"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" Geoffrey C. Ward, Knopf (418 pages, $28.95)

For Ulysses Grant, the Union commander who broke the Confederate army, bitter defeat came on Wall Street, not the battlefield. The date was May 6, 1884, and the brokerage firm on which he had staked his reputation and capital had just collapsed amid fraud.

Stomping into the firm's office with a cigar gone cold in his lips, the former U.S. president and war hero discovered he had been ruined by his 32-year-old business partner, Ferdinand Ward. He was left with just $80 in his pocket. Ward was the Bernie Madoff of the Gilded Age. Hailed as the young Napoleon of finance, he turned out to be a brazen swindler, as his great-grandson, Geoffrey C. Ward, shows in his unflinching biography, "A Disposition to Be Rich."

The details, drawn from a cache of private documents long stored unread in a safe, make for a fascinating read. The skeleton in the Ward family closet tells us much about how con artists prey on investors who hunger for returns that are too good to be true. James Pressley, Bloomberg News

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