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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
A lesser thief would have taken that report as a cue to run for cover, but for James Addison Reavis crisis created the finest hour. He responded to Johnson’s charges by suing the United States for $10,000,000. The grounds for this test case were that the federal government had wrongfully given to others property which belonged to his wife.
The United States had to, gird itself to meet this new attack, and its operatives were far from confident. On the other hand, Reavis was; nor had he lost the confidence of the influential men with whom he now regularly consorted. Numbered among them were some of the best legal and financial minds in the nation, including that of one of this country’s most famous skeptics.
Colonel Robert Ingersoll, able as a lawyer as well as an iconoclast, looked over what Reavis had to offer and pronounced his case airtight. John W. Mackay, launcher of the Postal Telegraph Company, was another who so believed, while Charles Crocker, one of the founders of the Southern Pacific, had died in that faith a couple of years earlier. Henry M. Porter, of the American Bank Note Company, was in Reavis’ camp, and so was Edward S. Stokes, who had killed Jim Fisk over Josie Mansfield. It was said that Roscoe Conkling was on the Peralta team, while W. E. D. Stokes and other Wall Street wolves certainly were.
They had no choice but to believe, once Reavis had revealed to them the full fruits of his studies in Spain. The documents he had found there, and of which he had copies notarized as being true to the existing originals, not only supported the proofs he had found in the old colonial archives in Mexico but went far beyond them.
To begin with the original grantee, his full name was Don Miguel Nemecio Gomez de Suva de Peralta y Garcia de la Cordoba. Genealogical tables clearly traced his lineage back to men distinguished for mighty deeds as well as noble blood. The honors bestowed on Don Miguel were also revealed in full, for in documents signed by three different kings he had been cited as an aide-de-camp and ensign of the royal house, a gentleman of the king’s chamber, and a knight of the orders of the Golden Fleece and Our Lady of Montesa, not to mention his membership in the Royal Order of Carlos III and the equally regal College of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Royal documents showed now that, although Don Miguel had been referred to as the Baron of the Colorados in Mexican documents, this was a mistake. What King Ferdinand had conferred, when making him a grandee, was the honorary title of the Caballero de los Colorados; but after he came into possession of his estate he was the Baron of Arizona, sometimes called Arizonaca.
One other thing, and that of the first importance, was also made clear by this new array of evidence. When the barony of Arizona had been given to Don Miguel its included total of so many square leagues and varas of land had been particularly specified as “ancient” leagues and varas, which were half again as big as those which Reavis had first mistakenly used in his computations. The dimensions of the barony were not a mere 49½ by 149½ miles; the correct measurements were 75 miles deep by 225 wide. To use easily locatable map points, it stretched from the Four Peaks to Picacho Pass, and from just east of the confluence of the Gila and the Salt to just west of Silver City, New Mexico. As for its area, instead of being about that of New Jersey, it was roughly that of New Jersey and New Hampshire combined.
Reavis thoroughly understood that a lie gains face if it is backed by another lie. Don Miguel had asked two successors of the original royal donor to confirm his title to the barony, thus furnishing an excuse for more substantiating documents. Reavis carried out this theory with respect to the two wills which he forged.
The First Baron of Arizona had lived to the unusual age of 116, giving him ample’ time to leave a codicil which repeated his original intention of leaving the barony to his son. The latter also attached a codicil to his will, just before he died in Madrid. In this he reiterated that the infant Dona Sofia was to get every square vara of the baronial estate.
With the area of threatened territory more than doubled, the defensive energy of the United States increased in proportion. Correspondence with Spain and Mexico had served only to confirm the seriousness of the situation. Every copy which Reavis exhibited found recognition in a duly filed original. In desperation the State Department dispatched a trio of special agents to study this material at first hand. William H. Tipton and Severo Mallet-Prevost were hustled off to Madrid, while Levi A. Hughes was entrusted with studying the Mexican records.
Reavis, in the meantime, was making the government collect testimony in his own favor in the Court of Private Land Claims, Chief Justice Joseph R. Reed presiding. Beginning in San Francisco in October of 1890, he had produced numerous witnesses who supported every statement he had made relative to the birth of Dona Sofia, the departure of the Second Baron of Arizona for Spain, and his speedy death there.
As these and other witnesses, examined in May of 1893, had been very well paid, it is not surprising that they vouched for statements previously made by Reavis. What is remarkable, however, is that they made such good witnesses. Or rather it would have been astonishing if they had been coached by anybody else. Only a master swindler could have schooled them to hit the right note between remembering distant events too carefully and not being uncertain about the principal points at issue.