Monday, November 26, 2012

Always Room for More Black Sheep

The current New York Review of Books includes a nice review of what sounds like a good readable background book if your research takes you repeatedly back into the Gilded Age (say 1870-1900). It's called A Disposition to Be Rich, and follows the life of the author's great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward (1851-1925), who was the Bernie Madoff of his day and then some.

Ward grew up in Geneseo, New York, county seat of Livingston County, and it is suggested that his career of compulsive fraud may have been a reaction against the omnipresent piety of the Ward family household and the Burned-Over District in general. The side issue that interests me is that such towns often emphasize local history in their school curricula, but one Geneseo native I know never heard of the man. (It's not as though the town is deluged in celebrity.)

So the genealogical moral may be that, wherever we're working, we may well have plenty of local "black sheep" to rediscover. Then again, if they have been discovered (and are of an "acceptable" type?), they may be fantastically overexposed, like Belle Gunness of La Porte, Indiana.

Geoffrey C. Ward, 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 (New York: Knopf, 2012).

 Christopher Benfey, "A Magnificant and Audacious Swindle," New York Review of Books, vol. 59, no. 19 (6 December 2012):58, 60.

Harold Henderson, "Always Room for More Black Sheep," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 26 November 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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