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A Magnificent and Audacious Swindle

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Geoffrey C. Ward
Ferdinand Ward at Sing Sing in the late 1880s, trying to cross the prison yard without being recognized, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Grant & Ward was, according to Geoffrey Ward, a wholly “imaginary business” and “fraudulent from the start.” There were no government contracts; there were only investors. Ferd Ward had hit upon the scheme later practiced by masters like Ponzi and Madoff: “He planned simply to keep the firm afloat and himself out of jail by pyramiding its funds; past investors were to be paid their supposed profits out of money freshly deposited by gullible new ones.” The profits, someone ought to have realized, were too good to be true. “No one quite understood it,” Geoffrey Ward notes, “but virtually everyone wanted to get in on it.” As Henry Clews, a Wall Street veteran, observed, “It is marvelous how the idea of large profits when presented to the mind in a plausible light, has the effect of stifling suspicion.”

3.

Ferdinand Ward’s expert handling of President Grant demonstrates his mastery of appearances. He was said to have a “hypnotic presence” and an “uncanny power” over his associates. Like the Wizard of Oz, he worked his magic from behind a heavy curtain in the office, giving the impression that he possessed insider knowledge. As his own profits accumulated, Ferd bought an ostentatious house in Brooklyn for his wife and their young son, Clarence, where he entertained on a grand scale:

Four Irish maids kept the oriental carpets clean and dusted the books and artworks. A French chef and his wife ran the kitchen. An Irish butler announced callers, saw that the wine cellar was fully stocked, and ensured that the staff maintained the lofty standards of service expected by residents of Brooklyn Heights. And in the Ward stable on Love Lane, just behind the house, where Ferd kept four horses, an Irish coachman made certain that the silver mountings on the harness were kept gleaming for the carriage rides Ferd and Ella took through Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery every weekend.

Ferd’s prize was a lurid and very expensive painting of Christ Raising Jairus’s Daughter, which Van Gogh, who had seen a photograph of the picture, pronounced “particularly fine.” By 1880, as Geoffrey Ward notes, Ferd was “acting like a very rich man,” attracting additional dupes burdened with what his mother called, uneasily, the “disposition to be rich.”

In late 1883, Ferd choreographed what he himself considered the high point of his audacious career when he invited seven powerful financiers and politicians, including President Grant and the mayor of New York, for a three-day journey in a sumptuously appointed private railroad car to view the recently completed Kinzua Viaduct south of Bradford, Pennsylvania, the longest and tallest railroad bridge in the world. Ferd insisted that it was a pleasure trip and that business would not be discussed, a key provision, as Geoffrey Ward notes: “Should anyone riding in that car question another about what he knew or didn’t know about the shadowy contract business, everything might collapse.” The reader, forewarned by the dire subtitle of the book and ample foreshadowing of disaster, almost expects the train to plummet the three hundred feet into Kinzua Creek below.

For twelve years Ferdinand Ward succeeded in bamboozling investors before the inevitable collapse of his scheme in 1884. The enormous checks he wrote to demanding investors required a reliable bank and additional investors to back them. It was not a sustainable business model, of course. Ferd later admitted that his only hope was that he “might, through a more active stock market in the future, get even again.” The firm at one point owed at least $14.5 million to its creditors against less than $60,000 in assets. The Marine Bank, trafficking in illicit municipal bonds to shore up Ferd’s operation, was ruined in the process, triggering other bank failures. The bewildered ex-president showed up at Ferd’s office to learn the bad news. “When Grant left home that morning,” Geoffrey Ward writes, “he had believed himself a millionaire. When he got home in the evening he had $80 in his pocket. His wife had another $130. There was nothing else.”

As details of Ferd’s fall became known, the press marveled at the “magnificent and audacious swindle” he had perpetrated. In the sensational trials that followed, comprehensively narrated by Geoffrey Ward, both Fish and Ferd were eventually convicted of fraud. Ferd spent six comfortable years in Sing Sing, where the prison doctor made moonshine and arrangements could be made for oriental rugs and easy chairs inside the cells and Thanksgiving dinners outside them. Ferd’s letters home, “eerily oblivious” of his wife’s feelings, consisted of urgent pleas for money; Ella finally offered him, sarcastically, the diamond from her wedding ring.

Faced with financial ruin, and diagnosed with cancer of the throat, Ulysses S. Grant decided to write his memoirs to support his wife. So, in an odd way, we have Ferd to thank for the most brilliant firsthand account of the winning of the Civil War, which will still be read when Ward and his book fade from memory. Profiting like Ferd from Grant’s famous name, Mark Twain outbid the Century magazine to publish it. When Twain visited Grant in early 1885, he was surprised to find that the great man’s anger at Ferd had waned. Twain, by contrast, was “inwardly boiling.”

I was scalping Ward, flaying him alive, breaking him on the wheel, pounding him to jelly, and cursing him with all the profanity known to the one language I am acquainted with, and helping it out in times of difficulty and distress with odds and ends of profanity drawn from the two other languages of which I have a limited knowledge.

4.

Geoffrey Ward adopts roughly the judgment that Mark Twain and other contemporaries held of Ferdinand Ward, that he was a detestable figure who cynically and selfishly brought down a great leader and bilked untold numbers of innocent people of their fortunes. But might there have been another way to tell the story? Here, one thinks of a third possible meaning of the title of Cather’s story “Paul’s Case,” namely, Paul’s case against the uniformity of the Gilded Age. Cather describes Paul’s neighborhood in such a way that his temporary escape from it feels like romantic rebellion:

It was a highly respectable street, where all the houses were exactly alike, and where business men of moderate means begot and reared large families of children, all of whom went to Sabbath-school and learned the shorter catechism, and were interested in arithmetic; all of whom were as exactly alike as their homes, and of a piece with the monotony in which they lived.

One can understand why Paul, whose life is “full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the unescapable odors of cooking,” feels like a “prisoner set free” when he attends the theater.

Is there a kindred case to be made for Ferdinand Ward, who had to endure precisely such an upbringing before his escape to New York? The Gilded Age was in some ways so uniformly awful, so brimful of religious hypocrisy and political corruption—could we summon a little sympathy for the audacious scoundrel who brought it to its knees? Can we, perhaps a bit guiltily, admire the sheer bravura, the high-flying daring, of that railroad journey to the great bridge, where Ferd gambled everything on the wishful fantasies of grown men who should have known better, confident in the odds that they would keep their mouths shut as long as the too-good-to-be-true profits kept rolling in?

But any grudging sympathy one might be tempted to feel for Ferd is dashed, in the closing pages of the book, by his crass attempt to gain custody of his son in order to steal his inheritance. Ferd had ignored Clarence, who grew up in the care of Ferd’s brother-in-law, while he was in jail, sending him, at best, perfunctory notes; he couldn’t even remember the boy’s birthday. On his release, he realized that Clarence stood the best chance of providing him some money for starting over. First, he tried, without success, to play the adoring and concerned father, promising, incongruously, “we will have dogs and go fishing and swimming together and we will go down by the big ocean and dig up the sand and catch the crabs and hear the band play.” When sentimentality failed, he organized a crude scheme, also unsuccessful, to kidnap Clarence by force. A merciful court ruled for the in-laws.

Clarence Ward, who later became a respected art historian and director of the Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College, saw through his father’s schemes as so many others had not. As an undergraduate at Princeton, Clarence reluctantly agreed to meet with his father. By an odd coincidence, Mark Twain, “unmistakable in his ice cream suit,” happened to be in the dining hall. Ferd was “evidently frightened,” according to Geoffrey Ward, “that if Twain recognized him he would make good on his threat to avenge General Grant.”

Ferd had been caught, yet again, stealing from Geneseo citizens who had been foolish enough to allow him to do bookkeeping for them. He made his usual desperate plea for money. Clarence, as usual, refused to help him, adding for good measure, “I would be pleased if you would avoid the mockery of signing ‘your loving father’ in any further communications which you may have with me.”

The subject of this sometimes painful, often amusing, and strikingly well written “biography of a scoundrel” died of nephritis in 1925; Clarence, responsible to the last, made the funeral arrangements. Ferdinand Ward’s life might be summed up in his great-grandson Geoffrey Ward’s devastating words: “He never changed, never apologized, never explained.”

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