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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 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 1, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


A Disposition to Be Rich is a special accomplishment . . . 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 . . .  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 . . .  A most peculiar labor of love.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Before Bernard Madoff, before Charles Ponzi, there was Ferdinand Ward . . . Based on troves of letters and other memorabilia that Mr. Ward patiently amassed over many years, A Disposition to Be Rich is actually a family chronicle of sorts, in which Ferdinand is by no means the most demented ancestor . . . [A] beguiling reminder that human nature doesn’t change much from one Gilded Age to another, although each new con merchant brings fresh wrinkles to the racket.”
—Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal
“A scoundrel and a celebrity, the embezzler Ferdinand Ward made headlines for 25 years. This work, the result of decades of research into family archives and conversations with Geoffrey Ward’s grandfather, Ferd’s son Clarence, often reads like fiction. What’s as impressive as Ferd Ward’s career was wayward is his great-grandson’s powers of historical synthesis. . . . With a story like this one, no invention was necessary.”
—Carlo Wolff, Christian Science Monitor

“Like a great nineteenth century novel, this is a mordantly entertaining account of the author’s great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward, whose stock brokerage collapsed spectacularly in 1885 after swindling Ulysses S. Grant and other luminaries out of millions . . . . A rollicking financial picaresque.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)

“Imagine that Bernie Madoff was in business with former President Dwight Eisenhower and that after stealing millions from Warren Buffett, Madoff left Ike with only $80 to his name. That’s what Ferd Ward did to Ulysses S. Grant, but it only begins to describe the perfidy of the greatest swindler of the 19th Century. Now Ward’s great grandson, one of America’s finest historians, has redeemed the Ward family name with this wry and engrossing tale of Gilded Age greed that resonates powerfully in our own time.”
—Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One
“Before Charles Ponzi, before Bernie Madoff, there was Ferdinand Ward, the greatest and most audacious schemer of them all. Geoffrey Ward, his great grandson, had rare access to private papers, accounts, court documents, and the letters of this evil, self-justifying, mesmerizing sociopath, who went from a poor minister’s son to the swindling partner of President Ulysses S. Grant. This is a superb, exciting, beautifully written book. I couldn’t put it down. You won’t either.”
—Barbara Goldsmith, author of Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie
“Geoffrey Ward has written an astonishing book.  Readers will not want to put down his fast-paced account of how his great grandfather, “The Best-Hated Man in the United States,” brought U.S. Grant to ruin.  He leaves no doubt that Ferdinand Ward of Grant and Ward was a scoundrel, but, in this riveting biography, he also raises the fascinating question of why so many Americans in the Gilded Age were so eager to become dupes.”
—William E. Leuchtenburg, winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize of the Society of American Historians

"No dramatization could match the richness of detail and command of sources that Ward provides here. Each footnote is a miniature history in itself—coming together in a remarkably vivid and focused portrait of the age, its biases and follies."
—David Walton, The Dallas Morning News

"A gripping story of chicanery in the stock market which drives home the ancient adage, 'Buyer, beware!'"
—Joseph C. Goulden, The Washington Times

"[An] elegant new biography."
—T.J. Stiles, The New York Times Sunday Book Review

"A Disposition to be Rich
is a unique family history that is also a unique literary collaboration."
—David Walton, Louisville Courier-Journal

A New York Times Notable Book of 2012

About the Author

Geoffrey C. Ward is the coauthor of The Civil War (with Ken Burns and Ric Burns), and the author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and the 1990 Francis Parkman Prize.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First edition (May 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780679445302
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679445302
  • ASIN: 0679445307
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #961,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Peter Hillman on May 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Geoffrey Ward, a gifted historian and biographer, has graced the genre from outstanding books on the young FDR through his collaborations with Ken Burns on Jazz, the Civil War, WWII, Baseball. The appearance of a new book--especially one 50 years in the making--is exciting. The unusual steroid title, though, may be a tip-off that this effort is a real stretch.

As always, the author delivers lucid and crisp writing, an amazing attention to detail, and thorough sourcing. It seemed, however, that this time out his prodigious talents were misdirected. A weighty account of his ancestors way-overstays its welcome (and interest, to anyone except a Ward relative); and, the protagonist is so colorless a reprobate as to make evident why no one save a distinguished relative has tackled him before in book length.

Most of the first 90 pages concern Ferd ("Scoundrel") Ward's parents...their up-bringings, his decision to be a minister, their experiences as (failed) missionaries to India, their return to America, constant difficulties getting along with people and institutions, self-victimizing and narcissism (the latter being traits Ferd will inherit/absorb, together with ferocious, single-minded materialism). The difficulty is, these folks are largely uninteresting, sanctimonious misanthropes and constant whiners, hardly fodder for such extended treatment. The author's conscious decision to make this book a biography about the entire family starts off as misguided, for there is little if anything in the characters of Ferd's parents to grasp and hold a reader's attention. Consequently, the first fourth of the book is very hard slogging, mind numbing at times.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By G. P. Keim on May 5, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book turned out to be a complete page-turner. It's a wonderful combination of historical narrative combined with family drama and exceptional storytelling.

Writing about a character such as Ferdinand Ward, great grandfather and grifter/sociopath, must have been fun for Ward. As the story unfolds, you can see Wards research in the details. Every character is 3-dimensional and fleshed-out.

This is a terrific character study and a great read. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Richard Cumming on June 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The first 90 pages of this book are rather slow moving. The author reconstructs his family history and that of this swindler, his great grandfather, Ferd Ward. Ferd isn't around for most of this section. His parents were excruciating. They were devoutly religious, strait-laced, humorless. If you are fascinated by mundane disputes between church factions you might enjoy the first 90 pages. I slogged through it and earned my reward.

The rest of the book is fabulous. Ferd Ward was the Bernard Madoff of his age. He didn't seem to care who he hurt, his wife, his child, his parents, his partners, his investors, a former US President, actually, anybody who fell for his smooth talk and utter lies. What a swindler he was. He had no conscience. If there is a Hades you can bet that Ferd Ward is there. The devil took him.

I loved this book. It was like watching a gruesome accident in slow motion. You cannot look away.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Perhaps in a century no one will know who Bernard Madoff was, and someone will write a book to summarize Madoff's career and our great-great-great grandchildren will be astonished that such a schemer should have been so successful for so long. They will make the new acquaintance of the rascal Madoff then, but I doubt that the account could ever be as much fun as the one that brings to us after a century and a half the shenanigans of Ferdinand Ward, an American scammer who flourished in the 1880s. His very own great-grandson, historian Geoffrey G. Ward, has brought Ferd Ward's story out in _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_ (Knopf). Oh, Ferd Ward was a rotter, he ruined thousands, and he seems to have had simply no redeeming characteristics, unless, as Americans do, you think of gaining a lot of money as an admirable characteristic. Ferd did work hard, but it was work to dupe investors and his wife and other members of his family. At this remove, however, and under his great-grandson's extensive research and rifling of the family documents, this whining, bullying, self-pitying sociopath is such a character that it is all more funny than sad, and the account is an entertaining, rollicking tale.

The author has taken up the first third of his book to tell about Ferd's father, who, though he was a Presbyterian preacher, was a bully who picked senseless quarrels while he and his wife were missionaries in India (they were recalled early) and afterwards in Ferd's hometown of Genesco, New York. These pious parents had many problems with Ferd's upbringing, and fretted. They were, the author says, "right to be worried about his conscience.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By SusieQ on June 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
A DISPOSITION TO BE RICH was overall a fascinating look at the man who infamously ruined the family of former president and Civil War hero, Ulysses S. Grant. Having recently read GRANT'S FINAL VICTORY, which covers some of the same ground, it was extremely interesting to me to learn more about the fraudulent financial actions of Ferdinand Ward and the collapse of the investment firm, Grant & Ward, from another point of view. (The fact that it's Ferd Ward's great-grandson doing the exploring is just the icing on the cake!)

I have long admired Geoffrey C. Ward as a writer and as a historian. (His 2-volume biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt is, in my opinion, one of the best yet written.) The author has an 'easy' way of bringing history back to life; his books can always be depended upon to be well written; entertaining, informative, and impeccably researched. In A DISPOSITION TO BE RICH, the use of Ward family archives and the letters quoted here, add immeasurably to the story of the Ward family, not just to the story of Ferdinand Ward. We are provided with the familial interactions and an exploration of the personalities of his parents, his wife, his siblings and friends. It's the kind of biography I admire the most: it takes the time to give you a whole picture of a family, not just its one particular member; what went into making the man the man he was.

That praise being given, I have some mild criticisms. I hate the top-heavy title, which (sigh) seems to be a common denominator in every new historical study or biography that comes out today. Why not just leave it at A DISPOSITION TO BE RICH?
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