A Disposition to Be Rich

The author's great-grandfather was the Bernie Madoff of his age – a Ponzi schemer and con man who cheated a US president and kidnapped his own son.

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    A Disposition to Be Rich
    By Geoffrey C. Ward
    Knopf, 432 pp.
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Geoffrey Ward’s cagily titled book, A Disposition to Be Rich, about his great grandfather isn’t so much written as lived in. In colorful and remarkable detail it chronicles the brazen exploits of Ferdinand Ward, “the best-hated man in the United States” and the pre-eminent Ponzi schemer of the Reconstruction Era. Not only did Ferd swindle former President Ulysses S. Grant out of millions in today’s dollars – making Grant a near-pauper as he was dying of tongue cancer – but Ferd’s greed also caused the collapse of several banks and the embarrassment of any number of high-ranking politicians and businessmen.

It also led to a term in Sing Sing for Ferd himself – and a rich trove of historical material for the author, his talented descendant and an expert in the Civil War and its aftermath.

It’s hard for a writer to make so shady a character compelling, and there is far more to dislike than admire about Ferd Ward, a horrid (this book somehow encourages one to write in period English) man whose ability to charm fed, though it did not quite outstrip, his addiction to ill-gotten gains. What’s stunning is exactly how gullible Ferd's seasoned, powerful victims turned out to be. Ferd was working on them at a moment when the country was beginning to recover from the Civil War, industry was starting to boom, and railroad construction was slowly tying the US together. One suspects Ferd’s double, triple and then-some dealings wouldn’t get by in today’s connected era, when Twitter and Facebook can “out” someone instantly. Still, it is astonishing how many captains of industry Ferd bamboozled during his salad years of the 1870s and early 1880s.

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What’s also striking is the Ward family loyalty. Ferd’s father, a small-town, upstate New York pastor, blamed Ferd’s associates for his son’s failings even after Ferd was convicted of misappropriation of funds and larceny and sentenced in 1884. Ferd’s neurasthenic and pious mother, too, maintained blind faith in her shiftless son, counseling his brother Willie to help him no matter how often Ferd disappointed family, friends, and associates. He was what would today be called a sociopath faithful to no one but himself.

Not that Ferd was alone in the chicanery he generated through Grant & Ward, the brokerage house he co-led with Buck Grant, a son of the former president. He had plenty of help from his alleged mentor, the older and less flamboyant James Fish, who also was convicted of fraud. But Ferd – slight, squinty, fidgety, yet charismatic – had a unique talent. As one investor’s lawyer told a judge, Ferd “had the power of fixing his eyes on a man and willing the dollars out of his pocket, such as no man ever had since the world was. I am thankful that while I may have been exposed to other fascinations, I never, never was brought in contact with Mr. Ferdinand Ward before his failure.”

Geoffrey Ward painstakingly traces his shameful, self-pitying ancestor from a coddled, irresponsible boyhood in upstate New York to his meteoric financial success on Wall Street to his efforts to ingratiate himself with his family after his disgrace. The collapse of Grant & Ward is exciting, replete with details such as Ulysses Grant’s begging a loan from Cornelius Vanderbilt and Mark Twain’s intercession on behalf of the former president. (Twain published Grant’s memoirs, a best-seller that helped settle many of the Grant family debts).

Also thrilling and quite surreal: Ferd’s “Perils of Pauline”-like kidnapping of his own son, Clarence, a multi-state effort that ultimately failed.

A scoundrel and a celebrity, the embezzler Ferdinand Ward made headlines for 25 years. This work, the result of decades of research into family archives and conversations with Geoffrey Ward’s grandfather, Ferd’s son Clarence, often reads like fiction. What’s as impressive as Ferd Ward’s career was wayward is his great-grandson’s powers of historical synthesis.

“When newspapers differed as to precisely what was said by one character or another I have tried to use the least gaudy, most plausible version,” historian Ward writes in his Notes. “But nothing is invented.”

With a story like this one, no invention was necessary.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

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