The Best-Hated Man in the United States

I wish Jon Corzine were here.
I wish Jon Corzine were here.

A sad tale of corruption and naivete: A young man of 28, Ferdinand Ward proposes opening a brokerage and banking firm Grant & Ward with $100,000 investments from President Grant and his son Ulysses “Buck” Grant, Jr.  The father/son team assumes that profits earned with the investments taken in from veterans and millionaires will be shared 50/50.

Like his father Buck Grant looks gentle and melancholy.
Like his father Buck Grant looks gentle and melancholy.

You know what happens when you assume, don’t you? People do it all the time. There’s no evil in money. It’s just paper, gold or cattle being traded for man hours of work or goods you have a hankering for. Is there evil in stupidity? Not sure.

Do we assume there’s enough money in our bank accounts to cover us in a run? Is it possible for the FDIC to cover all the money printed? Do we believe there’s real gold backing paper gold? Do we shake our heads at President Grant’s silly trust in Wall Street scoundrel Ferdinand Ward’s Ponzi scheme that left the military hero (dying of cancer) broke and unable to support his family?

Maybe we shouldn’t. I often wonder how people do  evil things un-apologetically. They must rationalize their actions, right? Someone who believes in survival of the fittest actually has a better chance at convincing himself that there’s no such thing as evil, but many Christians, Jews, new-agers and Muslims commit acts of evil and many more of us are just plain ignorant of finance (myself included). People used to say I was foolish to keep my money in my Levi’s pocket–I didn’t have enough to open an account anyway. But maybe I wasn’t so misguided.

If only one big bank goes under is it possible to payout this much insurance?
If only one big bank goes under is it possible to payout this much insurance?

Young Mr. Ward must have had some charm. He convinced big bugs to finance his scheme and made some money for himself. He got caught, however and landed himself in jail–over 6 years in Sing Sing. He was called the best hated man in the US.

Who do we bother to hate now? Justin Beiber for being a spoiled, rich-kid who got that way using a talent people loved until last week? A kid with crappy parents? What about hating Jon Corzine who “lost” a billion dollars of customer money? He’s a pretty good candidate if you like your villains reckless, inept (supposedly),  unrepentant and free as a bird.  That’s how I like mine. An evil jerk usually remains free and sometimes admired these days and probably always. We live vicariously through them (though we probably hate to admit it) and they happen to be the easiest characters to write about.

Some of us are too big to fail.
Some of us are too big to fail.
Would you trust this man?
Would you trust this man?
Never trust a man who points to someone in the crowd.
Never trust a man who points to someone in the crowd.

Getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden–Buck Crenshaw

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courtesy of Bennington Museum

Who doesn’t like solid rooms, good cigars and suits that fit as they should? Who doesn’t like coming home to a flowering cottage garden with white hydrangeas lining the drive and roses over the door? Your wife appears in the latest fashion with well fed kids in tow and your money has given them music lessons, good schools and the admiration of all the people in town who thought you ugly, small and powerless.

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Wouldn’t it be easy to imagine that you deserved such things? A comfortable living. Yes, after all Buck’s been through, this time of plenty seems a blessing from the God he’s virtually ignored since that silly conversion experience melting away in the fog of memory. And doesn’t he buy art that speaks to the beauty of creation? Doesn’t he serve on the church board and fund the stained glass windows being installed?

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You know where this is going, don’t you? Buck is a man of integrity, but not perfect and this romantic interlude with money–no–with the power money gives to lull a person into a pretty reverie must come to an end when the markets crash. Is he bad because he worked hard for what he’s got? No. Is he naive to think that success in banking doesn’t come at someone’s expense sometimes? People need bankers, don’t they?

Occupy Wall Street 1886

Today I’m a bit stuck–well, not really–I could write for days about the Crenshaw women undermining Buck’s future wife, but it feels too like dessert before dinner and I’m a traditionalist. Hanging over me like the Sunday after a good vacation is MERCHANT BANKING. I’m being dramatic here. It’s actually exciting to peruse titles of scholarly articles like “Good Intentions and Unintended Evil: The Case Against Selective Credit Allocation” and have no idea what the author is saying. It means I’m on to something juicy. By chance Englewood, New Jersey (where all of my books take place) happens to also be the home of many prominent bankers of the late 19th century. Isn’t that a happy coincidence? I even used some of their names (found on headstones at Brookside Cemetery) before I knew who they were. But I’m off topic. Buck is suddenly successful at a prestigious banking house and I must find out every last thing about it. Of course they smoke and have amazing desks, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that. Life really is great, don’t you think? Five years ago I read The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow. It came everywhere with me and even got chewed up by goats and drenched in the rain. I just liked the cover when I bought it. Today I’ll sift through the bibliography and furiously underline leads. I’m also re-reading The Screwtape Letters for fun–and furiously underlining good evil stuff. I hope Buck really enjoys his honeymoon because life is about to get bumpy–yet again.