Family guile: Historian discusses his criminal ancestor

The big con: Geoffrey Ward will discuss his great-grandfather, Ferdinand (pictured), who scammed 19th-century Brooklynites out of thousands of dollars and helped cause the Panic of 1884, at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Feb. 7.
Geoffrey Ward

He hit the Heights of crime!

The great-grandson of Brooklyn’s greatest con-man will recount the crimes of his ancestor next week, just a block away from the house where the 19th-century crook hatched his schemes. At “The Swindler of Brooklyn Heights,” at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Feb. 7, author and historian Geoffrey Ward will reveal how his forefather took a fortune from former President Ulysses Grant, and helped to prompt the economic Panic of 1884 — all to score some real estate in America’s first suburb, according to Ward.

“He loved Brooklyn Heights — he saw the lovely streets and how rich everyone was, and he was determined to be one of them,” Ward said of his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward.

Ward spent nearly five decades researching his relative’s heist, which he wrote about in the 2013 tome “A Disposition to Be Rich.” The crook arrived in the Borough of Churches as a penniless 24-year-old in 1875, but he soon stole money from a Sunday school, laundered it through a local banker, and married a woman with a hefty inheritance, according to the author.

With his stolen funds, Ferdinand bought a swanky brownstone at 81 Pierrepont Street, where he launched his next swindle in 1880. His brother was the roommate of President Grant’s son at Columbia, and the fraudster met the former commander-in-chief and convinced him to be a partner in what turned out to be a pyramid scheme. Dubbed the Grant and Ward Brokerage House, the phony firm made both the ex-president and the con rich, his great-grandson said.

“They really did have quite a lot of money for a while — he was the young Napoleon of Wall Street,” said Ward.

But less than five years later, the city’s banks began collapsing — partly because so many people had invested in Ward and Grant’s flimsy firm — and cops finally discovered his lies. The Brooklynite went to Sing Sing for seven years, leaving the former president duped and financially ruined.

“He lost everything,” Ward said of Grant. “He had a lovely house on the East Side which he had to give up.”

The antique analog of Bernie Madoff was a ruthless and pathological liar, inspired by the same avarice that inspires criminals today, said Ward.

“If you went to visit him, he was this pious young man who was just trying to make some money for you — and he was really good at it,” he said. “I think greed is a timeless quality. Easy money is a temptation that almost nobody can resist — even when it’s clearly crazy.”

“The Swindler of Brooklyn Heights” at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, www.brooklynhistory.org). Feb. 7 at 6:30 pm. $5.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Family man: Author and historian Geoffrey Ward will discuss the schemes of his swindler great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward, at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Feb. 7.
Geoffrey Ward

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