From the New York Times:
Great-Grandfather Was a First-Class Bamboozler
‘A Disposition to Be Rich’ by Geoffrey C. Ward
After Ferdinand De Wilton Ward Jr. became notorious as a Gilded Age financial schemer of rare weaselly ingenuity, his picture appeared in a manual of phrenology. The shape of his “low-top head, very broad from side to side,” was said to explain why Ward had shown the “Secretiveness, Cunning, Acquisitiveness, Destructiveness” to bilk investors, shame and bankrupt a former president and try to kidnap his own son.
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. Ferd, as he was known, was incarcerated at both the Ludlow Street Jail and the Tombs in New York, but it was not until he reached Sing Sing that his gifts as a con man really reached their peak. Thanks to well-placed bribes he got a nicer-than-average cell and the privilege of wearing a straw hat, not a striped one.
Before the arrival of this book, “A Disposition to Be Rich,” which takes its title from Ferd’s mother’s excuse for his problems, not much was written directly about Ward’s chicanery. There are several reasons. His illicit financial dealings were best known as a sad footnote to the Ulysses S. Grant story, since Grant became Ward’s woefully ill-informed partner in the firm of Grant & Ward. (Specialty: securities rehypothecating, or “pledging the same paper over and over again to borrow money, paying the interest on one loan out of the principal for the next, hoping that things would somehow balance out one day.”
And the Panic of 1884, which was prompted in part by the collapse of banks exploited by Grant & Ward, had other causes, among them the depletion of European gold reserves. The eloquent bursts of fury at Grant & Ward from Mark Twain, Grant’s friend and protector, are better remembered than the misdeeds that provoked them. Twain spoke of cursing Ward “with all the profanity known to the one language I am acquainted with,” as well as “odds and ends of profanity drawn from the other two languages of which I have a limited knowledge.”Finally there was little firsthand evidence of the Ward story. A trunk full of Ferd’s Sing Sing papers has been in Geoffrey Ward’s possession since 1965, but it took him years to examine the letters and family memorabilia inside. Mr. Ward has been understandably slow to tackle this subject. He has also been busy writing “The Civil War” with Ken and Ric Burns and winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for “A First-Class Temperament,” his biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He has written many other books, some with Ken Burns, on subjects ranging from baseball to tigers....MORE