There’s a popular TV show in which famous people trace their genealogy, invariably finding a noble ancestor in their family tree. The show plays upon our treasured assumption that our family line is full of heroes, such as Mayflower Pilgrims, brave soldiers in wars of antiquity, or resourceful backwoods pioneers.
But as more than one wag has observed, if you look closely at your family lineage, then one or two ancestral horse thieves are bound to surface. Perhaps no one knows this more clearly than Geoffrey C. Ward, who didn’t have to dig too deeply into his family’s past to uncover a colorful rogue.
Ward is best known as a lively historian who’s collaborated as a writer on many of the public television documentaries headed by filmmaker Ken Burns. But Ward is also the great-grandson of Ferdinand Ward, a notorious swindler who was the 19th century’s version of disgraced financier Bernie Madoff. Geoffrey C. Ward tells the story of his infamous relative in a new book that has one of the more-interesting titles of this summer reading season. It’s called “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.”
As the son of a cleric, Ferdinand Ward grew up in a modest household that equated limited means with the pursuit of virtue. Ward chafed at that brand of theology, hungering for a more materially prosperous life. He wasn’t above stealing to get what he wanted, founding an investment firm that attracted former president Ulysses S. Grant as a partner. Ward’s charm made him a talented confidence man, and with the esteemed Grant on the company letterhead, investors seemed assured that their money was in a good place.
In fact, Ward was running a Ponzi scheme — a classic scam in which the money from new investors in used to fund illusory “dividends” for other investors. By its nature, such a deception eventually collapses, and Ward’s operation proved no exception. As Ward’s financial house of cards came tumbling down, Grant was bankrupted. Afflicted with terminal throat cancer, the pain-wracked Grant spent his final days penning a memoir to raise money for the family he’d leave behind. Ward went to prison, where he bribed guards to secure more-favorable treatment.
Geoffrey C. Ward does a marvelous job of telling his great-grandfather’s story. The narrative, a tale of Wall Street excess indulged within a poorly regulated marketplace, couldn’t be more timely in the wake of a recession caused, in part, by a lack of transparency among the nation’s top investment firms.
Ward’s book is a timely reminder that unscrupulous investment professionals have always been with us. All the more reason, then, for buyers to beware, and ask a lot of questions before signing on the dotted line.