Recently, newspapers and social media splashed the story of actor Ben Affleck trying to hide his descent from a slaveholder from viewers of PBS's Finding Your Roots. Like author Nathaniel Hawthorne who changed the spelling of his name to disassociate himself from his ancestor, Salem Witch Trials judge John Hathorne, Affleck hoped contemporaries would not link his family to historic atrocities. In contrast, historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who has written best selling books and often works with documentary producer Ken Burns, has dealt with a scandalous great grandfather openly, writing 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.
In the 1880s, Ferdinand Ward rose very quickly from being a Wall Street clerk to heading his own brokerage firm, and he was so visibly successful for his clients that he was called the "Young Napoleon of Finance." His secret, however, was not his skill at investing but his ability to charm people to trust him with their money, which he used to pay for an elegant lifestyle. He paid investors generously with money he got from new investors. These pleased investors often gave him all the money back again to make even larger. Ward ran a Ponzi scheme 40 years before Charles Ponzi supposedly invented the practice.
For a time, Ferdinand Ward was one of the most-known men in America. Details of his trial and imprisonment were national news. Yet, today he is almost forgotten. Biographical reference book do not mention him and Wikipedia has a brief entry only because of his great grandson's book. A Disposition to Be Rich is the only ready source of the story for those unable to read newspaper microfilm.
The readers' advisory database Novelist recommends many books on Wall Street history as a follow-up to A Disposition to Be Rich. I think the most appealing part of the book, however, is that it is by author not adverse to writing about wayward family. This joins Ward together with Rick Bragg (The Prince of Frogtown) and Wendy Gimbel (Havana Dreams). These authors are unafraid of the past, unlike Affleck and Hawthorne.
Ward, Geoffrey C. 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. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 418p. ISBN 9780679445302.