July 29, 2012 4:12:26 PM
Perhaps in a century no one will know who Bernard Madoff was, and someone will write a book to summarize Madoff's career and our great-great-great grandchildren will be astonished that such a schemer should have been so successful for so long. They will make the new acquaintance of the rascal Madoff then, but I doubt that the account could ever be as much fun as the one that brings to us after a century and a half the shenanigans of Ferdinand Ward, an American scammer who flourished in the 1880s. His very own great-grandson, historian Geoffrey G. Ward, has brought Ferd Ward's story out in 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 (Knopf). Oh, Ferd Ward was a rotter, he ruined thousands, and he seems to have had simply no redeeming characteristics, unless, as Americans do, you think of gaining a lot of money as an admirable characteristic. Ferd did work hard, but it was work to dupe investors and his wife and other members of his family. At this remove, however, and under his great-grandson's extensive research and rifling of the family documents, this whining, bullying, self-pitying sociopath is such a character that it is all more funny than sad, and the account is an entertaining, rollicking tale.
The author has taken up the first third of his book to tell about Ferd's father, who, though he was a Presbyterian preacher, was a bully who picked senseless quarrels while he and his wife were missionaries in India (they were recalled early) and afterwards in Ferd's hometown of Genesco, New York. The father favored the "Old School" form of Presbyterianism, which didn't mind slavery all that much, and he hated Lincoln and supported the racist Know-Nothing Party. He was troubled by those Catholic workers in India, assured that only Protestants were real Christians. The mother was a whiner who would have been happier if she had no children (this is what she herself thought), although other than Ferd they turned out even to be admirable. These pious parents had many problems with Ferd's upbringing, and fretted. They were, the author says, "right to be worried about his conscience. It would eventually become clear that he had none." He was expelled from boarding school. Once he was engaged to the daughter of a Wall Street bank director, things seemed to go better, and explaining that some of his investments had paid off unexpectedly well, Ferd was able to buy his fiancée some dandy wedding gifts, and a nice watch and chain for himself. It turns out he had embezzled money from his Sunday school. The father called it "a delicate & hard case," but was to go on making excuses for his dishonest son all his career; he would blame Ferd's business companions for the eventual cataclysm. The mother simply said that Ferd had "a disposition to be rich." Ferd himself, never one for honest introspection, was to attribute his wiles to "in my own case the evil of too strict a religious training."
The prenuptial pilfering was covered over, and the marriage occurred. Ferd's father-in-law obligingly died a few weeks thereafter, and Ferd became the co-executor of the estate. He bilked it of funds and defrauded the man's widow, and then at age 21 went on to Wall Street. He was a good talker, able to inspire confidence in a time when people were just barely learning what a confidence man was capable of. For practical matters, he relied upon the head of the Marine National Bank, James D. Fish, who took a paternal interest in the boy who was to become known as "The Napoleon of Wall Street." Fish had a reputation for upstanding hard work, though he also had some scandalous dalliances with music-hall artistes. For matters of recognition, Ferd partnered with Ulysses S. Grant, a national hero and global celebrity. Ferd opened a brokerage with one of Grant's sons, and the grateful general, who did not have a pension, started getting dividends. The general himself didn't know that Ferd was using Grant's good name to garner federal contracts, and of course part of the attraction was that Ferd would tell investors that Grant's participation had to be kept secret. For a while, the general got rich, and so did Ferd and Fish and all the investors, for Ferd was always recruiting new investors to pay off the old ones, in a Ponzi scheme originating before Charles Ponzi himself was born.
The bust was a big one. Grant woke up one morning in 1884 thinking himself a millionaire, and by the time he returned home that night, he had $80 in his pocket, and other than the $130 held by his wife, he had nothing. (If there is any bright side to this story, Grant's financial desperation was to turn him to writing articles about his campaigns in the Civil War and eventually to writing his memoirs. The memoirs were published posthumously, gave his family the chance to get on their feet again, and are considered an American classic.) Plenty of other investors were ruined as well. Fish went to prison. Ferd was initially kept in a jail in New York City, where he could pay guards to allow him to have his meals and drinks brought in, or could scoot around town under their escort. (Ferd and his schemings are far from the only examples of corruption on display in this book.) It took a long time for prosecutors to make a case against him, mostly because those who were duped did not wish to make their reputations worse by admitting to their folly on the witness stand. A conviction on a minor charge got him into Sing Sing in 1885, from where he sent letters to his wife empty of affection but full of complaint and bullying that she needed to send him more money. What money he did get provided him with a prison stint of relative luxury. The rogue was not stingy; he shared his wealth, and one fellow Sing Sing inmate said he was "one of the best liked of the convicts I ever met."
Prison changed him not a bit. His wife had died while he was in, and when he was released in 1892, he had nothing to count upon except for his lack of scruples. The family money that remained was to go to support his young son Clarence, but naturally he thought it ought to be his. He hatched a kidnapping scheme to take Clarence across state lines, all the time protesting of a father's love for his boy. The plot almost succeeded. As Clarence, the author's grandfather, grew up and made a success of himself with an academic career, Ferd tried extorting money from him. He threatened to publish a story about how cruelly Clarence had cheated him from money that rightfully should be his, and to take the story directly to the president and staff of Rutgers University where he taught. Clarence thought the threat serious enough that he made an appointment with the president to declare that if having a swindler's son on the faculty was a liability, he was ready to resign. He didn't have to, but again, when he was up for promotion to head the art department, he made sure everyone knew who his father was. By the time Ferd died in a boardinghouse in 1925, Clarence had been making sure his father could get by, providing a small monthly stipend. Ferd didn't deserve any such consideration, but when incredulous friends asked Clarence about it, the decent fellow was surprised to have been asked. "He was my father, after all," came the explanation. Ferd profited from the sentiment, but could never have understood it.
After all the decades have passed, Ferd's story is a comic one, and it is amazing that anyone of his guile, greed, and self-pity is not a character from fiction (though Augustus Melmotte, Anthony Trollope's finagling financier in The Way We Live Now comes close). His grandson has not spared him; there's just nothing good to say about this conniver, but that doesn't make his story any less entertaining. Perhaps there is good; perhaps he can serve, after all these years, as an example for others too quick to make a fast buck, and now that people have his lesson available, we need never fear any Ferds or Maddoffs again. Right.
5. A Stone's Throw: The veil COLUMNS