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
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Ferdinand Ward was the greatest swindler of the Gilded Age. Through his unapologetic villainy, he bankrupted Ulysses S. Grant and ran roughshod over the entire world of finance. Now, his compelling, behind-the-scenes story is told—told by his great-grandson, award-winning historian Geoffrey C. Ward.
Ward was the Bernie Madoff of his day, a supposed genius at making big money fast on Wall Street who turned out to have been running a giant pyramid scheme—one 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 with charm, energy, and a total lack of conscience, made himself the business partner of the 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.
first letter of the New Year will be to you my dear brother and with it the wish that the year may not be more sad or heavy than you can bear. I sail on Saturday and shall not see you till my return. I wish to send you a word of love—of brother love, constant and sincere—although I know that you do not think I love you as I do. Words are vain at times and I will not write them but all I can say is that you have never had nor will you have in life a truer heart near you than mine. Your loving
string; a Shaivite mendicant, smeared with ash and strung with prayer beads; and another Hindu devotee in the throes of religious fervor, slashing at his own thigh as a symbol of his zeal—a sight, Ferdinand lamented, “seen frequently in the streets.”5 He grew frustrated by the unexpected difficulty of learning Tamil. (“It is a fearfully ugly language,” wrote one English newcomer, “clattering, twittering, chirping, sputtering—like a whole poultry-yard let loose upon one, and not a single
in the throng, having bribed his guards at the Ludlow Street Jail so that he could watch his partner’s coffin pass by. His trial for grand larceny began some six weeks later. In this courtroom scene from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (above), Ferd’s flamboyant attorney, W. Bourke Cockran, questions a prospective juror while Will Ward whispers into his brother’s ear. (illustration credit 21) The public clamored to see Ferd punished: the comic artist Frederick Opper published the
clerk at the Meridian National Bank in Indianapolis, Indiana. “When you write to him beg him to be accurate in his accounts,” his father urged his daughter, “not attempting to do things fast & not have money lost by carelessness or burglary when in his care.”29 Ferdinand was home again within two weeks, personally dismissed by the bank’s president. Thirteen years later, the banker would explain that he’d fired Ferdie simply because he smoked and whistled on the job; young men with such
another, far more lucrative scheme to tap the Ramapo watershed in the Catskills. Because “certain members” of the commission looking into improving the city’s water supply were “associated with the firm,” he said, “we [will] complete the contract … receive $35 million,” and earn “a certain profit of 17 million.”* The unsecured loans made to Ferd by the Marine Bank, the sums advanced by William Warner and his voracious friends, and the moneys borrowed from financial institutions and advanced by