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Monday, May 21, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Book review
'A Disposition to Be Rich': a financial scoundrel in the late 1800s

By by John B. Saul
Special to The Seattle Times

'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

Knopf, 432 pp., $28.95

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.

Ferdinand Ward plied his fraudulent schemes in the late 1800s. His most famous victim was Ulysses S. Grant, former U.S. president and commander of the Union Army in the Civil War. Grant died a financially ruined man, victim of Geoffrey Ward's great-grandfather, the subject of "A Disposition to Be Rich."

Ward, co-author of several of Ken Burns' projects, not only writes a compelling story, he researches it thoroughly — perhaps too thoroughly. The first 130 pages are devoted to Ferdinand's parents, their narrow view of Presbyterianism and their inability to get along with others. The parents' odd combination of religious rigidity in general and parental laxity in the particular case of their youngest played an important role in Ferd's upbringing and how he turned out. But it's a slow start to what comes next: The full-speed-ahead tale of Ward's wheeling, dealing and defrauding.

It's impossible to read this book without thinking of Bernie Madoff, Michael Mastro, Kenneth Lay or dozens of other scoundrels who have come along since, but Ward's misdeeds are still impressive.

He promised, and for a time delivered, huge profits to investors who thought Ward was securing government contracts. He was not. As he said in court, he "had to rob Peter to pay Paul," essentially running a huge pyramid scheme.

Among those kept in the dark about the true nature of his supposed financial acumen were Grant and his sons, partners in the Grant & Ward investment firm. As author Ward tells it, Gen. Grant left home on May 6, 1884, thinking himself a millionaire, and came home that night with $80 in his pocket. His wife had $150, and "there was nothing else."

Ward was blamed for stealing the ex-president's health as well as his wealth and worst of all to the proud soldier, his reputation.

Friends stepped in to help. William Vanderbilt, the railroad tycoon, refused to take his home, which Grant had insisted on surrendering as partial payment on $150,000 he had borrowed from Vanderbilt. Mark Twain gave Grant a $10,000 advance for his memoirs and promised 70 percent royalties to the general, who died before the two volumes were published, a little more than a year after Ward's scheme collapsed.

Prosecutors took the fastest approach to getting Ward behind bars: grand larceny for floating a check he knew had nothing behind it. For this, Ferd spent six and a half years in jail and Sing Sing prison, but was able to connive enough money from friends and family to bribe his way to privileges such as a soft job and a carpeted room that spared him from hard labor and a 7- by 3-foot cell.

By the time of his release in 1892, his wife had died and what little family money remained had been locked away in trusts for the support of his 8-year-old son. Ferd's efforts to get at this money included attempted kidnapping of his child and threatened blackmail when that child grew to become a success and brought the Ward family back to respectability.

All quite despicable, but what a tale he left his great-grandson — and readers.

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