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The Prince Of Swindlers
Janus Addison Reavis got rich—for a time, anyway—on his Peralta land fraud. But in the end he went to jail .
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
The power of the imagination to triumph over the world of practicality has so Car i’ound its chieC American exemplar not in any creative artist, philosophical visionary, or religious zealot but in a gold brick salesman. His name was fames Addison Reavis. He lent the full range of his talents to only one undertaking, but in so doing he accomplished what neither Indian tribes nor foreign nations were ever able to achieve. For twelve years he held the upper hand in a struggle with the United States over a major slice of its continental territory.
The man who became architect of this gaudy and complex crime had an otherwise undistinguished history. Born in Henry County, Missouri, on August 20, 1841, he was brought up on a farm. Following service in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he drove a streetcar in the clays when such vehicles had whiffletrees. Like another famous Missourian, he peddled haberdashery. After a brief look at South America, he drifted into the real-estate business in St. Louis, still a shark waiting for its pilot fish.
It was not until 1871 that Dr. George M. Willing, Jr., entered his office. Willing, a Calilornian, was only a minor swindler; but he was to Reavis what the hack who wrote the original play about Hamlet was to Shakespeare. Dr. Willing'* pet racket, when he was ready to talk, turned out to be Spanish land-grant claims. Under certain conditions these were recognized by United States courts, and there were just enough valid ones to make the lakes plausible.
With these facts as an initial point Willing had mapped out a monstrous land grant. The locus of this hornswoggler’s mirage was in sketchily charted Arizona. Out of it the doctor planned to claim an area thirty leagues wide and ten leagues deep, something larger than the sovereign state of Delaware. This grant was supposed to have been given to a Spanish nobleman named Don Miguel tie 1'eralta, whose last lineal descendant had passed it on to Willing.
Now, except that it was located in central Arizona, the grant wasn’t nailed down. What the doctor had in mind was then called a “floater,” a claim whose indefinite boundaries made it valuable as a legal nuisance, though not lor much else. By moving a floater in where settlers had taken land, a con man could count on finding some who would get nervous about the validity of their own titles and would pay off.
Reavis was interested, but he wanted to see the general site of the claim before he committed himself. He took that look in 1876, and while he was making the survey inspiration paid him its first tentative visit.
What he envisioned was the possibility of having the doctor’s huge floater established as an actual land grant, to have and to hold. According to his own subsequent statement, though, he did not confide as much to Willing, nor the fact that lie planned sole possession for himself.
Meanwhile Dr. Willing had gone to Prescott, the territorial capital, to file a claim on the property. Its basis was a deed which purported to show that he had been given the land by a certain Miguel Peralta of San Diego, heir of the original grantee, in 1864. It had been foreseen that the claim would be contested, however, and that was where [âmes Addison Reavis came in. He was scheduled to show up later and be retained by WiI- ling as an expert on the intricacies of real-estate law.
What Dr. Willing, at least, had not foreseen was that he would die in Prescott before Reavis got there. While it is obvious that two con men could not profitably pass as possessors of the same imaginary grant, this fatality is one of the mysteries of the case. Death was supposedly due to poison, but no one was charged with giving it. The most that can be said with assurance is that it happened because it had to happen. A petty craftsman was moved out of the way, leaving genius a free hand.
After a suitable interval Reavis also reached Prescott, where he represented himself as a correspondent of the old San Francisco Alta California . Having learned that a prominent California citizen had died in Arizona, the newspaper’s editor had, Reavis announced, commissioned him to investigate the circumstances.
What he wanted and what he got was a piece of Willing’s luggage. In it was a deed to the grant, made over to a third party whose name had been left blank. This had been the cautious doctor’s way of leaving himsell a quick out in case a storm arose.
Having pocketed this document, Reavis then set about determining what it would entitle him to claim. What he staked out was an empire of a magnitude which even the eloquence of a seasoned real-estate barker could not exaggerate.
After a late start, central Arizona was booming, once irrigation had proved that the Salt and Gila river valleys were fantastically fertile. The towns of Phoenix, Tempe, and Florence had sprung up, and many more were inevitable. The mighty bonanza of the Silver King mine had been discovered, to name only one of many glory holes. Some of the finest cattle country in the world was there, and the beef woidd be on it as soon as growing railroads could run their tracks across the territory.