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A Disposition to Be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age

A Disposition to Be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age

by Geoffrey C. Ward

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A New York Times Notable Book

The compelling behind-the-scenes story of the greatest swindler of the Gilded Age, whose villainy bankrupted Ulysses S. Grant and stunned the world of finance—told by his great-grandson, award-winning historian Geoffrey C. Ward.
Ferdinand Ward, the son of a Protestant missionary and small-town pastor,


A New York Times Notable Book

The compelling behind-the-scenes story of the greatest swindler of the Gilded Age, whose villainy bankrupted Ulysses S. Grant and stunned the world of finance—told by his great-grandson, award-winning historian Geoffrey C. Ward.
Ferdinand Ward, the son of a Protestant missionary and small-town pastor, moved to New York at twenty-one and, in less than a decade, made himself the business partner of a former president and established himself as the “Young Napoleon of Finance.” In truth, he was running a massive pyramid scheme. Drawing from thousands of family documents never before examined, Geoffrey C. Ward traces his great-grandfather’s rapid rise to riches and fame, and his even more dizzying fall from grace, in a narrative populated with mistresses, crooked bankers, corrupt New York officials, and a desperate kidnapping scheme. Here is a great story about a classic American con artist.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to Be Rich:

“Before Bernard Madoff, before Charles Ponzi, there was Ferdinand Ward. . . . Based on troves of letters and other memorabilia that Mr. Ward patiently amassed over many years, A Disposition to Be Rich is actually a family chronicle of sorts, in which Ferdinand is by no means the most demented ancestor. . . . [A] beguiling reminder that human nature doesn’t change much from one Gilded Age to another.”
The Wall Street Journal
“A special accomplishment. . . . It took a great-grandson of Ferdinand’s, the prizewinning historian Geoffrey C. Ward, to write the scandal-filled but eminently fair book that airs this dirty laundry . . . A most peculiar labor of love.”
The New York Times
“Compelling. . . . [A] full-speed-ahead tale of Ward’s wheeling, dealing and defrauding. . . . Readers are fortunate that a writer as talented as Geoffrey C. Ward had a great-grandfather as villainous as Ferdinand Ward. Also worth thanks is that after nearly 50 years of thinking about it, Geoffrey Ward decided to share his family story, one that reveals how deeply rooted financial corruption is in the nation's history.”
The Seattle Times
A Disposition to Be Rich is so fast-paced and mesmerizing you might be tempted to call it a rollicking financial thriller, if it didn’t end with real suffering.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“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. . . . Thrilling. . . . With a story like this one, no invention was necessary.”
Christian Science Monitor

“Family memoirs are nothing new, but Ward's A Disposition to Be Rich—Ferdinand is his great-grandfather—has the advantage of being written by an award-winning historian. . . . Ward has a solid perspective on American history, particularly the nation's growing pains of the second half of the 19th century. . . . [Ward’s] exhaustive research fills in a portrait of a time and culture that made someone like Ferdinand Ward possible. For some, the matter-of-fact corruption of the age—and of a Wall Street that played by its own rules—might have a familiar ring.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“The strength of the book lies in how cleanly Ward meshes the personal with the historical. . . . 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.”
Los Angeles Times

“Think of Gatsby. Think of Bernie Madoff. An amazing array of famous and familiar names dances across these pages, from Mark Twain to Charles Dow of Dow Jones fame, to the nubile bride who would years later become ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown.’ . . . This is a book to experience in full, down to its many lengthy footnotes, each a capsule history of some fascinating by road to the main story. The depth and precision of sources are outstanding, and many family letters and journals are quoted at length. A Disposition to be Rich is a unique family history that is also a unique literary collaboration.”
The Kansas City Star

“Drawing on thousands of documents preserved by members of his family, the book is an engrossing and entertaining, up-close-and-personal portrait of a compulsive swindler and sociopath, the Bernard Madoff of the Gilded Age.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“No dramatization could match the richness of detail and command of sources that Ward provides here. Each footnote is a miniature history in itself—coming together in a remarkably vivid and focused portrait of the age, its biases and follies.”
The Dallas Morning News

“A gripping story of chicanery in the stock market which drives home the ancient adage, ‘Buyer, beware!’“
The Washington Times

“Like a great nineteenth 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. . . . A rollicking financial picaresque.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Imagine that Bernie Madoff was in business with former President Dwight Eisenhower and that after stealing millions from Warren Buffett, Madoff left Ike with only $80 to his name. That’s what Ferd Ward did to Ulysses S. Grant, but it only begins to describe the perfidy of the greatest swindler of the 19th Century. Now Ward’s great grandson, one of America’s finest historians, has redeemed the Ward family name with this wry and engrossing tale of Gilded Age greed that resonates powerfully in our own time.”
—Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One

“Before Charles Ponzi, before Bernie Madoff, there was Ferdinand Ward, the greatest and most audacious schemer of them all. Geoffrey Ward, his great grandson, had rare access to private papers, accounts, court documents, and the letters of this evil, self-justifying, mesmerizing sociopath, who went from a poor minister’s son to the swindling partner of President Ulysses S. Grant. This is a superb, exciting, beautifully written book. I couldn’t put it down. You won’t either.”
—Barbara Goldsmith, author of Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

“Geoffrey Ward has written an astonishing book.  Readers will not want to put down his fast-paced account of how his great grandfather, ‘The Best-Hated Man in the United States,’ brought U.S. Grant to ruin.  He leaves no doubt that Ferdinand Ward of Grant and Ward was a scoundrel, but, in this riveting biography, he also raises the fascinating question of why so many Americans in the Gilded Age were so eager to become dupes.”
—William E. Leuchtenburg, winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.34(w) x 7.84(h) x 0.94(d)

Read an Excerpt

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.

Meet the Author

Geoffrey C. Ward is the coauthor of The Civil War (with Ken Burns and Ric Burns), and the author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and the 1990 Francis Parkman Prize.

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