I’ve been reading The Richest Woman in America, a biography of Hetty Green and her money-centered life during the Gilded Age in America. I’m just about a third of the way in, and Ms. Green is already showing her true colors – and by that, I mean an extreme obsession with money.
This obsession is not unique to Ms. Green. In the latter half of the 19th century, there was a widespread American fascination with getting rich quick. The Gold Rush propelled people west to find their fortunes, and speculators were flooding the new and evolving financial market. I came across an 1887 article by Henry Clews, a notable financier of the era, where he writes that “every fool who has a few hundred dollars” tried their luck on the market, most without success (p. 415).
By the early 1860s, Wall Street had gained its now familiar reputation as the center for finance in America and essentially footed the Union bill during the Civil War. While the street itself symbolized the ever-growing financial power of the United States, Domosh (1998) notes that during this time, it was also emblematic of New York’s transition from a commercial center to a financial center.
Public opinion of Wall Street and its men in these early years was divided. Clews gave an impassioned defense of Wall Street in 1887, noting that the business men were well-trained in financial affairs and developed safe business practices. While defending Wall Street’s men, the great financier does, however, reluctantly note an exception to these upstanding citizens: Ferdinand Ward, also known as “the young Napoleon of finance” and a “born genius for evil” (Clews, pp. 417 and 415 respectively).
The sheer hatred that came through the page was startling. Who was this man?
In short, Ferdinand Ward was a swindler and a fraud. The rife hatred for Ward came with who he swindled – none other than Ulysses S. Grant. Ward created the brokerage firm Grant & Ward, using investments from the famed general and president, and then essentially ruined Grant in a pyramid scheme.
In dramatic fashion, Clews writes, “the great captain of the Union’s salvation was as helpless as a babe when Ferdinand Ward…moved upon his works” (p. 417). Clews cites Grant’s lack of training in finance as his Achilles’ heel. With all his greatness on the battlefield, Grant was too naive to recognize what was happening until it was too late.
Ward was sentenced to time in Sing Sing prison, but received an early release. Two decades later, after Grant had died, Ward published a long, rambling defense of his actions in The New York Herald. In it he claims that he was initially against Grant joining the firm (in which Grant’s son was a partner) because Grant knew so little about finance. However, Ward was eventually won over by the name recognition that Grant would bring with him. Ward claims Grant got himself entangled in schemes due to his financial naiveté, and that he, Ward, tried to serve as a voice of reason with little success.
But. Remember, these are the ramblings of a man who spent enough time in prison to think long and hard about how to craft his innocence. I find it hard to believe his words…especially with his reputation preceding him.
Grant wasn’t the only General to fall victim of Wall Street and men with less than scrupulous business practices. In his 1887 piece, Clews goes on to cite four more Generals who, having led the Union to victory, utterly failed when it came to Wall Street.
Finance was a new beast. One that was best handled by savvy gentlemen* well-trained in finance and well-able to spot a swindler.
*or ladies, as we’ll see with Hetty Green – book review coming soon!
Clews, H. (1887). Delusions About Wall Street. The North American Review, Vol. 145, No. 371, pp. 410 – 421.
Domosh, M. (1998). Those “Gorgeous Incongruities”: Polite Politics and Public Space on the Streets of Nineteenth Century New York City. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol.88, No. 2, pp. 209-226.
Stiles, T. J. (29 June 2012). Dreams of Prosperity: ‘A Disposition to be Rich’ by Geoffrey C. Ward. The New York Times.
I also recommend reading Ferdinand Ward’s defense in the New York Herald , published in the magazine section in installments from December 1909 – January 1910. He seems mostly focused on trying to prove that he and Grant were good friends – it’s an odd, but interesting read. It can be accessed via http://www.granthomepage.com/intward.htm/
Finally, If you would like to read the full story of Ferdinand Ward, A Disposition to be Rich, written by his great-grandson, Geoffrey C. Ward, gives a historical account of his life and frauds. I have not yet read the book, just the review noted above.
Image: The “Little Napoleon of Wall Street” in Exile. Cover Illustration from Puck, v. 18, no. 450, (21 October 1885), created by Frederick Burr Opper. Accessed via Library of Congress online archives.