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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
Finally Reavis pulled a skillful bilingual act; in Mexico he had all the royal decrees pertaining to the Peralta grant printed in Spanish, complete with all the notarized statements swearing to their authenticity, later published in San Francisco under the name of Muniments of Title .
During that same year of 1893 the suit to collect $10,000,000 from the United States of America was formally pressed in the Court of Private Land Claims, this time in Santa Fe. By then Reavis had been seigneur of his barony for ten years, and far from gaining anything in the long struggle against him, the federal government had lost ground, both figuratively and literally.
Reavis expected to go on winning, wherefore he pressed plans for developing his property on a heroic scale. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that he was miles ahead of the government in this respect too. For example, he had planned to provide power as well as irrigation water by damming the Tonto Basin. The Roosevelt Dam, which serves both of these purposes, was not started until 1906.
But while building his empire up with one hand, Reavis was using the other to bombard the government with his unending series of proofs, of which the two most ingenious had not so far been noticed. Having exhausted the resources of law, history, genealogy, and international diplomacy, he turned to the arts. He produced ancient Spanish poems which recited the glories of the Peraltas and the allied house of Garcia. Moving from poetry to painting, he published reproductions of portraits, showing how several generations of the Peralta clan had looked to various Spanish painters.
It was the special agents of the State Department, operating in Spain and Mexico, who at last proved a match for Reavis. They found the ancient documents in the ancient volumes in the ancient repositories, but, not content with that, they subjected them to minute scrutiny and a careful comparison with similar Eighteenth-Century papers. They furthermore enlisted the aid of government officials of the other two nations, as well as specialists in the fields of Hispanic history, law, and language of the period in question.
Reavis had wrought wonderfully, but his manifold forgeries could not all stand up against all the tests to which they were subjected. First a few discrepancies were observed, and these showed where to look for others. With a few foundation stones pulled out from under, the whole marvelous edifice collapsed.
Actually what took the collaborating representatives of three governments so long was that they could not believe that Reavis had had no help whatever from fact. They could not believe that all the documents were absolute fiction as well as daring forgeries. They could not believe that old Don Miguel, complete with his genealogy, descendants, and vast Arizona estate, had never lived at all , and that the grandees and their ladies in the portraits were sheer invention. Only after many months of studying the pooled information at their disposal were the special agents able to comprehend that for more than a decade the United States had been waging a losing war with a man whose only weapons were his brains and effrontery.
William H. Tipton undertook to present the findings of himself and his associates in 1895. The occasion was the $10,000,000 damage suit which Reavis was then pressing, with every prospect of success, in the Court of Special Land Claims in Santa Fe. Tipton’s testimony made it plain at last that the claims made by Reavis had never had the slightest connection with actuality at any time. The test case which Reavis had come so near winning was thus lost, and so was his empire.
The long reign of America’s peerless peer (1883-1895) ended with the adverse verdict of the Court of Private Land Claims, with the piper yet to be paid. Having at last regained control of the territory included in the Peralta grant, the government wanted blood as well.
It wasn’t easy to get. Tried for conspiracy, Reavis handled his own case; and in spite of all that the government’s representatives had on him, he made the prosecution sweat to win a conviction. What federal counsel found especially difficult to break down was the skein of court testimony which had established the birth and family ties of Doña Sofia.
That poor woman, who had borne Reavis twin sons, was eventually proved to be the posthumous daughter of a squaw man named John A. Treadway. Officially deposed as Third Baroness of Arizona by the court decision which convicted Reavis in 1896, she eventually got a divorce from the man who had ennobled her, on the grounds of nonsupport.
To do him justice, Reavis was in no position to support anybody from July 18, 1896, to April 18, 1898, as he spent that much of his six-year sentence in jail. Light as his punishment was, however, he emerged from it as fallen grandeur without the power to rise again. During the score of years which remained to him he tried other promotional schemes; but the strength of his genius had apparently been exhausted on his one master scheme, for he was never again successful.