Author Geoffrey Ward, an award-winning historian and the renowned scriptwriter for several of Ken Burns' documentaries, including "The Civil War" and "Baseball," here tells the story of his infamous great-grandfather, a young Wall Street swindler who bankrupted himself, his Wall Street investors, and former President Ulysses S. Grant. Ferdinand Ward Jr. would become the Bernard Madoff of late-19th-century America, ending up in prison after a career in finance whose epic rise was matched only by its legendary fall. Geoffrey Ward's tale is a classic, instructive account of how financial fraud happens, and of the warped mentality of one fraudster.

Ferdinand Ward believed himself entitled to the millions he stole from his ill-fated investors. When he got caught, his first response was to blame everyone but himself. He "assumed he was somehow entitled," Ward writes. "He never changed, never apologized, never explained."

How did Ward dupe so many brilliant businessmen and a former president into investing millions into his pyramid scheme? In "A Disposition to Be Rich" (Alfred A. Knopf, 432 pages, $28.95), Geoffrey Ward offers a simple answer: Ferdinand Ward was charming, possessing a unique ability to gain the trust of the rich and famous, and he returned profits to early investors from money he took from later investors.

The author takes us beyond Ward's Ponzi scheme to show readers his childhood and his life after Sing Sing prison. One fact connects all of it: Ward's singular focus on his own needs and a profound insensitivity to others. Ward married for money, then duped his father-in-law into becoming his first big investor. Ward also blamed his business partner, banker James Fish, for providing the money to finance his pyramid scheme. While both Fish and Ward rightly ended up in prison, the self-pitying Ward wrote long letters to the president claiming that Fish was more to blame.

Worst of all, according to the author, a post-prison Ward tried to kidnap his own son in order to take his money. Ward's late wife had left all of her family fortune to her young son Clarence, cutting her felonious, imprisoned husband out of her will. When his wife died, Ward became obsessed with getting his hands on her money so he could start all over again on Wall Street. His failed kidnapping of his own son was perhaps the most outrageous moment of a career filled with criminality.

The author's account, while perhaps a bit too long on multigenerational family biography, truly pegs the odious personality of the legendary Wall Street fraudster: "Fame and notoriety were interchangeable" for Ward, who "relished being America's best-hated man." In the end, Ferdinand Ward felt sorry for nobody but himself, feeling himself "the victim of the unreasonable avarice of others."

Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.