A disposition to be rich How a small-town pastor's son ruined an American president, brought on a Wall Street crash, and made himself the best-hated man in the United States

Geoffrey C. Ward

Book - 2012

Documents the story of Gilded Age con artist Ferdinand Ward, recounting how his large-scale pyramid operation and other sensational schemes triggered one of the greatest financial scandals in American history.

Saved in:

2nd Floor Show me where

1 / 1 copies available
Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 974.703/Ward Checked In
New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2012.
Main Author
Geoffrey C. Ward (-)
1st ed
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi book"--T.p. verso.
Physical Description
418 p., [32] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Prologue
  • Part 1. The Puritan
  • 1. The Higher Calling
  • 2. Labouring In Hope
  • 3. Chastened and Sanctified
  • Part 2. One of the Worst Boys
  • 4. A Contest for Principle & Truth
  • 5. The Triumph of the Monster, "War"
  • 6. Suspected of Evil
  • Part 3. The Young Napoleon of Finance
  • 7. The Avaricious Spirit
  • 8. The Bonanza Man
  • 9. The Imaginary Business
  • 10. Tears of Grateful Joy
  • 11. The End Has Come
  • Part 4. The Best-Hated Man in the United States
  • 12. Magnificent and Audacious Swindle
  • 13. A Verdict at Last
  • 14. The Model Prisoner
  • 15. All That Loved Me Are in Heaven
  • Part 5. The Loving Father
  • 16. Driven to Desperation
  • 17. The Kidnapping
  • Epilogue
  • Ackowledgements
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

Noted historian Ward (e.g., Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, CH, Mar'05, 42-4096) conducted excellent genealogy research and revealed the family skeleton: his great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward, perhaps the best investment con artist of the Gilded Age. Making extensive use of Ward family correspondence and numerous newspaper accounts, Ward presents an engaging, lively biography. Ferd Ward was the youngest son of evangelical Protestant missionaries who spent time in India, and his early foibles were often dismissed. He moved to New York City, married for money, and befriended banker James Fish, which gave Ward access to moneyed individuals. Lacking any conscience and possessing remarkable avarice, Ward fraudulently claimed investment successes through his brokerage firm and duped some to give him money to invest. Among the investors was former President Ulysses S. Grant, who lost everything when Ward's schemes became known. Ward became the "best-hated man in the United States," spent time in Sing Sing, and made a feeble effort to kidnap his own son to access the estate his late wife had left the boy. Ward's compelling biography shows how the Gilded Age's economic growth allowed men like Ferd Ward to prey on those who wished to get rich. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels/libraries. R. M. Hyser James Madison University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

MILLIONS of Americans loved Ulysses S. Grant, but, as so often with love, the relationship can be hard to understand from the outside. Grant did not woo the public. A rumpled man, he seemed shorter than he was. When he opened his mouth, cigars and whiskey went in, but few words came out. His critics, then and now, have disagreed over whether he should be condemned primarily as a brute of a general or a dupe of a president. To those who adored him, he looked rather different. He and Lincoln saved the Union in the Civil War, but only Grant lived to receive the nation's thanks. And he won without ego. "There was no nonsense, no sentiment," wrote one private, "only a plain businessman of the Republic." The newspaperman Charles A. Dana called Grant "the most honest man I ever knew, with a temper that nothing could disturb." One man did disturb that temper. Grant would dig his fingernails into the armrests of his chair at the thought of him, and told a friend he wanted to kill him, "as I would a snake. I believe I should do it, too, but I do not wish to be hanged for the killing of such a wretch." When Grant died a year later, on July 23, 1885, the public blamed that "wretch," who pitied himself as "the best-hated man in the United States." His name was Ferdinand Ward. In 1880, when just 28, he had persuaded the former president to become a partner in Grant & Ward, a Wall Street brokerage house. Ward reported astonishing profits, occasionally doling out cash to his partners. Grant believed he was rich. In reality, Ward was running a Ponzi scheme. In 1884, it blew up, bankrupting Grant and his family. The author of this elegant new biography of Ward, "A Disposition to Be Rich," is his great-grandson. For decades, Geoffrey C. Ward has told Americans stories of their ancestors. He has edited American Heritage, collaborated with the filmmaker Ken Burns and written esteemed books like "A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt" and "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." All this time, he has freighted about a box of letters, preserved by his grandfather, documenting the fall of his earnest family because of one remorseless son. In telling this personal tale, Ward applies his characteristic scrupulousness and narrative skill. Vivid, living people swarm the pages. Ferdinand Ward's quarrelsome father, the Rev. Ferdinand Ward, went to evangelize India as a young man. Told that missionaries should die on the spiritual battlefield, he concluded that it might be an excellent policy for his detested colleagues though not for himself, and returned to wage doctrinal battles in a small church in Geneseo, N.Y. Ward's mother, Jane Shaw Ward, was pious, nervous and depressed. Young "Ferd" was often alone with her in "the dark parsonage," Geoffrey Ward writes. "It was fragrant with spices imported in wooden boxes from India, but the carpets and curtains and furnishings were drab and worn, shabby testimony to the truth of his mother's teaching: no one should expect virtue, no matter how conspicuous, ever to be rewarded in this world." Many more people appear: Ward's honest brother, William, and his collaborator James D. Fish; not to mention actresses and mistresses and Samuel Clemens. Even characters who play no role receive scrutiny, often in extensive footnotes. When a letter mentions Gen. Artemas Ward, the author recounts the general's resentment of George Washington and his troubles with gout. Perhaps this book follows family members at excessive length, but from them we get the truest picture of Ferdinand Ward. "It is hard to trust his word or confide in him as to anything," the Rev. Ferdinand Ward wrote of him to another of his children. "This we know too well. There is no use denying it." But when Grant & Ward appeared to thrive, the prodigal repainted the dark parsonage and stuffed it with gifts, and they doubted their doubts. Money made them believe - or want to. "He was born into a time when all young men of his age caught the fever of speculation," Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1873, the year Ward arrived on Wall Street, "and expected to get on in the world by the omission of some of the regular processes which have been appointed from of old." Twain and Warner were describing a character in their novel, "The Gilded Age," but they could have been writing about everyone Ward met. Grant was not the only victim, nor was he unusual in trusting Ward. The young man sensed something in the culture. In this era of Wall Street's flowering, people believed that money could be conjured from the air. Ward knew that finance is a universe of the imagination, floating above the real economy of services and stuff. Prices bounce with each emotion. Any fear can be boxed as a derivative. The entrepreneur and swindler both create dreams of what might be, then convert them into stocks and bonds - optimism in its marketable form. "How much confidence you give me, so much hope do I give you," Melville's confidence man declares. Any founder of a start-up could say the same. "Credit" is money talk for "I believe you." Good credit makes dreams as real as bricks, as long as credit lasts. Anyone who sold Enron's stock before it burst made a lawful profit. It must be so, for the honest fantasy needs time to grow into substance. Augustus Melmotte, Anthony Trollope's financier in "The Way We Live Now," describes "the nature of credit, how strong it is, - as the air, - to buoy you up; how slight it is, - as a mere vapor, - when roughly touched." Roughly or gently, the touch must come. The underlying reality of business, of profits and losses, eventually makes itself felt. A hoax can't hide forever. Ah, but in the dark space between anticipation and realization, the swindler thrives. In the 19th century, when few regulations threw light on hidden places, fraud not only flourished, but it was not always fraud. In 1866, for example, Daniel Drew engaged in huge insider trading as treasurer of the Erie Railway. He sold its stock short, forced the price down and profited at his own shareholders' expense. It was perfectly legal. On Wall Street, Charles Francis Adams Jr. wrote, the operation was "regarded as a masterpiece." This was the environment for Ferdinand Ward, who worshiped luxury and lied reflexively. His ultimate crime was that his crime was too simple: "I had to rob Peter to pay Paul." No market manipulation - just theft. He himself was no more complicated. Convicted and imprisoned, he cadged money and bribed guards. On release, he kidnapped his own son to steal his trust fund. Geoffrey Ward finds complexity elsewhere, especially in the dying Grant Racked with agony from terminal cancer, he wearily wrote his life out to rescue his family's finances with a memoir - a brilliant, landmark memoir. And he revealed unsuspected depths. "The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun," he told his doctor. "A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three." In such self-awareness and intelligence, such grace when faced with pain and death, we feel the weight of Ward's crime. And we, too, learn to love Grant. In prison, Ferdinand Ward bribed guards. On release, he kidnapped his own son. T.J. Stiles is the author of "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt," which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He is writing a biography of George Armstrong Custer.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 1, 2012]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Like a great 19th-century novel, this is a mordantly entertaining account of the author's great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward, whose stock brokerage collapsed spectacularly in 1885 after swindling Ulysses S. Grant and other luminaries out of millions. Ward, a historian and Ken Burns collaborator, weaves character defects and family conflicts into a social panorama, probing Ferdinand's loathsome, beguiling personality: the youthful charm that mesmerized Wall Street graybeards; the feelings of self-righteousness, entitlement, and whiny victimhood inherited from his missionary parents (but without their restraining moralism); the omnivorous greed that turned his post-Sing Sing Prison life into an endless scheme to wheedle, con, and sue money out of everyone he knew. (He even kidnapped his own son to get his wife's inheritance.) Ward, winner of an NBCC award and the Francis Parkman Prize for A First-Class Temperament, narrates a rollicking financial picaresque, but infuses it with psychological depth; Ferdinand's frauds are a tangle of personal betrayals that implicate his family as they agonize over how much of his untrustworthiness they should reveal to outsiders. The result is a fascinating study of the Victorian moral economy veering toward bankruptcy. Photos. Agent: Carl Brandt, Brandt and Hochman. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Among the ranks of past American financial swindlers is the scoundrel Ferdinand Ward, here vividly profiled by his great-grandson. Ward (Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson) mines personal archives, letters, and diaries to reveal the origins of the dishonesty of this son of Presbyterian missionaries who had interest neither in his parents' vocation nor in an academic life. Only when he arrived in New York City in 1873 did he find his calling, earning the nickname "the young Napoleon of Wall Street." Charming and personable, he gained a reputation as a shrewd investor, attracting powerful backers and launching his own brokerage firm in 1880. The secret of his success was the classic pyramid scheme, which entailed paying off earlier investors with proceeds from newer ones. Sound familiar? In 1884, it all came crashing down and led to the firm's failure, ruining countless individuals (including President Ulysses S. Grant), and arguably contributing to the Panic of 1884. Ward went to prison but never acknowledged responsibility. VERDICT This bravely candid biography of a notorious ancestor successfully balances the truth about Ferdinand Ward's personal life with his scandalous role in this all-too-familiar American rags-to-riches-to-criminality saga. Essential for anyone interested in American financial history.-Richard Drezen, Brooklyn (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition Chapter One The Higher Calling Shortly after dawn on March 20, 1837, at the end of a four-month voyage from Boston, the captain of the American merchant ship Saracen sighted the green Coromandel coast of South India and set his course northward along it, headed for the British port city of Madras. The Saracen was carrying three distinctive products from New England. Two were in great demand: bales of the rugged cotton twill then called "jeans," and more than one hundred tons of ice, cut from Massachusetts ponds into big blue-green blocks, then carefully packed into the Saracen's hold, surrounded by layers of lumber, hay, sawdust, and tanbark to minimize melting over the course of the long voyage. For the British, suffering in the Indian heat, the regular arrival of American ice was a godsend. "The stoppage of the Bank of Bengal here could hardly exceed the excitement of a failure, during our hot weather, of the ice!" one Briton wrote. "And the arrival of our English mail is not more anxiously expected than that of an American Ice-ship, when supplies run low." The third New England export aboard the Saracen-Puritanism-would find a less cordial welcome. The ship's sole passengers were six American missionaries and their wives as well as a physician and his wife dedicated to their care. They stood silently together on the quarter-deck, gazing at the distant shoreline. They had left friends and families and endured 118 days at sea in order to help bring their brand of Protestantism to the unconverted millions of the subcontinent, to create what one veteran missionary called "New England in India." Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale and a founder of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, under whose auspices they had embarked, had set their ambitious agenda: it was their charge, he wrote, to hasten the time "when the Romish cathedral, the mosque, and the pagoda, shall not have one stone left upon another, which shall not be thrown down." For the little group on deck, prospects of hastening that time did not look immediately reassuring. Every landmark they saw that day underscored the enormity of the task they faced: a beachfront cluster of carved Hindu structures at Mahabalipuram had withstood the pounding surf for more than a thousand years; the gleaming white Cathedral of Saint Thomas, built by the Portuguese and said to mark the original tomb of the apostle, symbolized for the Americans not Christianity but "popery," more sinister even than the native "heathen" faith they had been sent to supplant; and when they at last came within sight of Fort St. George, the big coastal bastion from which Britons governed the vast Madras presidency, the carved gopurams of more Hindu temples and the scattered domes of Muslim mosques appeared above "Blacktown," the jumble of mud huts and whitewashed houses that had grown up in the shadow of its walls. The missionaries' worst fears had been confirmed: the city was clearly the home of "errorists of every name and grade." Walls of foaming surf made it impossible for large vessels to get anywhere near the shore at Madras. So the captain of the Saracen lowered her sails two miles offshore and waited for orders from the harbormaster telling him where to drop anchor among the scores of merchant vessels and hundreds of smaller fishing boats already bobbing in the Madras Roads. The Americans watched as two crudely fashioned catamarans-teak logs lashed together, each paddled by three kneeling men-struggled out toward them through the waves. Despite the still-bright late-afternoon sun, the missionaries were clad in black; their wives wore the long-sleeved dresses with full skirts and many petticoats thought suitable for the wives of clergymen back home. When the first catamaran reached the Saracen and its occupants clambered up the side to deliver anchoring instructions to the captain, the sight of them, dark skins shiny with sweat, naked but for loincloths and standing only a few feet away, drove several of the women and at least two of the men to their cabins to weep with shock and pray for strength. "These are the Hindus, these the people among whom we came to dwell!" the Reverend Ferdinand De Wilton Ward remembered saying to his wife, Jane Shaw Ward, that evening as they settled into their berths to try to get at least a little sleep before going ashore the next morning. Ward had celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday at sea; his wife was seven month solder. Everything they had seen that day suggested that the gulf between New England and the ancient land to which they and their companions expected to devote the rest of their lives was wider than they'd imagined, the challenge of conversion greater than they'd dreamed. If the little band of missionaries was to have any impact on India at all, they would have to work together as one, Ward would write, bound up in "a united labor of love," with each member careful always to display consistent "patience and forbearance." But neither he nor his wife was prepared to remain united with anyone else for long. Neither was patient or forbearing, either. In the end it was not the immovability of India but the Wards' own intransigence and stubborn self-regard that would first drive the couple home in disgrace and then create the claustrophobic, embittered world that helped warp the personality of their younger son. Rev. Ferdinand De Wilton Ward, the swindler's father and namesake, had been brought up to believe that his family, the Wards of Rochester, New York, were better than other people: more upright, more principled, more godly, and-perhaps as a reward for all that conspicuous virtue-bound to be more successful. Their prosperity and prominence, they believed, were inextricably linked with what Rev. Ward would call "their ancestral, heroic, puritan piety of which they were never, for an hour, ashamed." They had already prospered in Massachusetts and Connecticut for six generations by 1807, when Ferdinand's grandfather, Deacon Levi Ward, his Yale-educated father, Dr. Levi Ward Jr., their families, and several neighbors all left Haddam, Connecticut, together and joined the stream of New Englanders then headed for the "Genesee Woods," the dark unbroken forest that blanketed most of western New York. From the first, they considered themselves a cut above their fellow pioneers. Deacon Ward saw to it that his wife rode through the forest in a horse-drawn chaise with leather springs, the first such conveyance ever seen in the New York wilderness (or so his descendants later claimed). Once they reached and cleared the site that was first named "Wardville" and then became part of the village of Bergen, the deacon's eldest son, Dr. Levi Ward, built his family a frame house with cedar shingles rather than a log cabin, even though his new neighbors found it "somewhat aristocratic." Ferdinand De Wilton Ward was born in that house on July9, 1812, the youngest of five boys and the second-to-youngest child in a family of thirteen children (eleven of whom would live to adulthood). His earliest memories included the bright, beaded moccasins worn by the Indian hunters who emerged from the woods from time to time with game to barter, and the distant sound of howling wolves, heard as he lay shivering in bed. His father was an unusually successful settler. By the time Ferdinand was born, Dr. Ward was running a provisions store, serving his fifth consecutive term as town supervisor, overseeing mail delivery throughout the region, and acting as land agent for the State of Connecticut, charged with selling off some fifty thousand acres of cleared forest for farmland-and pocketing a handsome commission for every sale. But he was not satisfied. In early 1818, when Ferdinand was five and his father was forty-six, his parents moved their large brood twenty miles or so to the east, to what was then called Rochester Ville, on the Upper Falls of the Genesee River. Only seven hundred people lived there then, but the tumbling ninety-six-foot cataract at the village's heart was ideally suited for powering mills and workshops, and there was good reason to believe the tiny village would soon outdo all the surrounding settlements: the New York State legislature had decreed that the 363-mile Erie Canal, connecting Albany on the Hudson to Buffalo on Lake Erie, was to cross the Genesee at Rochester. Work was already under way. Once completed, the canal would link the American heartland for the first time to distant continents-and transform the thickly forested Genesee Valley into fields of ripening wheat for sale to the cities of the East. Rochester was about to become the "Flour City"-the nation's first real boomtown-and Dr. Ward and all his offspring would profit handsomely from its startling growth. Ferdinand grew up in a world in which his father seemed to be everywhere at once, encouraging every new enterprise, urging his neighbors to ever-greater effort, summoning up a city from a forest. He helped lobby to make Rochester the seat of the brand-new Monroe County, opened stores, bought up big tracts of land, cornered the insurance business, helped establish the Rochester City Bank, the first New York financial institution ever chartered outside New York City, as well as the Rochester Savings Bank-and then served as president and director of each. Hews a ruling elder of the First Presbyterian Church, helped establish the Female Charitable Society, the County Poor House, the Western House of Refuge, the Rochester Athenaeum, the Rochester Society for the Promotion of Temperance. He was a life member of the American Colonization and American Tract Societies, too, and president of the Monroe County Bible Society, the very first in the country, whose goal it was to place a Bible in the hands of every citizen willing to accept one. Excerpted from A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States by Geoffrey C. Ward All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.