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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
What he had long realized, for instance, was that the weakest link in the chain of his claims to title was none other than the originator of the basic scheme, Dr. Willing. The king of Spain had given land to a loyal subject, whose legitimate heirs could own it without doing violence to the ratifying clause in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; but the transfer of the property to a California physician was something which might well be disallowed on a point of order. Reavis had had to use Willing at first, for the doctor had formed the only explanation as to how the Peralta grant could have wound up as his own. What he now felt ready to do was to keep the land without switching the chain of title away from old Don Miguel’s descendants.
It was then that he introduced Dona Sofia Loreto Micaela Maso y Peralta de la Cordoba, his pretty ward, to eastern society.
New York’s Four Hundred were delighted to have such aristocracy in their midst, though they did not have much time to enjoy it. Dona Sofia’s guardian was anxious to carry her off to the land where her ancestors had flourished for countless generations.
In Spain, where she was presented at court by right of being a daughter of a noble house, Dona Sofia was also feted. Meanwhile her studious guardian haunted repositories of old records in Madrid and Seville. He also studied Spanish genealogy, finding much to interest him.
Thus enjoying themselves in their separate ways, they spent a couple of winters, but in July of 1887 they presented themselves before Edward H. Strobel, secretary of the United States Legation at Madrid. To him Reavis showed a contract of marriage between himself and his ward which dated back to 1882. Actually Reavis had just prepared it, but the secretary of the legation formally recognized it as binding.
The girl clearly accepted the situation because she found James Addison Reavis himself the most wonderful thing in the world he had created for her. As for her husband, he had his own motives for wedding. To his claim of having acquired the Peralta grant by purchase he could now add ownership through having married the woman who was rightfully entitled to inherit the land. Upon his return to America he filed this supporting claim, together with documents giving the history of Dona Sofia.
What had happened was that in the course of seeking to justify Dr. Willing’s claims to title he had discovered that the second Miguel de Peralta had sired children, contrary to his original belief. There had been twins, of which the son had died in infancy. The other child, Dona Sofia Laura Micaela Suva de Peralta de la Cordoba de Sanchez de Ybarra de Escobeda had survived, however, to marry a wealthy Spanish gentleman named Maso, among a great many other things, and bore him twins, of whom the boy also perished in infancy. The girl, born on March 4, 1862, was now the wife of James Addison Peralta-Reavis. She was also the Third Baroness, the sole rightful owner of the Peralta grant, of which actual possession had been denied her through a chain of adverse circumstances.
The birth of this heiress had taken place on an estate called the Bandina Ranch near San Bernardino while her family was en route from Sonora to San Francisco. The mother died shortly afterward, and the child was an orphan before she could talk. Both her father (Maso) and her grandfather, who was Don Miguel the younger, left for Spain within the year, and there death separately overtook them. The baby girl and her grandmother, Dona Carmelita, of the house of Maso, had been left meanwhile at the home of a man called Alfred E. Sherwood. The death of Dona Carmelita eventually left the child without a natural guardian. She had thus been raised in ignorance of her due position until Reavis had run across a record of her birth and succeeded in locating her.
As usual Reavis was able to produce evidence in support of his statements. There were parish records of both the birth and baptism, and anybody who wanted to could go to a certain church and read of these matters himself. Reavis also had affidavits from people who had been associated with the Peralta and Maso families while they were in the States.
For four years Reavis had enjoyed the financial and social emoluments derived from his unshaken claim to the Peralta grant, previous to filling in his wife’s name in 1887. Having staggered government officials with that blow, he went unchallenged for three years more. Meanwhile he had developed a fine new racket. In three states and territories he organized Peralta grant development companies, selling stock in them which was eagerly bought.
Finally, in 1890, the United States made its first countermove. Royal A. Johnson, surveyor-general of Arizona Territory, responded to the pleas of desperate settlers by publishing An Adverse Report on the Alleged Peralta Grant .
In it, Johnson noted that Reavis had shifted his ground, throwing up a new smoke screen when the old one had seemed in danger of being penetrated. The original documents which Reavis had exhibited were not as old as they purported to be, either. A newspaper editor had pointed out that the type on one allegedly ancient state paper had not been invented in the Eighteenth Century, while the stock had a watermark indicating it had been made in Minnesota. Adding these and a few other facts together, the surveyor-general pronounced the claim a fraudulent one.