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
Alfred A. Knopf: 415 pp., $28.95.
In 1863, the young Ferdinand Ward was alone with his mother in their parsonage in Geneseo, N.Y., his minister father and older brother both off to war and his older sister visiting relatives out of town. Diphtheria swept through the village, killing friends and neighbors, and each mail delivery carried the risk of disaster — would it include a notice that one of the Ward men had been killed?
"With the rest of the family away," young Ferdie "was now his mother's sole companion in the dark parsonage," historian Geoffrey C. Ward writes in his new book, "A Disposition to be Rich." The mother had a religious zealot's dour view of the secular world and of the wages of sin. Hers was not a reassuring presence during those fearful days, and under her wing, young Ferdie absorbed a lesson that would mark the sweep of his adult life: "No one should expect virtue, no matter how conspicuous, ever to be rewarded in this world."
Ferdie Ward was Geoffrey Ward's great-grandfather, and the subtitle of this veteran historian's new work lays out Ferdie's future: "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."
The hatred was well earned. Ward, long lost to national memory, was the Bernie Madoff of his era, a master of the Ponzi scheme years before Charles Ponzi earned his own pedestal in the pantheon of American con men. The author, whose 15 previous books include several collaborations with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, comes at his subject with a sense of dispassion, despite the family connection, and a touch of astonishment at how Ferdie Ward so easily duped some of the most cynical minds on Wall Street.
Ward's most famous victim was former President Ulysses S. Grant, whose son was a partner (and patsy) in Ward's financial escapades through the Wall Street firm Grant & Ward. The silver lining: In the aftermath, terminally ill with throat cancer and desperate for money to support his family, Grant wrote the memoirs he had been refusing to put down in ink. He died just days after sending the manuscript off to his publisher, Mark Twain, who turned it into a bestseller.
Scores of Ward's other victims didn't recover so handily. The deals were convoluted, but the basic con centered on Ward supposedly investing client money in government contracts. In reality, he was using cash from new investors and fraudulent loans from a banking partner to pay off the old investors. Some $14.5 million disappeared (more than $300 million today) over four years, including nearly every cent former President Grant owned. The scam sent Ward to Sing Sing prison for six years, beginning in 1885.
But Ward's crimes didn't end there. After he was released from prison, the con man kept involving himself in other scams, including a botched kidnapping to get his hands on his late wife's inherited fortune, then controlled by their son, the grandfather to the author, who airs this ancestral laundry in rich detail.
The strength of the book lies in how cleanly Ward meshes the personal with the historical. He gathered his first records on the subject in 1965, when his grandfather gave him a box of the con man's papers, many of which had followed him through Sing Sing. "So I've been thinking about this book, or reading for it, or actually writing it, for nearly fifty years, off and on," Ward writes.
If there is a flaw to the book, it is the early emphasis on Ferdie Ward's parents, who were missionaries to India and whose inflexibility was a force of nature. They had three children; the other two matured into productive adults, and the parents' harsh manners and self-involvement clearly are integral to Ferdie's story. By Page 110, though, with Ferdie at age 15, you become a bit impatient for the main event, like with an opening band at a concert that has played one song too many.
But "A Disposition to Be Rich" rewards the patient reader. And it's reminiscent of Frances Dinkelspiel's 2008 "Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California," in which the Bay Area journalist similarly tapped family lore and independent records to tell a little-known story about the money behind California's rise more than a century ago.
Here, Ward similarly drags the skeletons from the closet to reveal the lightly explored lives of 19th century American Christian missionaries to India, and a financial crime that staggered the nation but that has disappeared from public memory.
Maybe if we had remembered the story of fast-talking Ferdie Ward, people would have taken Madoff's promises of riches a little more skeptically.
Martelle, an Irvine-based writer, is the author of "Detroit: A Biography."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times