Cancer and Bitterness: Ulysses S. Grant Nurses His Sickness

The last photo of Grant ever taken: July 20, 1885.

As Ulysses S. Grant’s throat cancer continued to eat away at him through the spring of 1885, he continued to struggle with pain of another sort, too. He was, at the time, in a race to complete his memoirs before the cancer struck him down, but his backwards glance wasn’t cast toward the Civil War only. He could not forget the events of the previous May that had nearly ruined him. His business partners, Ferdinand Ward and James Fish, had swindled him, leaving him and his entire family destitute.

It was, said Grant’s editorial assistant, Adam Badeau, a “shameful story of craft and guile in all its horrible proportions. . . . The shock of battle was less tremendous, the mortal agony was less acute.”

The failure of Grant & Ward was so spectacularly colossal and so nakedly public, everyone knew about it, so Grant never tried to hide it. In fact, he spoke of it quite openly. “In his direct and simple fashion he reviewed the debacle of his fortunes without restraint,” said Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson, “showing deep feelings, even bitterness as to his betrayal by Ferdinand Ward. . . .”

“No man-of-letters could more openly have worn his heart upon his sleeve,” Johnson said.

Grant’s financial state and his terminal cancer forced him to move on from the debacle, and throwing himself into his memoirs gave him much-needed focus. But even through it all, Grant apparently nursed bitter feelings toward his former partners. Badeau—in the melodramatic fashion characteristic of his own prose—worried about the effects of Grant’s bitterness combined with the grave embarrassment of the swindle itself. “[I]t was only too plain that the mental, moral disease was killing General Grant,” Badeau later wrote; “it was the blow which had struck him to the dust and humiliated him before the world, from which he could not recover.”

Grant’s publisher and friend, Mark Twain, noted a more measured response from Grant, who “never uttered a phrase concerning Ward which an outraged child might not have uttered concerning an offending child,” Twain said. “He spoke as a man speaks who has been deeply wronged and humiliated and betrayed, but he never used a venomous expression or one of vengeful nature.”

For his part, Twain “was inwardly boiling all the time: I was scalping Ward, flaying him alive, breaking him on the wheel, pounding him to jelly, and cursing him with all the profanity known to the one language that I am acquainted with, and helping it out in times of difficulty and distress with odds and ends of profanity drawn from the two other languages of which I have a limited knowledge.”

Fish did not get quite the same venom as Ward merited. Grant later said of Fish, “He was not as bad as the other.”

Although he never truly put the hard feelings to rest, Grant did get his official last word on the matter when investigators took his official deposition on March 26. “In his testimony he spared neither Fish nor Ward,” Badeau recounted; “he felt that this was his last blow, and he dealt it hard.”

Ward was eventually sentenced to ten years in New York’s Sing Sing prison, where he served six and a half years. James Fish, sent to the prison in Auburn, New York, served four years of seven.

Grant, working desperately to finish his memoirs before the cancer finished him, never wrote of the business failure. Perhaps, as his time wound down, he realized his attention was better spent elsewhere, and he refocused his energies. “His mind was absorbed with the one subject of his military autobiography. . . ” a friend noted. “In all matters aside from his book, Grant took but a slight and passing interest.”

(For more on Grant’s final days, see Chris’s forthcoming Grant’s Last Battle: The Story Behind the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, due out in just two weeks!)

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