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1884 One Hundred Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

No longer at the head of an army, no longer President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant found himself in need of an occupation: “… one thing is certain; I must do something to supplement my income, or continue to live in Galena or on a farm. I have not got the means to live in a city.” One of the things he decided to do—“a spectacularly bad choice”—was to get involved in the affairs of a banking and brokerage firm known as Grant and Ward.

His son, Buck, had met Ferdinand Ward a few years before and become his partner. Ward was a fairly imaginative, utterly dishonest man who had done well in his early days on Wall Street and then succumbed to dreams of glory.

The firm of Grant and Ward, as one of Grant’s biographers has written, “existed solely for the purpose of supplying him [Ward] with means to break the back of the Wall Street stock market.” Buck had put up $100,000; now the general came in for another $100,000. In one way was Grant not only astute but prophetic: Ward wanted to get some government contracts, but on this point Grant was adamant: “I did not think it was suitable for me to have my name connected with government contracts, and I knew that there was no large profit in them except by dishonest measures.” Ward yielded but of course hinted to banks that, with Grant in the business, these contracts would be forthcoming.

Ward’s elaborate pyramid of paper finally collapsed early in May. He told Grant he needed $150,000 to meet his obligations. Grant didn’t have it but offered to go his friend, W. H. Vanderbilt, for a loan. Vanderbilt, a sufficiently shrewd financier to be wise to the ways of Ferdinand Ward, said to Grant: ”… as for Grant and Ward —what I’ve heard about that firm would not justify me in lending it a dime. But I’ll lend you $150,000 personally.” And did so on the spot.

Grant gave Vanderbilt’s check to Ward; Ward cashed it and put the money in his pocket. Two days later Grant went to the office and was told by his son that it was all over, there was nothing in the till and Ward had disappeared. When they found him, Ward told a few more lies and eventually went to jail. Grant, who had assumed he was a millionaire, took stock with his wife. He had $80 dollars in his pocket, she had $130 in the house. When he at last came to understand the extent of Ward’s duplicity, Grant sighed, “I don’t see how I can trust any human being again.”

The public entirely exonerated Grant from complicity in the fraud; friends came to his aid, and he turned at last to the memoirs he had long been urged to write. Mark Twain offered the best contract among the competing publishers, on behalf of Webster & Co., which was in the process of publishing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . Grant died before he could learn what a gigantic success the memoirs were, but he left his family well provided for—Julia Grant is said to have received between $420,000 and $450,000.

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