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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

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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 [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Geoffrey C. Ward
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2012

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.

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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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First edition (May 1, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679445307
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679445302
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 8.3 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #885,604 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing 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 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written and engaging May 5, 2012
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
5.0 out of 5 stars a slow start but it really takes off... June 2, 2012
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
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cautionary Tale for Our Times June 30, 2012
As PT Barnum said, "There's a sucker born every minute". While the first part of the book is a bit slow, it can be argued that it is necessary to fully ponder the origins of Ferdinand Ward's behavior as thief and scoundrel. This is a fantastic read with suspense, great characters... And it's plot and truth are too close to recent Wall Street and corporate corruption scandals to be easily ignored. Knowing that US Grant and Mark Twain, part of the cast of characters in this true saga, were in contact as this story evolved, makes me wonder if Ferdinand Ward was in some way the prototype for Pap Finn, Huck Finn's abusive father. Ferdinand Ward was seemed to care only for how he could use his son for his own ends, much like Pap. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to other readers of American History and of human drama, steeped as it is in exploring not just what motivates the amoral Bernie Madoff's of the world but the masses of people... family members, friends and total strangers who offer themselves as willing victims to the scallywag.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining book July 9, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Ferd Ward was without doubt one of the most hubristic, despicable people of his era. It must have been all that religious emphasis in his ridiculous education. His parents were religious nuts and this fruit fell close to the tree, though decidedly on the shady side. Though it probably doesn't sound like this would be the basis of an amusing book, I found it hilarious and a real page turner. Post Civil War America was a bizarre place with its mix of manifest destiny, greed, egomania, hypocritical religiosity, and outright ignorance and stupidity. This book captures some of the worst elements of the period with precision and understated humor. The characters in the book had no idea how biased and stupid they were -- they all thought themselves to be superior to one another. It was a time when people behaved as if ignorance and stupidity were virtues and the author (Ward's descendant) has captured it well.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Book review
A little difficult to follow but interesting story. Unknown event that was intriguing to discover. Lost history again. Such a shame.
Published 2 months ago by Granny
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful, detailed writing.
Ward has done a masterful (and bold) job of telling the history of his ancestor. It is meticulously researched and very well written. Read more
Published 2 months ago by ellen fike
4.0 out of 5 stars Victorian Sociopath
There is an intangible about reading about Victorian Age scoundrels, that seems humorous. One can almost imagine a Keystone Cop movie playing out with fast motion bedlam and organ... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Pugwash
5.0 out of 5 stars little know fascinating
This is a little known American story of a Bernie Madoff character who involved not only the gullible and envious public but a well respected, heroic American President. Read more
Published 4 months ago by allison
3.0 out of 5 stars Good
Interesting part of history. Son turned out well. Book would be part of history. Interesting to someone that likes history.
Published 7 months ago by Sheryl Teuscher
4.0 out of 5 stars Of personal interest
Historically interesting. It gives insight into Protestant dicotamy of that era. We find it of particular interest as my wife is a great grand daughterdaughter of James Dean Fish,... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Ralph A. Mazzarella
4.0 out of 5 stars A Disposition to Be Ricoh
The book was well organized. Ferd actually becomes less likeable as it progresses. Good look at the underside of the GIlded Age. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Robert Shive
5.0 out of 5 stars Human selfishness
I enjoyed reading this book very much. People do not change. You find the same things happening over and over again. The writing was easy and flowing. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Arlene P. Lowitt
5.0 out of 5 stars History and Drama Coincide
"Truth is stranger than fiction" certainly applies to this compelling and detailed story of "the gilded age". Read more
Published 11 months ago by colliemom
4.0 out of 5 stars A disposition to Be Rich hiits home
We found "disposition" interesting and informative. Especially because we lived in the Ward home on Second Street in Geneseo for ten years, and we met Geoffrey Ward there... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Edward J. Lindsey
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