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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
Commencing to press his claim on that basis, Reavis decided for himself that there was a hole in it bigenough for the Peralta grant to drop through. This was his inability to give a satisfactory reason why the property of a married man should have been left to a friend instead of the deceased’s relict. Reavis therefore looked up the woman whose widowhood had been his first necessity and obtained from her a bill of sale for the property, one of the few genuine documents in the case.
By that time he had spent seven years in study and the forging of testimony; but now at last he felt ready to take on the so far unsuspecting United States government. In 1883, following his second trip to Mexico, he filed his claim in the office of the surveyor-general of Arizona Territory. Significant of his confidence was the name he had adopted, which was James Addison I’eralta-Reavis.
Manifest Destiny never received such a setback. The entire program of settlement in central Arizona faced destruction through a wholesale revoking of land grants to the region’s pioneers. As Reavis himself stated the case, the United States could not dispose of territory to which it had no legal title.
Hired publicity men as well as newspapers spread the tidings among the anguished settlers of the Salt and Gila river valleys. The title to the great Peralta grant was ironclad, and it included all mineral and water lights. Ferdinand VI of Spain had been a loresighted fellow, and he had specifically mentioned them when awarding the giant to the Baron of the Colorados.
There were roars of protest from the pioneers, but they received little comfort from any direction. Local representatives of the federal government reported that, although naturally the matter of title would be thoroughly investigated, the claim had every appearance of being valid.
It was then that Reavis began to harvest where he h;id so patiently and dexterously sowed. Many were anxious to have the status of their property settled right away and came forward with oilers to buy, lease, or pay for operational franchises. Reavis skimmed oft $50,000 worth of cream in one easy motion when he charged the Southern Pacific that much for having run tracks across his property.
After that the panic was on in earnest. The railroad companies of the period were better known as rapacious predators than as easy marks. Many reasoned that if a railroad could be induced to pay off there was no use in trying to fight the case. Some promptly abandoned their houses, barns, irrigation ditches and cultivated fields. Others who had previously held out called on agents of the new owner to see what they would have to pay in order to be permitted to stay where they were. Mine operating companies did the same thing, the Silver King alone handing over $25,000 as an initial payment.
How Reavis had financed himself in the beginning is not clear. As his knowledge and confidence increased, however, he had begun to test his claims to title by submitting them to prominent West Coast attorneys. When these opined that his legal position was very sound, he had started to prosper. Next to wealth in the pocket the rich admire the promise of wealth, and big business soon put funds at the disposal of a man who looked as though he would soon be able to reciprocate handsomely.
One effect of this bounty was that—a year or so before he filed his claim—Reavis found it possible to take over the guardianship of a pretty half-breed girl called Sophia Treadway. An orphan, she did not know the nature of her ancestry until Reavis broke the news to her. Although she had been reared as a house servant, she was really the great-granddaughter of that Spanish grandee, Don Miguel de Peralta de la Cordoba.
This was Reavis’ deepest game, and it took some years for it to mature. For one thing, the waif had to be given an education and schooling in the social graces suitable to the lineal descendant of a baron.
That was still being attended to when Reavis finally pressed his claim and learned the joys of baronial estate at first hand. Money was rolling in, and he was a glad exponent of the theory that cash should be kept in circulation.
The headquarters of his domain was Hacienda Peralta at Arizola, a now vanished town near Casa Grande, but he was seldom there. In part this was due to prudence, for he knew enough about pioneers to realize that many would make no bones about shooting him. In the main, however, he eschewed Arizona because it was on the frontier, and his tastes were all for the opulence which only centers of civilization afford.
In proof of his own opulence he leased a mansion near New York, another in San Francisco, and a third in St. Louis, where he had once been a streetcar jockey. In these he entertained the wealthy and politically influential; and wherever he went the same ingredients of society gave him a 2i-gun salute.
Yet while he was enjoying himself, he never forgot that his duel with the federal government was still going on. After many months of trying, the United States had not found a way to save its threatened territory, but Reavis knew that its representatives had not given up. Day after day dogged employees of the State Department were looking for an excuse to thwart him. Like a chess master who plays dozens of opponents, he had to ponder the possible moves of each, so that he could outmaneuver them.