A Disposition to Be Rich How a Small-town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himseslf the Best-hated Man in America By Geoffrey C. Ward Alfred A. Knopf. 418 pp. $28.95

Reviewed by Douglas A. Campbell

Frequently – no, almost always – the story you discover through research is more complex, and therefore more fascinating, than the simple tale that attracted you in the first place. The complexities create the gray areas, confounding your expectation of blacks and whites, wrongs and rights.

That was the case when Geoffrey C. Ward, the author of numerous works of history and a frequent collaborator of documentarian Ken Burns, decided to examine the life of his great-grandfather, the notorious swindler, Ferdinand Ward.

What, you never heard of Ferdinand Ward? He was Bernie Madoff before Mr. and Mrs. Madoff had an inkling. And he did Madoff one better.

Oh, he courted the wealthy, just as Bernie did. And just as with Bernie's pyramid scheme, "Ferd" – as family and friends called him – let his suckers believe that they had the inside track to fabulous wealth. He even showed them the money, just as Bernie did, in monthly installments.

Unlike the silver-haired Madoff, Ferd was little more than a boy when he got on a roll. And yet he quickly had Wall Street financiers and other men of wealth handing over their cash, convinced that the "investments" Ferd would make on their behalf would not only beat all the odds but provide returns that a more sober person might rightly suspect were impossible.

But Bernie did that, too.

Where Ferd surpassed our most recent edition of Charles Ponzi – and even Ponzi himself – was in the loftiness of his most celebrated sucker, the well-loved Union hero of the Civil War and the 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant was financially secure when his path intersected with that of young Ferdinand Ward. Influential patriots, grateful for Grant's contributions to the survival of the nation at a time when ex-presidents got no pension, made certain that he and his wife were set with income and property.

Ward, interested only in what Grant could do for him, so robbed him that when the ex-president and victorious general died, he was virtually penniless.

This is not the news in 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 fact, that subtitle is more than a bit misleading. This book isn't about "how" but "why".

Geoffrey Ward has done one better than other historians who might have tackled his subject. He dug where none other could go – into the dark, Victorian crypt of his own family history – and unearthed a story of human flaws masked as virtues, of how those flaws are blindly, inevitably, unavoidably passed along from parents to children.

Be prepared when you open A Disposition to be Rich to hear little of young Ferd until you've devoured almost the first third of the book's pages.

Instead, you'll be introduced to Ferdinand De Wilton Ward and his wife, Jane Shaw Ward, Ferd's parents. Be forewarned. There may come a moment when you'll wonder why you need to know all these details of missionary life in India in the 1830s, all the names of other missionaries, all their squabbles and individual peculiarities.

Geoffrey Ward is creating a portrait not of a swindler but of a family. Each of these dreary details is an integral brush stroke in the epic scene that his canvas will become.

Ferdinand De Wilton and Jane Ward both thought of themselves as pious. Piety, as it happened, went along with wealth and prestige. The Ward family forebears were pillars of the Rochester, N.Y., community. Jane Shaw was a Manhattan shipping heiress.

Ferdinand, "the swindler's father and namesake, had been brought up to believe that his family, the Wards of Rochester, New York, were better than other people," Ward writes, "more upright, more principled, more godly and – perhaps as a reward for all that conspicuous virtue – bound to be more successful."

Ferdinand the elder bucked family tradition when he chose to enter the missionary field. His parents, thinking him fragile and high-strung, thought he was unsuitable for business or the law. But they concluded he would make a good clergyman and sent him a Presbyterian college with that career in mind.

The son had what he felt were loftier goals than a local pulpit. He would be a Christian soldier in the battle for foreign souls.

Against his parents' wishes, he had almost completed the work to become a missionary when he was told he'd have to be married to be sent abroad. That's when he met Jane, a 24-year-old with a big nose, big feet and big hands but a fire in her belly for converting the heathens.

Together, the Wards arrived in India. Almost immediately, they began to make enemies, not among the locals but among fellow Christian missionaries.

Through exhaustive research, Geoffrey Ward has reconstructed the lives of his great-great grandparents in India, has shown how their rigid and, more often than not, selfish behavior led eventually to their banishment back to Rochester, how time and again, both Ferdinand and Jane, when their acts had hurt or offended others, saw themselves as the victims.

And things were not a lot better back in New York State, where Ferdinand's belligerence and his wife's brittleness rubbed new relations raw.

Into this dark, brooding, self-serving home, Ferdinand Junior was born, like his father, a child with a weak physical constitution and, as he matured, no real interest in making his own way in the world.

When, at the end of his life, Ferd, the treacherous, thieving ex-convict, is whining about how the world has treated him, his great grandson will have you asking: Was there any other possible outcome for the son of those miserable parents?

Douglas A. Campbell is a former Inquirer editor and the author of "Eight Survived: The Harrowing Story of the USS Flier and the Only Downed World War II Submariners to Survive and Evade Capture," published by Lyons Press/Globe Pequot.