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A Disposition to Be Rich

The author's great-grandfather was the Bernie Madoff of his age – a Ponzi schemer and con man who cheated a US president and kidnapped his own son.

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A Disposition to Be Rich
By Geoffrey C. Ward
Knopf, 432 pp.

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Geoffrey Ward’s cagily titled book, A Disposition to Be Rich, about his great grandfather isn’t so much written as lived in. In colorful and remarkable detail it chronicles the brazen exploits of Ferdinand Ward, “the best-hated man in the United States” and the pre-eminent Ponzi schemer of the Reconstruction Era. Not only did Ferd swindle former President Ulysses S. Grant out of millions in today’s dollars – making Grant a near-pauper as he was dying of tongue cancer – but Ferd’s greed also caused the collapse of several banks and the embarrassment of any number of high-ranking politicians and businessmen.

It also led to a term in Sing Sing for Ferd himself – and a rich trove of historical material for the author, his talented descendant and an expert in the Civil War and its aftermath.

It’s hard for a writer to make so shady a character compelling, and there is far more to dislike than admire about Ferd Ward, a horrid (this book somehow encourages one to write in period English) man whose ability to charm fed, though it did not quite outstrip, his addiction to ill-gotten gains. What’s stunning is exactly how gullible Ferd's seasoned, powerful victims turned out to be. Ferd was working on them at a moment when the country was beginning to recover from the Civil War, industry was starting to boom, and railroad construction was slowly tying the US together. One suspects Ferd’s double, triple and then-some dealings wouldn’t get by in today’s connected era, when Twitter and Facebook can “out” someone instantly. Still, it is astonishing how many captains of industry Ferd bamboozled during his salad years of the 1870s and early 1880s.

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