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.
or so. Then, escorted by Warden Kiernan and the Ludlow Street janitor, Billy Smith, he strolled to a saloon for a ham sandwich and a glass of beer. On the way back to court he lit up a cigar and talked with a reporter for the Sun. As they walked along, he did his best to seem cheerful. “You newspapermen, instead of abusing me, should be my warmest friends, for have I not kept you pretty busy for over a year?” He thought his chances for acquittal were poor, and wanted to know the worst just as
paid for it. The furnishings of the Pierrepont Street house followed, 400 lots of curtain rods and cooking pots, clocks and oriental carpets, tables and chairs, thirteen bottles of whiskey, 150 bottles of sherry, half a case of Apollinaire water, a buggy, and a sleigh. A billiard table valued at $800 and complete with cues, racks, bridges, and three sets of ivory balls fetched only $115. Ferd’s own carved ash bedstead, billed by the auctioneer as a precious “souvenir of one of the greatest men of
grip was now complete. Each morning began with the reading of scripture and prayer; more prayers followed tea and preceded supper. Ferdinand Ward supervised Bible recitations every Saturday evening, preached to the students at his new church on Sunday morning, officiated at devotions at the school again that evening, and oversaw recitations from the Shorter Catechism each Monday morning. Ferdie’s father was ever present at Temple Hill. So was the example of Ferdie’s sixteen-year-old brother,
see him descend into the pit below.c Ferdinand and Henrietta were among those who rose unconsciously to their feet that evening and then pledged themselves to Christ, just two of the more than one hundred men and women who officially joined the church that month alone. If Ferdinand had ever doubted that he should devote himself to the ministry, those doubts now vanished. Henceforth, he wrote his sister after he had returned to college, all his thoughts would be “of one class … Religion … a
strike him, and he crawled and fell on the tiles of the floor and begged me not to kill him.… He kept on his knees and whined.”41 What should he do? How could he make things right? It was “one of the most exciting affairs I ever saw,” one of the witnesses told a reporter. “Ward cringed and slunk like a whipped cur.”42 The banker eventually put the chair down. “I advised him to go and commit suicide,” Fish remembered. “Drown himself, hang himself.”43 Ferd fled down the stairs and out into the