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.
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
confidential letter from Rev. Henry Cherry to the American Board, September 20, 1846. Once Ferdinand had settled in at Madras, he would write to Secretary Anderson in Boston, claiming he had been invited to come to Madras and had only reluctantly accepted. Both letters are in the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions Archive, Houghton Library, Harvard University. ‖ Among the roughly 1,800 American and English Protestant missionaries who preached in India between 1800 and 1876,
India returned. His chronic Monday-morning migraines intensified, too, and he was forced to spend more and more time in his darkened bedroom. A summer spent abroad, paid for by wealthy parishioners concerned about his health, raised his spirits,† but it would take him two years to make his next move—years during which the same division over what was finally to be done about slavery and its extension that menaced the American Union further threatened the unity of the White Church. By 1856, the
the morning on August 25, 1858. Ferdinand’s close ally, Judge Lord, proposed an informal ballot on which each member could simply note his preference between “Old School” and “New School.” A prominent New Schooler responded by calling instead for “Yeas and Nays” on the proposition that “in the opinion of this church it is inexpedient to change its ecclesiastical relation.”34 A full day of what the recording secretary tactfully described as “free discussion” followed. Then came the vote. Ferdinand
his mother to church and prayer services several times a week. “Ferdie is wholly dependent on us now,” his mother told Sarah with what seems to have been a blend of concern and satisfaction. “He has not even 25 cts a week for pocket money unless we give it to him.”39 Her husband shared all of her concern and none of her satisfaction. Neither he nor Jane was well. His old stomach complaint continued to nag at him. Jane experienced “a nervous tremor over my system,” she told Sarah, occasional