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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.
Like a great 19th-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. Ward, a historian and Ken Burns collaborator, weaves character defects and family conflicts into a social panorama, probing Ferdinand's loathsome, beguiling personality: the youthful charm that mesmerized Wall Street graybeards; the feelings of self-righteousness, entitlement, and whiny victimhood inherited from his missionary parents (but without their restraining moralism); the omnivorous greed that turned his post Sing Sing Prison life into an endless scheme to wheedle, con, and sue money out of everyone he knew. (He even kidnapped his own son to get his wife's inheritance.) Ward, winner of an NBCC award and the Francis Parkman Prize for A First-Class Temperament, narrates a rollicking financial picaresque, but infuses it with psychological depth; Ferdinand's frauds are a tangle of personal betrayals that implicate his family as they agonize over how much of his untrustworthiness they should reveal to outsiders. The result is a fascinating study of the Victorian moral economy veering toward bankruptcy. Photos.