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

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The compelling, unknown, 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, the award-winning historian Geoffrey C. Ward.

Ferdinand Ward was the Bernie Madoff of his generation--a supposed genius at making big money fast on Wall Street, who turned out to have been running a giant pyramid scheme that ultimately collapsed in one of the greatest financial ...

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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

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Overview

The compelling, unknown, 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, the award-winning historian Geoffrey C. Ward.

Ferdinand Ward was the Bernie Madoff of his generation--a supposed genius at making big money fast on Wall Street, who turned out to have been running a giant pyramid scheme that ultimately collapsed in one of the greatest financial scandals in American history. The son of a Protestant missionary and small-town pastor with secrets of his own to keep, Ward came to New York at twenty-one and in less than a decade, armed only with charm, energy, and a total lack of conscience, made himself the business partner of a former president of the United States and was widely hailed as the "Young Napoleon of Finance." In truth, he turned out to be a complete fraud, his entire life marked by dishonesty, cowardice, and contempt for anything but his own interests.

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. There are mistresses and mansions along the way; fast horses and crooked bankers and corrupt New York officials; courtroom confrontations and six years in Sing Sing; and Ferdinand's desperate scheme to kidnap his own son to get his hands on the estate his late wife had left the boy. Here is a great story about a classic American con artist, told with boundless charm and dry wit by one of our finest historians.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
Library Journal
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
The New York Times Book Review
In telling this personal tale, Ward applies his characteristic scrupulousness and narrative skill. Vivid, living people swarm the pages.
—T. J. Stiles
The New York Times
Within the large Ward clan Ferdinand remains "the family sociopath," although each of his parents was a candidate for that distinction. 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. Geoffrey Ward has reason for backhanded pride when it comes to his great-grandfather's malfeasance. Ferdinand was not just any crook; he created a Ponzi scheme before Charles Ponzi was even born. He can legitimately be called the Bernard Madoff of his time, and he had the public infamy and prison sentence to prove it.
—Janet Maslin
From the Publisher
"[Ward] narrates a rollicking financial picaresque, but infuses it with psychological depth." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679445302
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/1/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.52 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Prologue 3

Part 1 The Puritan

1 The Higher Calling 9

2 Labouring In Hope 34

3 Chastened and Sanctified 56

Part 2 One of the Worst Boys

4 A Contest for Principle & Truth 75

5 The Triumph of the Monster, "War" 90

6 Suspected of Evil 110

Part 3 The Young Napoleon of Finance

7 The Avaricious Spirit 127

8 The Bonanza Man 146

9 The Imaginary Business 165

10 Tears of Grateful Joy 187

11 The End Has Come 203

Part 4 The Best-Hated Man in the United States

12 Magnificent and Audacious Swindle 227

13 A Verdict at Last 251

14 The Model Prisoner 272

15 All That Loved Me Are in Heaven 293

Part 5 The Loving Father

16 Driven to Desperation 317

17 The Kidnapping 333

Epilogue 351

Ackowledgements 363

Notes 369

Bibliography 389

Index 401

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2014

    portrait of a scoundrel

    Fascinating portrait of Ferd Ward, the scoundrel who bankrupted Pres Grant and defrauded thousands of people throughout his lifetime. Written by Ward's g-grandson who shakes out every skeleton from his family's closet, this book is an excellent addition to the history of the late 1800s.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2012

    Raya

    Yeah. Im sure.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2012

    Excellent. This is a compelling story of American greed and earl

    Excellent. This is a compelling story of American greed and early Wall-Street-type hype.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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