A Nice Piece Of Real Estate

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Jouan’s slithery reputation, his changeable and mercenary temperament, and his free-flowing, hearsay style of narration tainted the testimony, and the government felt compelled to spend thirteen thousand dollars to bring Jacomet to San Francisco to corroborate the story. Next, the alleged forger, Letanneur, was haled before a federal grand jury, where he admitted to having written the documents. But he proved to be as squirmy as Jouan; outside the jury room he promptly recanted his “confession,” explaining that he had thought he was addressing a committee of vigilantes who would hang him if he refused to cooperate.

 

Even Jacomet’s testimony collapsed. It turned out that he had gone into a court in Mexico after learning of Jouan’s deposition and had sworn that he knew nothing about any possible fraud in the case. Obviously, somebody was not telling the truth.

On the basis of Letanneur’s “confession,” however, the grand jury indicted Limantour for criminal fraud and perjury. His arrest occasioned a civic celebration in San Francisco. Newspapers all over the Western Hemisphere reported the event. Limantour filed a denial, posted bail, and went back to Mexico to gather more evidence. Like the half-mythical bandit Joaquin Murrieta, Limantour was being transmuted gradually into a Latin martyr-saint, a symbol of Hispanic resistance to Anglo-Saxon domination.

By August, 1857, he was back in San Francisco, gleefully declaring he had found conclusive proof that his grant had been properly registered with the national government in 1843. Asked how he dared return to a city controlled by an antiforeign vigilance committee that despised him, Limantour replied with Breton valor: “Je voudrais mieux être pendu que passer pour faussaire"—"I should rather be hanged than to pass for a forger.”

The United States attorneys were increasingly apprehensive. Their case was fragile, and the criminal indictment had shifted the burden of proof onto the prosecution. If Limantour should win the criminal case, he would almost certainly win the civil case, and thus ownership of the city.

A new President, James Buchanan, had taken office since the beginning of the trial. There was a new Attorney General, Jeremiah S. Black, in Washington and a new United States attorney, Peter Delia Torre, in San Francisco. For partisan reasons they were even more eager than their predecessors to polish off the Limantour claim. By winning the celebrated “California land fraud cases” that were now pending in several courts, the administration could take credit for saving dozens of government buildings—offices, court houses, hospitals, prisons, and military installations—from the clutches of alien scoundrels like Limantour. Attorney General Black asked Congress for thirty thousand dollars toward the cause and then went back for forty thousand more. He virtually pledged his career on winning the Limantour case, which he called “the most stupendous fraud ever perpetrated since the beginning of the world.”

In February, 1858, exasperated by the slow process of the civil case, Black dispatched a special counsel to the West Coast to administer the deathblow to this unspeakable monstrosity. His choice was Edwin M. Stanton, the brilliant but arrogant Washington lawyer who was later to be Lincoln’s Secretary of War.

Stanton’s role in the case was compared by one of the local attorneys to “kicking a dead Indian.” He arrived in San Francisco with considerable fanfare in March, and within a few weeks there was one of those strokes of luck that can turn a difficult proceeding into a game. A boxful of Mexican records turned up at the United States Armory in Benicia, California, and among the papers were the account books of José Abrego, Governor Micheltorena’s treasurer.

Abrego had told the land commission that he knew in 1843 of the financial transactions between Limantour and the Governor and was aware of the land grant. But the entries in his record books were not as he had described them—nor was there any mention of an account with Limantour. Furthermore, the box contained an exchange of letters between Micheltorena and one Manuel Castanares, customs administrator at Monterey, showing that the sealed paper allegedly used in writing the Limantour grant had not been printed at the time the grant allegedly was written.

Confronted by these evidences of forgetfulness or mendacity on the part of a star witness, one of Limantour’s attorneys withdrew from the case. Other, equally damaging material also had been introduced by United States Attorney Delia Torre. It consisted of a series of photographic enlargements of the Limantour documents side by side with land-grant documents of unquestioned authenticity. They showed that the lettering and the government seals on the Limantour papers were significantly different from the others: the wing of the Aztec eagle curved more; the serpent twisted less; the fruit of the prickly pear grew lower and wider; the typeface differed in spacing and shape. It was the first physical evidence the government had brought forward to contradict the oral testimony of Limantour’s many witnesses, and perhaps the first photographic evidence of this sort that had ever been used in a court of law. Its impact was devastating to the Limantour claim.