- - Friday, June 15, 2012

By Geoffrey C. Ward
Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95 432 pages. $28.95

In a fore-note to his vastly entertaining and readable book, Geoffrey Ward quotes an epigram from George Bernard Shaw: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”

And what a dance Mr. Ward performs in laying bare a whopping family skeleton: the account of how his paternal great-grandfather, Ferdinand “Ferd” Ward, crafted one of the more audacious criminal financial schemes in American history, one that drove to ruin such personages as former President Ulysses S. Grant, his own family members and an uncountable number of innocent dupes, including trusting friends.

As Mr. Ward writes, his interest in his odious ancestor began some 50 years ago, when his grandfather handed him a “dusty cardboard carton filled with brittle papers tied into bundles with dirty twine.” They were the contents of Ferd’s Sing Sing prison trunk and had rested, unread, in a closet for half a century.

A man of ecumenical talents, Mr. Ward put the family scandal aside while he wrote more than a dozen books and co-produced (with Ken Burns and others) TV documentaries on such diverse subjects as baseball and tiger hunting. The contents of the trunks, plus prodigious research in court records and elsewhere, enabled him to understand what made his great-grandfather such a crook.

Ferd Ward’s father was a truculent minister noted for senseless quarrels, both in India, where he served as a missionary, and then as a pastor in rustic Genesco, N.Y. His mother comes across as a perpetual whiner who wished she had never had children, and hectored Ferd and a brother with complaints about poverty. She also offered what passes as a reason Ferd turned out bad: Her son had “a disposition to be rich.” (In a letter written from Sing Sing, Ferd offered a lame excuse for his criminality: “I have felt in my own case the evil [sic] of too strict a religious training.”

Ominous signs came early. He lost several jobs while in his teens for pilfering (once even from a church treasury). He ran up bills for his parents to pay - monogrammed handkerchiefs, trinkets for girls, buggy rentals. The family was relieved when he finally got a clerical position in New York with the Produce Exchange, where brokers bought and sold carloads of flour, corn and other commodities.

Ferd quickly found a way to supplement his $100 a month salary. He used his position to purchase the membership certificates of retiring members for $240 and resell them to aspiring brokers at a $50 profit. Relying on guile (and “loans” he did not repay) and funds stolen from a Sunday school in Brooklyn, Ferd projected the image of a successful young man. And soon he set his sights on a girl named Ella Green, who “is rich in her own right” - an essential attribute for the young hustler. Better yet, her multimillionaire father was in failing health.

Although the Green family had suspicions about Ferd’s bona fides - he postponed the wedding three times - Ella and Ferd finally married in 1877. The elder Green died three months later, and the big-time looting began. Ferd convinced his widow to let him invest a good part of her inheritance in exchange for membership certificates for $300 each. He lied: He did not buy a single certificate, and most of her inheritance went to his personal account. As Mr. Ward writes, “she was the first of hundreds of victims to be ruined by his false promises.”

Indeed, Ferd did “pay” sizable returns to those who invested in his various schemes - in the form of cash entrusted to him by other investors. He persuaded the president of the prestigious Marine Bank to enter a loose partnership with him. To Ferd’s great advantage, he had a knack for charming the rich, and he was careful to make known the sizable returns he was reaping, with the aim of netting even more gullible investors. But these profits were not paid out; they were said to be “held in trust” so that Ferd could earn even more for the investors. In fact, these funds lubricated his fast-swirling financial merry-go-round. As Ferd later admitted at trial, “I had to rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Through the good offices of his brother Willi Ferd befriended U.S. Grant, Jr., known as “Buck,” the second son of the former president. They created a partnership, Grant & Ward, exploiting the reputation of one of the more popular figures in the United States. Ferd cultivated rumors that he was privy to lucrative government contracts, by virtue of his contacts with Grant. He also hinted that insider information gleaned from prominent Wall Street figures enabled him to earn high returns.

The ride lasted some five years before the house of fraud came tumbling down; a jury convicted Ferd, and he was taken to Sing Sing in chains to serve a 10-year sentence. (There is a sordid footnote to Mr. Ward’s story: Ferd arranged for his young son Clarence to be kidnapped in hopes of claiming the estate of his late wife, who died after the financial collapse. The ploy failed, but Ferd spent many subsequent years trying to extort money from Clarence.)

Various benefactors gave the elder Grant enough money to live the rest of his life in comfort. When Ferd begged a friend to persuade Grant to speak to him, the former president replied, “Chaffee, I would kill Ward as I would a snake. I believe I should do it , too, but I do not wish to be hanged for the killing of such a wretch.” Grant’s close friend, Mark Twain, who was about to publish Grant’s memoir, cursed Ward “with all the profanity known to the one language I am acquainted,” as well as “odds and ends of profanity drawn from the other two languages of which I have a limited knowledge.”

A gripping story of chicanery in the stock market which drives home the ancient adage, “Buyer, beware!”

• Joseph C. Goulden’s latest book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English (Dover Publications).

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