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, by Geoffrey C. Ward. Alfred A. Knopf, 418 pp., $28.95.
The date was May 6, 1884, and the brokerage firm on which he had staked his reputation and capital had just collapsed amid fraud. The former U.S. president and war hero discovered he had been ruined by his 32-year-old business partner, Ferdinand Ward. Grant was left with just $80 in his pocket.
Ward was the Bernie Madoff of the Gilded Age. Hailed as the Young Napoleon of Finance, he turned out to be a brazen swindler, as his great-grandson Geoffrey C. Ward shows in his unflinching biography, "A Disposition to Be Rich."
A pastor's son, slender with pale skin and a blond mustache, Ward understood the power of suggestion; he was a master at spinning precise figures to make his "investments" sound plausible. Yet, the author writes, "in the end it was neither Ferd's personality nor his skills as a fabulist that did the trick; it was the astonishing yields he promised -- and seemed able to deliver."
Ward claimed to be investing in government contracts for commodities such as flour and pork for soldiers and sailors. In fact, he was simply collecting money from new investors to pay off older victims -- a Ponzi scheme decades before Charles Ponzi stumbled on international reply coupons.
As rumors spread that Ward was paying profits of as much as 20 percent a month, people who should have known better sought a piece of the action. Cartoonist Thomas Nast invested his life's savings in Grant & Ward. Other depositors included William R. Grace, the former New York mayor and founder of W.R. Grace & Co. Grant, who got involved through his son, Buck, was dazzled.
Geoffrey Ward was a boy when he first heard about his crooked great-grandfather. Ferd Ward, he learned, was the youngest son of a small-town Presbyterian minister and his wife, and went to work at the Produce Exchange in New York when he was 21.
Ward proceeded to flatter and deceive his way to riches. In just seven years, he managed to marry a wealthy young woman and become partner with Grant and a prominent banker, James Fish, in a new brokerage, Grant & Ward.
Then Ward's pyramid scheme came unglued, triggering the collapse of Fish's Marine Bank, the failure of Grant & Ward and a panic on Wall Street.
The gestation for this biography began in 1965, when the author's grandfather turned over to him a carton filled with "brittle papers tied into bundles with dirty twine." These were the contents of Ferd Ward's trunk from Sing Sing state prison, where he had been incarcerated for grand larceny.
The man who emerged from the letters, faded photographs and other documents was a narcissist who cared not a jot for anyone except himself. Filled with an odd mixture of pride, self-pity and self-righteousness, he saw himself as a victim.
Grant, meanwhile, had died following a 14-month battle against destitution and throat cancer. Desperate for cash, Grant began turning out magazine articles about his Civil War campaigns and wound up writing his memoirs. The book, published posthumously, enabled Grant's wife to pay off many of his creditors. It left historians deeply in his debt.