Think you know everything about New Bedford? From Hetty Green to Moby-Dick, 5 myths busted

NEW BEDFORD — Many have grown up hearing certain stories or folklore about the area, but when a story is told over and over again, sometimes the facts become twisted and the story is no longer accurate. Sometimes these stories were never true to begin with, but over time after hearing it enough, you begin to believe it.

There are many of these stories told all over the area, we've decided to find out the truth and give you some insight into these myths.

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Hetty Green is known as "The Witch of Wall Street."

1. Was Hetty Green really 'witchy'?

Henrietta Howland Robinson was born in New Bedford as the only child to two wealthy families. Despite their wealth, they lived a very modest Quaker lifestyle with her father Edward Robinson teaching her the merits of business and finance. This invaluable financial education was unheard of in women at the time, leaving her more knowledgeable than most men in the business.

Using her inheritance and father's guidance she began buying stocks cheap and waiting for prices to rise before selling them. Then she used the money to purchase railroads, banks, and real estate amassing a fortune. She would later be known as either the richest woman in America for turning $100,000 into $200,000,000 during the Gilded Age or the “Witch of Wall Street” for her eccentric and anti-social behaviors.

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The title "witch" came from her peculiar fondness of wearing unkempt, often unwashed black Quaker robes. She was also extremely frugal, lived in a cheap apartment, and posed as a pauper to get free medical care for her and her children. At a time when it was unheard of for a woman to be in the financial world never mind out-investing her male counterparts, it was easier to view her and her eccentrics as "witchy" instead of giving her credit for her financial genius.

Herman Melville published “Moby-Dick” on
November 14, 1851.

2. Was 'Moby-Dick' an instant classic?

Although Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" is now viewed as a literary classic, often read in classrooms around the country it was initially a major flop. Incredibly one of the first reviews of the book in the New York International magazine states that its description of impossible in nature events "repels the reader instead of attracting him."

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It's hard to believe given its status as a literary masterpiece in today's world, that "Moby-Dick" was a huge disappointment when it was first released. This may have been due to the way it was released, first in Britain where it was heavily edited by publishers and then in America where they were already influenced by Britain's negative literary reviews. It did so badly that it only sold 3,000 copies showing such a decline in Melville's popularity, that he eventually got a customs inspector to pay his bills.

Unfortunately for Melville, it wasn't until after his death in 1891 that his novel was given a second chance. It was then that his publisher republished many of his works, and Moby-Dick took the literary world by surprise becoming one of the finest works of literature in the English language.

Another fun fact: The annual Moby-Dick marathon at the Whaling Museum isn't the only Moby-Dick marathon around. There's one in Sag Harbor on Long Island, and also one in Nantucket.

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3. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery on foot?

Many tell the story that abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass escaped slavery by "running away" from it, and images of him running away on foot to the north in a harrowing outdoor adventure avoiding capture.

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In reality, thanks to his time in the Baltimore shipyards where he was forced to work, he gained knowledge about ships and learned how to talk and act like a sailor. With papers given to him by a freed slave, he was able to pose as a free sailor wearing a red shirt, a tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf tied loosely around his neck and headed on a train to Philadelphia.

From there he headed to New York, where he became a free man. "My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a free man — one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway,” he said.

Once a free man, he married his fiancée Anna Murphy and began his new life and advocacy in New Bedford.

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Edward Anthes-Washburn, former director of the Port of New Bedford in Massachusetts, pilots a vessel in the Acushnet River in this file photo. Fishermen in the nation’s most lucrative port say they’re concerned about navigating a forest of turbines to get to historically productive fishing grounds.

4. New Bedford is the largest fishing port?

New Bedford is viewed as the largest fishing port in the United States, but it is actually only the 14th in size. It is, however, the nation's top-earning port for the 20th consecutive year.

While Dutch Harbor in Alaska brought in 6.5 times more weight than New Bedford in 2019, New Bedford brought in 2.4 times more in value. This is largely due to the scallop fishery, which accounts for 84% of the value of New Bedford's landings.

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While not the largest port in size, the New Bedford fish port is definitely the largest contributor to the economic and cultural vitality of our region.

William H. Carney, the first African-American to earn the Medal of Honor.

5. Was the Oscar-winning film 'Glory' a factual representation of William H. Carney?

In the six-time Oscar-winning film "Glory" — about the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first Black regiments to fight in the Civil War — Denzel Washington portrays Pvt. Trip as the flag bearer, blurring the line between fact and fiction. The film depicts the Civil War Battle of Fort Wagner led by Col. Robert Shaw, who was the original flag bearer until he was ultimately shot down. It goes on to show how under immense pressure Trip grabs the flag making sure it never hits the ground to rally the other soldiers to continue. Unfortunately, he too gets shot down and killed while carrying the flag.

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The film is based on the actions of William H. Carney, the first African-American to earn the Medal of Honor. He did indeed take over as flag after Shaw was killed but regardless of being shot multiple times, he made his way into the neighboring ditch through the water and carried it behind Union lines. Due to the bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, President Lincoln recognized them as a crucial component to a Civil War victory. Forty years after the battle Carney was recognized for his bravery where the citation read, “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back, he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”

This article originally appeared on Standard-Times: New Bedford myths busted: Hetty Green, Frederick Douglass, Moby-Dick