for loans. Hetty, it seemed, was always solvent.
Hetty's forbears were shipowners in New Bedford, and she had got her first taste of finance as a girl of eight by reading stock-market news to her grandfather. She inherited a million dollars and married Edward H. Green, who had made about a million of his own in the China trade. His money was not hers, as she stipulated in a marriage contract, nor hers his. Eighteen years later, as if making good his wife's premonition, Green went broke, listing as his assets "seven dollars and a gold watch."
Hetty's secret of success, she always said, was to buy cheap and sell dear. The difference between her and others who pursued the same market strategy was that, by some reason or instinct, she seemed to know when was high and when was low. She made her first killing in Wall Street by buying depreciated U.S. government bonds right after the Civil War, when many investors feared they would never be redeemed at full value. After that she specialized in railroad bonds and stocks, often driving stocks up and down by heavy purchases or sales, sometimes bringing off a "corner" in which traders who has "sold short" were trapped until she sold them shares at her own price. Some sixth sense seemed to be working for her. One day in the spring of 1907 when she came home to her boarding house, her dress was bulging with securities. To a fellow boarder she explained that she had just taken all her holdings out of the Knickerbocker Trust Company. "If you have any money in that place, " she advised, "get it out first thing tomorrow." The friend ask why. "The men in that bank are too good-looking." Hetty replied. "You mark my words." On October 21 a run began on the Knickerbocker Bank and by noon it closed its doors. That was the beginning of the Panic of 1907.
Hetty Green ate the cheapest foods in the cheapest restaurants she could find and left no tips. At a time when her money was earning something like five hundred dollars an hour she haggled over the price of a pair of shoes. When a druggist justified his charge of ten cents for a bottle of medicine by pointing out that the bottle cost five cents, Hetty went home to get a bottle of her own. Her son Ned was the saddest victim of her parsimony. When he hurt his knee Hetty wold not call a doctor but treated it herself. Two years later, when it still had not healed, she dressed the boy in rags like her own and took him to a New York doctor, begging treatment as a charity patient. When the doctor learned who she was and demanded payment, Hetty took Ned away and never went back. Some years later the leg had to be amputated.
Hetty was not deliberately unkind. She went out of her way to help people--with favors, jobs anything but money. Even though she had no use for her husband after he lost his money, she gave him enough to live, rather better than she did, as a genteel hotel and to pay his ills at the Union Club, where he spent his days. She trained her son carefully in business, and when he was twenty-four bought him a small railroad in Texas, which he ran well. She just could not bear to spend a penny when she did not have to. By her own lights she was magnificently successful. When she died in 1916 she left (to her son and daughter) a fortune of about a hundred million dollars. In hard cash that was about thirty million more than J.P. Morgan left.
Tomorrow, The House of Rothschild. It's great!