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A Disposition to Be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age Paperback – April 23, 2013
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Praise for Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to Be Rich:
“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.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A special accomplishment. . . . 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.”
—The New York Times
“Compelling. . . . [A] full-speed-ahead tale of Ward’s wheeling, dealing and defrauding. . . . Readers are fortunate that a writer as talented as Geoffrey C. Ward had a great-grandfather as villainous as Ferdinand Ward. Also worth thanks is that after nearly 50 years of thinking about it, Geoffrey Ward decided to share his family story, one that reveals how deeply rooted financial corruption is in the nation's history.”
—The Seattle Times
“A Disposition to Be Rich is so fast-paced and mesmerizing you might be tempted to call it a rollicking financial thriller, if it didn’t end with real suffering.”
“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. . . . Thrilling. . . . With a story like this one, no invention was necessary.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“Family memoirs are nothing new, but Ward's A Disposition to Be Rich—Ferdinand is his great-grandfather—has the advantage of being written by an award-winning historian. . . . Ward has a solid perspective on American history, particularly the nation's growing pains of the second half of the 19th century. . . . [Ward’s] exhaustive research fills in a portrait of a time and culture that made someone like Ferdinand Ward possible. For some, the matter-of-fact corruption of the age—and of a Wall Street that played by its own rules—might have a familiar ring.”
—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“The strength of the book lies in how cleanly Ward meshes the personal with the historical. . . . Maybe if we had remembered the story of fast-talking Ferdie Ward, people would have taken Madoff's promises of riches a little more skeptically.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Think of Gatsby. Think of Bernie Madoff. An amazing array of famous and familiar names dances across these pages, from Mark Twain to Charles Dow of Dow Jones fame, to the nubile bride who would years later become ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown.’ . . . This is a book to experience in full, down to its many lengthy footnotes, each a capsule history of some fascinating by road to the main story. The depth and precision of sources are outstanding, and many family letters and journals are quoted at length. A Disposition to be Rich is a unique family history that is also a unique literary collaboration.”
—The Kansas City Star
“Drawing on thousands of documents preserved by members of his family, the book is an engrossing and entertaining, up-close-and-personal portrait of a compulsive swindler and sociopath, the Bernard Madoff of the Gilded Age.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“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.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“A gripping story of chicanery in the stock market which drives home the ancient adage, ‘Buyer, beware!’“
—The Washington Times
“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 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
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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Top Customer Reviews
Mr. Ward is an excellent writer who works closely with Ken Burns for whom he writes the material that makes Mr. Burn's documentaries come to life. It's obvious that Mr. Ward does not take great pride in his forefather's deeds, however he seems to have felt a family obligation to publically address or acknowledge this individual who very suddenly enters then exits the historical stage. It's also obvious that Mr. Ward recognized a good story to be told as well as a timely one i.e. Bernie Madoff. The schemes of Mr. Madoff and Ferdinand Ward were essentially the same; convince enough of the right people that you are a financial genius or "boy wonder", create unbelievable paper rates of return and then count on the greed or gulliblity (Grant) of others. Ferdinand Ward not only preceded Mr. Madoff by about 120 years, but almost outdid him by nearly bringing down the banking system and causing a Wall Street panic.
This work is not the seller that some of Mr. Ward's other books have been, but it is well worth the read. I highly recommend this book. The angle of a well known author writing about a spectacularly disreputable relative is fascinating in and of itself.
The main problem, I think, is that the two main focuses of this tale, Ferdinand Ward and his parents, were boring people. The parents were religious zealots who early on went to India, but had no flicker of fun in them--ever. And the son, the unlikely Wall Street pirate, was a sniveling, self-absorbed con man.
If this story did not involve General U.S. Grant's financial ruin it might be that of any one of the thousands of amoral embezzlers in our country's history: small crooks who assiduously carried out their illegal business schemes to get rich without working, almost invariably ending in jail and leading to many blighted lives.
Geoffrey C.Ward is a good writer and historian. I doubt that he would have written on this subject--at this length--but for his special and natural family interest in these direct ancestors of his, who were involved in a major public scandal of the late 19th century.
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.
Which means a devoted reader is really primed by the time Ferd appears, especially given the prefatory George Bernard Shaw quote: "If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance." And Geoffrey Ward is most skilled in making historical figures dance off the pages.
The fact is, however, that Ferd does not dance so much as he predictably weasels, connives and contrives his way to financial heights--almost never with any flair, wit or color. Ward can find nothing scamp or rapscallion to breathe life into his great-grandfather's villainy. (Sometimes a miscreant is just a miscreant.) Nor is there a character for us to root on, save for ex-President Grant, but we already know that (1) Ferd and others bilked Grant out of his money, and their bank fraud triggered a crash and (2) Mark Twain helped bring the dying Grant the Memoirs project that would leave his family with something.
I did enjoy the accounts of the 1880's crash, and Ferd's trial and incarceration. Later kidnapping his own son for ransom from his ex was not shocking so much as merely confirming his inhumanity.
It's not difficult to see how Geoffrey Ward, who has known of his shameless great-grandfather all his life, finally came to tell this story at such length. He inherited a trove of Ferd's personal papers 50 years ago. And he successfully recounts the sordid story while neither "gilding the lily" nor being overly-critical. He does his usual terrific historian's job. Take 200+ pages of the 1860-1900 years, and there's a real tale here worthy of Ward's gifts. As things stand, though, we have more of an exhumation than an overall worthwhile read.