Livingston County in Print
Read all about Geneseo’s dirty rotten scoundrel
Local villages claim many native sons and daughters of note. Mount Morris has its Grand Canyon explorer and Pledge of Allegiance author, Nunda its president of the Wrigley Gum Company, Dansville its Angel of the Battlefield, and Avon its hero of the Alamo.
Geneseo may now offer someone of no less historic importance, though of much greater notoriety. In fact, this man is a downright scoundrel.
Thanks to author Geoffrey Ward, our Livingston County seat is revealed having something we hadn’t thought Geneseo capable of having: A dyed-in-the-wool, outright sociopathological, conscience-lacking villain.
Ferdinand Ward, Jr., Geoffrey’s great-grandfather, was the white collar version of your classic 19th Century tie-the-damsel-to-the railroad-tracks bad guy — to whom trust and friendship meant nothing in his personal quest for wealth and comfort.
Ward swindled and impoverished the nation’s beloved President U.S. Grant, who had surrendered his military pension upon entering politics. Then, with partner James Fish, Ward brought about the collapse of the Marine Bank.
He bore the epitaph, “the best-hated man in the United States.”
Local history buffs will delight in the fact that a fair portion of the setting of Ward’s biography, ‘A Disposition to be Rich,’ is the quiet village of Geneseo.
Geneseo is where Ferdinand, Jr. was born, the youngest of three surviving siblings, on Nov. 21, 1851; where his character and manners were formed; whence he departed for a clerk’s job in Manhattan at 22, and to which he returned as a refugee in 1894, having served a six year stint in Sing Sing Prison.
Ferdinand, Jr. would stay in Geneseo for another decade, remarried after the death of his first wife and living in his childhood home, the parsonage at the south corner of Ward Place and Second Street.
The rural etiquette of the community demanded his past be overlooked and unmentioned. Charitable friends of the family offered him work, as an assistant in the county clerk’s office while, as a sideline, he did carpentry and furniture repairs.
The centerspread of the book includes a circa 1895 photo of Ward in the company of 18 prominent male citizens of Geneseo, all members of the Livingston County Historical Society — at that moment participating in a fundraising minstrel show.
Yet 10 years later, Ward fled from his hometown in shame after being caught stealing fire insurance premium payments.
As the story played out, Ward took advantage of permission to use the county clerk’s office during after hours, where he had access to premiums made to insurance agent Henry Curtis. A number of his 17 victims were the very comrades with whom Ward appeared in the minstrel show photograph. He thought nothing of depriving these friends of the payments they had made towards the security of their dwellings.
At this point the story is nearly over. There are just a few pages left. Yet Ward now needs to come up with $1,000 fast if he is going to avoid another term in state prison.
So naturally (for Ferdinand Ward, Jr.), he sought out his just-turned-21 son Clarence from his first marriage to the woman of an affluent Brooklyn Heights family, making yet another attempt to tap into the boy’s inherited securities.
In the Epilogue of ‘A Disposition to be Rich’, this meeting between father and his estranged son, which took place in Newark, N.J., is described:
Clarence agreed to see his father. They met for lunch in a dining hall at Princeton. Ferd settled into a seat near the door, then suddenly paled and asked his son to swap seats with him. Clarence turned around to see what the trouble was. Mark Twain was standing in the doorway, unmistakable in his ice cream suit. Ferd was evidentially frightened that if Twain recognized him, he would make good on his threat to avenge General Grant. Twain didn’t spot him and was safely ushered to a table on the other side of the room.
Twain was a dear friend of the late president and had been a partner in publishing Grant’s memoirs (as Twain’s own recently published biographical chapters detail).
When Ward remarried in 1894, he had tried to gain custody of his then 10-year-old child and the accompanying inherited fortune, hiring Geneseo attorney Lockwood Doty. Courtroom proceedings in Geneseo stalled, so Ward hatched a wild scheme to kidnap Clarence in Connecticut, where he lived with an aunt. Clarence was abducted and choked by hired detectives, who themselves would be apprehended after a dramatic and harrowing buggy chase.
Everything was sarcastically described in the New York Herald, which treated the affair like another failed Ward investment scheme.
But 11 years on, soft-hearted Clarence would allow his trust to pay the $1,000 debt to keep his father out of prison, would later send his father $20 of his modest weekly Oberlin professor’s paycheck, and finally pay for his father’s burial, “even though his father was a monster,” author Geoffrey Ward added in a Tuesday interview.
For the final phase of his life, Ferdinand moved to a residence on Staten Island owned by his second wife’s family. He would die in a boarding house in White Plains in 1925.
Make the skeleton dance
In opening the biography, Geoffrey Ward quotes George Bernard Shaw: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
Although Geoffrey’s grandfather Clarence did not to speak much of his father, young Geoffrey — the budding historian who would one day co-author with Ken Burns ‘The Civil War’ film documentary — kept up his questions “with a persistence which embarrasses me a little now.”
Eventually Geoffrey’s grandfather presented him with a cardboard carton filled with letters and brittle papers — the contents of Ferdinand’s Sing Sing prison trunk. Those original documents coupled with precision institutional research have yielded this riveting biography.
The beginning chapters tell the story of Ferdinand’s parents, deeply devoted Presbyterians who spent the early years of their marriage as missionaries in south India, before Ferdinand Ward, Sr. became pastor of the ‘White Church’ on Second Street in Geneseo. Ferdinand, Sr. was himself somewhat of a black sheep castoff from the influential Ward family of Rochester.
Ferdinand and Jane Ward were often involved in petty disputes and controversies among fellow missionaries in India and later in Geneseo, when they advocated ‘old school’ Presbyterianism over the ‘new school’ thinking of the affiliated church in Ontario County. During the time of Ferdinand, Jr.’s childhood, after a divisive congregational vote, Ward, Sr. took half the flock to ‘Concert Hall’ (present day Conrads Appliance store) at Chestnut and Main where the ‘old school’ doctrine prevailed.
The bickering was soon interrupted by the Civil War, in which Ward, Sr. served three years as 104th Regiment chaplain and, incidentally, news correspondent to Geneseo, and Ward’s son William as a twice-captured naval recruit.
Ferdinand, Sr. would later oppose the introduction of the normal school in Geneseo, which he correctly feared would make the traditional education at Temple Hill Academy redundant.
Fredinand’s mother Jane, who gave birth to him at age 39, would suffer bouts of depression and frequently remove herself to the sulfur ‘cure’ in Clifton Springs.
But the relatively mild family stress and dysfunction does not seem able to explain Ferdinand, Jr.’s excessively solipsistic view of life.
Author Ward agrees.
“They can’t really account for sociopaths,” he said. “The most ghastly form of them is serial killers. They are people who don’t really understand human emotions. Ferd had no empathy for his victims. HE was always the victim.”
Over six documented generations Ferdinand, Jr. shows up as a one-time anomaly whose character could not have been predicted by his forebears, nor was passed on to his progeny, What probably can be explained by Ferdinand, Jr’s strict Protestant upbringing is his form; his need to perpetuate the pure image of himself, as author Ward suggests: “Ferd doesn’t curse. He drinks only in private. He tries to be in his parents’ image in that sense, although he doesn’t believe in church.”
Ward’s image of himself as an upright person remarkably persists through insults and turmoil. The misfortunes are always the fault, and usually deliberate scheme, of another.
For all the grief Ferdinand, Jr. would bring upon his family, friends and partners, never, in the interviews with reporters, conversations with acquaintances, or personal letters and writings, does he express an apology or even the slightest tinge of regret. At Temple Hill Academy, Ferdinand, Jr. had “fooled his time away” and “never applied himself to study.” He was a failure in boarding school, conniving to return home or being expelled on four separate occasions. Extreme nearsightedness was offered as an excuse.
He lasted just three weeks at a bank clerk job in Indianapolis before being fired by the president. He was dismissed from his position as a clerk with the John Strang law firm at 51 Main Street in Geneseo after taking an unscheduled vacation to New Jersey.
In Geneseo he was briefly a carpenter’s apprentice and a newsmagazine publisher. A single copy of Ward’s monthly ‘Valley Gem’ survives. (Ferdinand’s skill as a printer would serve him well during his time at Sing Sing.)
Eventually a family connection in Manhattan would land Ferdinand a job as clerk at the Produce Exchange on Whitehall Street.
From that position, through charm and deceit, Ward catapulted himself to seeming greatness as “the Young Napoleon of Finance.” He married well and enjoyed the trimmings of newly minted and extremely rich New York society. In 1880, he briefly showed up in Geneseo, “checkbook in hand, apparently seeking in one stroke to erase the stain of martyred poverty that had clung to his parents throughout his boyhood and to impress the townspeople who once gossiped about the feckless preacher’s son who would never amount to anything.”
But within four years it all came crashing down.
Today, Ward’s place in history is not among the brilliant financial geniuses. He deservedly can stand alongside Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff.
Geoffrey Ward’s first research trip to Geneseo was in the 1970s, when he was assisted by the very helpful historian Margaret Gilmore, and more recently by Central Presbyterian Church historian Edith Matthews, both of whom he wishes to acknowledge.