Monday, September 14, 2009

The Witch of Wall Street and the Peirces

Today’s post is a vignette from Wall Street history, bringing together Hetty Green (born Henrietta Howland Robinson and not yet married at the time of the trial) and a renowned father and son team of expert witnesses.

Sylvia Ann Howland died in 1865, leaving half her fortune of approximately two million dollars to her niece, Hetty H. Robinson. Hetty had already inherited some $7.5 million the year before upon the death of her father. But Hetty wasn’t satisfied with half of her aunt’s estate; she wanted it all. Hetty, later famed as the Witch of Wall Street, produced an earlier will, leaving her the entire estate, with a codicil putatively seeking to invalidate any subsequent wills. The executor of the estate rejected her claim, insisting that the codicil (the original and a copy) was a forgery. Hetty sued the executor. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, was fought for five years.

Two questions were at issue. First, were Sylvia Ann Howland’s signatures to a codicil of an earlier will genuine or were they traced? Second, even if they were genuine, did the codicil invalidate a later will whose terms were much less favorable to her niece?

Benjamin Peirce (a mathematics professor at Harvard) and his son Charles (eventually a preeminent philosopher and about whom more later this week) undertook the task of answering the first question. “Under his father’s direction, Charles examined photographic enlargements of forty-two genuine signatures for coincidences of position in their thirty downstrokes. In 25,830 different comparisons of downstrokes, he found 5,325 coincidences, so that the relative frequency of coincidence was about a fifth. Applying the theory of probabilities, his father calculated that a coincidence of genuine signatures as complete as that between the signatures to the codicil, or between either of them and that to the will in question, would occur only once in five-to-the-thirtieth-power times.” (Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, vol. 2, pp. xxiii-xxiv [Indiana University Press, 1987]) “So vast an improbability is practically an impossibility. Such evanescent shadows of probability cannot belong to actual life. . . . The coincidence which has occurred here must have had its origin in an intention to produce it. It is utterly repugnant to sound reason to attribute this coincidence to any cause but design.” In brief, Peirce maintained, the signatures were forgeries.

The court ruled against Hetty, but without deciding on the authenticity of the signatures. The work of the Peirces was all for nought.

When Hetty died in 1916 she left an estate worth between $100 and $200 million. She had arguably been the richest woman in the world (and one of the stingiest).

In case you’re unfamiliar with the exploits of Hetty Green, there’s quite a bit of information online. I suggest in particular the Investopedia article by Andrew Beattie. The book I read some time ago, Hetty Green: Witch of Wall Street, seems to be out of print but is available in a Kindle edition. There’s another book I haven’t read—Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon by Charles Slack.

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