A Nice Piece Of Real Estate


Stanton spent three and a half hours summing up the government’s case, and he might have better used the time celebrating at the Bank Exchange Saloon. Theatrical, bombastic, captivated by the glories of a heroic theme and a twenty-five-thousand-dollar fee, he accused Limantour and most of his witnesses of a vast conspiracy against the American Republic. Limantour’s one remaining attorney, James Wilson, sat in silence and declined Judge Huffman’s invitation to reply.

On November 19, 1858, the judge handed down his decision. It ran on for fifty-six pages, and Judge Hoffman confessed at one point that it was “not easy to confine within the limits of judicial moderation the expression of our indignation at the fraud which has been attempted to be perpetrated.” He accused high Mexican officials of a “scandalous conspiracy” and found in conclusion that “the proofs of fraud are as conclusive and irresistible as the attempted fraud itself has been flagrant and audacious.”

Immediately, the government reactivated its criminal case against Limantour. But the brave Breton had slipped away to Mexico some months earlier, just before the United States attorney began to introduce into evidence the damaging photographic enlargements. The government did not even succeed in collecting the thirty-five-thousand-dollar bail: the United States Supreme Court released the bondsmen on a technicality.

Having pursued his cause with admirable vigor, Limantour chose not to explain the peculiar defects of his claim. Historians who muse on it nowadays lean to the kindly view that it was no less valid than many of the squatter claims to millions of acres of American soil. The documentation was, of course, an afterthought—a tardy attempt to collect a bad debt from a government that had been superseded, to interpolate a wishful notion into the impenetrable fabric of the past, and to substitute that which might have been for that which was.

As the chief nonresident villain of San Francisco, Limantour suffered ritual vilification for a generation and was then forgotten. Back in Mexico he prospered. He left a large fortune when he died in 1885. His son, José Y. Limantour, Jr., vastly increased the family estate and distinguished himself as a resourceful minister of finance in the regime of Porfirio Di’az in the iSgo’s; and Limant our’s grandson, the third José, became a symphony conductor of international renown.