The great thing about American history is that there are so many little fascinating stories… I’ve been studying the Civil War on and off for the last thirty years, and never knew that an ex-Reb with a talent for forgery once set himself up as the “Baron of Arizona.” (I don’t get into the history of the West too often, I guess.) Anyway, here is the incredible story of James Reavis; the Civil War parts are in red. His exploits were dramatized by Vincent Price in Sam Fuller's 1950 movie, The Baron of Arizona, which is an excellent film, by the way. (I discovered Reavis through this film, and rented the film because of an interest in the director, who did a number of films noir.) The article is reprinted here by permission of the author - which is a rare thing for me… - Jonah
JAMES REAVIS (1843-1914)
The Man Who Stole Arizona
(Copyright c1997 by Michael Marinacci. All rights reserved.)
On a fine June morning in 1883, the citizens of central Arizona awoke to find that their land had been stolen from under their feet.
Ranchers from Scottsdale to Morenci, big-city bankers and merchants in downtown Phoenix, Papago Indians along the Santa Cruz River, Mormon farmers in Safford, and even cowboys in the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico read and reread the legal notices that had been posted in public places across the territory. Adorning churches, courthouses, railroad stations and saloons, and printed in every newspaper that took paid advertisements, the notice said that all persons occupying land over the entire 18,750 square-mile territory under any and every title were "to communicate immediately with Mr. Cyril Barratt, attorney-at-law and agent general, representing Mr. James Addison Reavis, for registering tenancy and signing agreements, or regard themselves liable to litigation for trespassing and expulsion when the Peralta Grant is, as it must be, validated by the U.S. government."
Arizonans read this notice first with bewilderment, then disbelief. When the story began to circulate that the owners of the rich Silver King mine, right in the center of the territory, had given in and passed a $25,000 payment to this mysterious claimant, the incredulity turned into paranoia and panic. If Arizona's richest and most powerful mining corporation had to pay this character, how could the small businessmen and landowners avoid it? What was this Peralta Grant, and who was this James Reavis that was claiming it, and making noises about some "Barony of Arizona"?
The man who was laying claim to most of Central Arizona as the "Baron of Arizonac" entered the world as James Addison Reavis in 1843. The son of a wandering laborer named Fenton Reavis and his half-Spanish wife Maria, little James spent most of his childhood following his father through a succession of short-lived, low-wage jobs around the Missouri territory. Not surprisingly, the boy was most strongly influenced by his mother, a disappointed, defeated woman who lived in the glorious Iberian past and told her son that he was of noble heritage, and that he had a duty to reclaim his aristocratic birthright through heroic deeds.
When the Civil War broke out, thousands of Missourans agonized over what side to fight on, not sure if they were really a Northern or Southern state. Mrs. Reavis had no such doubts, and prodded her son to fight on the side of Nobility, Chivalry and the Glorious Past, and against the vulgar Yanqui imperialists. James Reavis enlisted in the Confederate Army.
The new recruit soon tired of Army life. There was little of the action and none of the glory that his hopelessly romantic mother had told himof. The only respite from the infantry grunt's mind-numbing tedium and drudgery came from the occasional furlough. And these leaves were far too infrequent.
Sitting one night in his tent, the dim light from his oil lamp flickering against the canvas, James Reavis took pen and ink in hand and made a wonderful discovery. He had the ability to produce an exact replica of the entire handwritten furlough form, right down to a beautiful copy of the commanding officer's signature. The fake pass was accepted without question by the guard the following morning, and Reavis set off for the first of many illegal vacations.
Reavis soon had a booming business going in the camp. He forged passes for himself, his friends, and anyone else who could cross his palm with some spare change. He even faked official orders for provisions, and resold the purloined goods to other merchants at cut-rate prices. Reavis was never caught for any of these capers.
But the scamming soldier wasn't ignorant of military affairs. When Vicksburg fell to the Men in Blue, Reavis figured that the South's future was dim indeed, so he did what any sensible operator would have done in a similar situation: he deserted the Confederate Army, and joined the North. He started up his pass-forging scheme anew, but his new commanders found him out quickly, and Reavis was forced to disappear before the war was over.
Reavis spent the next few years wandering, turning up unexplained in such places as Brazil. He settled in St. Louis in 1869, where he worked first as a streetcar conductor, then investing some and savings, and opened up a real-estate agency. The realty business was a modest success for the Civil War turncoat. On one occasion, Reavis' old Army skill came in handy: he forged a realistic-looking deed from the late 1700s on suitably decrepit, faded paper, and used the spurious document to close a big deal and pocket a fat fee.
But his big chance to make a real killing came in Fall 1871. A Dr. George Willing walked into Reavis' office, and told the realtor a story that whetted his greed.
It seemed that seven years earlier, Dr. Willing had met an old Mexican on the Agua Fria River south of Prescott, Arizona. Under cover of a black desert night, Willing had traded gold, mules and supplies worth about $20,000 in frontier-inflated dollars for a pack of old deeds good for a Spanish land grant from the Mexican, who called himself Miguel Peralta. At the time, such grants were still good under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which honored deeds made before the U.S. annexed California and the Southwestern states in 1848.
This was a big grant indeed, even by frontier standards. Had he registered it properly, Dr. Willing would have been the proud owner of over 2000 square miles of land in the Arizona territory. The problem was, he had been prevented from getting it legally recognized because of rampaging Apaches, marital strife, and economic hardship.
Reavis was initially suspicious of the doctor's claim. He wondered why Willing had spent seven years sitting on a claim for a chunk of land the size of Delaware. To be sure, the doctor was something of an eccentric, a classic social dropout who had sought freedom on the Western frontier, and had become a fixture in 1860s Arizona, known and respected even by the fierce Apache. But his Spanish grant was a dubious proposition to Reavis; he had encountered such documents before, and knew from his own experience how easy it was to fake such official-looking claims.
His suspicions doubled the next day when Dr. Willing reappeared with William Gitt in tow. Gitt was a local sharper who had built up some notoriety providing self-serving help on such dubious cases. But Reavis decided to swallow his suspicions and see the whole affair through. It was a wise move; though two years of hard work brought the three no closer to unraveling the Peralta grant problem, Gitt brought Reavis a lot of unrelated business.
The Crash of 1873 brought an end to the good times. Reavis was wiped out, and having nothing to lose, he closed his office and had a final meeting with Dr. Willing, agreeing to work on the Peralta case with him. Reavis would first journey to Sacramento, California, and buy back the mineral rights to the claim from their current owner, a Florin Massol. He would then travel to Prescott, Arizona, meet Dr. Willing there, and collect a hefty commission.
Reavis arrived in San Francisco almost a year later, after one of the brutal Cape voyages of the pre-Panama Canal days. To his dismay, he found that Dr. Willing had died just weeks earlier in Prescott; there was no mention of a grant or a will. But he still kept his eyes open for similar opportunities. After all, California had been American territory for less than thirty years, and Spanish claims were still being successfully processed. The claims were often of dubious authenticity, and the courts that processed them were notoriously corrupt; no less a figure than George Hearst, father of press baron William Randolph Hearst, once bragged that he'd picked up a 48,000-acre grant in the San Luis Obispo country at pennies an acre by knowing how to deal with the crooked land officials.
In an ironic coincidence, Reavis found his first job at the San Francisco Examiner, later to become the younger Hearst's flagship paper. The Examiner was in deep financial straits. It had attacked railroad mogul Collis P. Huntington, the head of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroad syndicates, and the tycoon was using his considerable muscle to bleed advertising and subscriptions from the paper. It was Reavis' job to win them back.
Ever the practical man, Reavis decided to go straight to the heart of the problem. He succeeded in meeting with Huntington himself-a feat slightly more difficult than having a private audience with the President of the U.S.-and astonished the Examiner editors by bringing back a contract for a lot of advertising from the railroad man.
What Reavis didn't tell his editors was that he'd spilled the story of the Peralta grant to Huntington and his financial lieutenant Charles Crocker. Without mentioning Dr. Willing, he had told the two tycoons that he needed to do more research on the grant, but he'd be in an excellent position to grant right-of-way privileges to the proposed Southern Pacific line through Arizona. In exchange, he wanted a $50,000 contract for development. After some haggling, they settled on a $2,000 advance, with royalties forthcoming as the claim was developed.
In all likelihood, the two financiers didn't completely believe Reavis. But they sensed that he could be a valuable weapon in their war with the notorious robber-baron Jay Gould over railroad development in the Southwest. Huntington and Collis figured that Reavis was probably serious enough about the claim to cause Gould a lot of grief if they skillfully played him against the Eastern capitalist. Too, it was safer to coopt Reavis than let him loose; Gould might play the would-be land baron against them.
The two men strung Reavis along for several years. Then in May 1880, the order came from Collis: go to Arizona, and press the claim.
Reavis first went to Phoenix, and did some research on the history of local Spanish grants, and how they were being handled in the territory. Then he traveled to Prescott, and talked Willing's unwitting heirs out of the useless-looking pile of parchment he had left in his efffects.
Examining the documents for the first time in seven years, Reavis was less than impressed. The signed agreement between Dr. Willing and Miguel Peralta was a barely-legible series of scrawls on a piece of old wrapping paper; apparently, Willing had collared two Black Canyon hoboes to sign in as witnesses. The agreement was dated October 20, 1864, but locals insisted that Dr. Willing had never been seen in the territory before 1867. Other documents were even less convincing, but Reavis decided that if such men as Collis P. Huntington and Charles Crocker could pay him thousands for a claim sight unseen, a really convincing, airtight claim to Arizona land could be worth millions. The problem was to grow such a grant out of the seed that Dr. Willing had posthumously provided.
Reavis returned to Sacramento and straightened out the mining rights with Florin Massol. Then he headed out, looking for documents to sustain Dr. Willing's claim.
In September 1880 he arrived in Mexico, and spent many weeks at the state archives in Mexico City and Guadalajara. There amongst the files of the old Spanish bureaucracy, Reavis slowly read and reread thousands of grants, royal edicts, deeds, mission reports and maps. He noted the idiosyncracies of Old Castilian phrasing and spelling, the details of paper texture, ink hues and penmanship. When the clerks weren't looking, Reavis quickly pocketed handfuls of documents. They would be his models.
Back in his San Francisco flat, Reavis slowly, painstakingly forged dozens of documents. He experimented endlessly with inks, papers and wax seals, perfecting the look and feel of genuine 17th and 18th-century Spanish records. He copied the language of the stolen originals as well, capturing the proper wording, styles, modes of address, titles and ranks of the edicts. His aim was not just to forge documents, but to create out of ink, paper and wax an entire, fictitious Spanish noble family: the Peraltas.
Reavis made the founder of this phony aristocracy one Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta y de la Cordoba. Don Miguel's father was Don Jose Gaston Silva Carillo de Peralta y de las Falces de Mendoza, a scion of the de la Falces family, relatives of Philip IV of Spain, who was the father-in-law of France's "Sun King," Louis XIV. Don Miguel's mother was Dona Francesca Maria de Garcia de la Cordoba y Muniz de Perez.
Born in 1708, Don Miguel entered national service in 1727 as a lieutenant in the dragoon guards. After fifteen years of exemplerary service, he was made visitador de rey (royal inspector) of the city of Guadalajara in New Spain, and sailed to the New World to begin his service. There he looked after the king's interests, and was instrumental in exposing Jesuit corruption in the territory, for which the order was expelled from the New World in 1767.
King Philip's son, Ferdinand VI, rewarded Don Miguel for his services by promoting him to captain general, and granting him "three hundred square leagues, or nineteen thousand two hundred million square varas of land." As a consequence of this deed, Reavis granted his nonexistent Don Miguel the equally spurious title of Baron of the Colorados. Just to sweeten the pot, he made his baron a Spanish Grandee as well.
The forged documents followed Don Miguel and the Peralta grant over the century. The grant was demarcated in May 1758, using the "Initial Monument", a large rock inscribed with the Peralta coat of arms, on the rectangular plot's southwest corner as a boundary marker. The official endorsement from the Crown was slow in coming, though; they had their hands full at the time with Indian uprisings and Jesuit intrigues. The new king, Charles III, finally gave the grant recognition in 1772, and the Spanish High Court confirmed it four years later.
According to the papers, Don Miguel was only able to actually visit his land once afterwards. He made a trip there in 1778, and set up a small garrison near the immense Indian ruin at Casa Grande. He never returned.
Don Miguel was still a bachelor in his early 60s, but this situation happily came to a close in 1770. That year, he married Sofia Ave Maria Sanchez Bonilla de Amaya y Garcia de Orosco, the daughter of the Nayarit state governor. Eleven years later, the 73-year old grandee amazingly fathered a son, Miguel Silva Jesus. To insure his patrimony and legacy, Reavis drew up a "Peralta will," ostensibly by the elder Don Miguel. The will named Sofia and the younger Don Miguel as heirs to the Barony of Arizonac. One clause stated that the existing "Indian rancheras" on the land were exempt from the holdings; no doubt Reavis was thinking ahead and trying to head off a possible confrontation with the Federal government over the Indian reservations that lay on the land. The elder baron's biography had Reavis' touch as well; by giving him septuagenerian fatherhood and letting him live to be 116, the forger eliminated the time-consuming extra work and trouble involved in creating the intervening Peralta generation that would have been more consistent with 18th-century life expectancies.
Upon his very aged father's death, Don Miguel the Younger took possession of the estate. He married at the more credible age of 41, to a noblewoman from Guadalajara named Dona Juana Laura Ibarra; the couple produced one child, a girl named Sofia Laura Micaela. Don Miguel Jr. never visited his estates at all; both the Indians and the Yanquis made Arizona too dangerous. Eventually his estate collapsed under the pressures of war, revolution and economic trouble, and all the Don had to his name that night in Black Canyon were a sheaf of old land deeds that he traded to the American Dr. Willing.
This was the history of the Peralta Grant. It was now written out in dozens of surreptiously altered real documents and as well as clever forgeries. With the paperwork finished, Reavis made his move.
He arrived in Tucson on September 3, 1882. Local papers were filled with sneering, dismissive reports about Reavis and his claim, now the hottest items in the Arizona Territory's rumor mill. They delighted in reporting his indiscretion with a female passenger on the train to Tucson; apparently, Reavis had innocently mistaken a young woman's sleeping berth for his, and had to pay a five-dollar fine to clear his record.
However, beneath the joking there was growing uneasiness about the mysterious deed-holder. Though he soon departed Arizona, dismayed that the state Surveyor General's office was already overwhelmed with land-grant claims, Reavis left a disturbing question in the minds of the territorial citizenry: What if the claim was for real?
Back in San Francisco, Reavis was making more powerful friends. George Hearst, himself no stranger to land-grant schemes, was now the owner of the SF Examiner, and saw in the reporter-cum-deedholder a possible way to capitalize on his mining claims in Arizona. He allowed Reavis to hype the Peralta grant in unsigned Examiner articles, a valuable propaganda ploy for the forger.
In March 1883, Reavis returned to Tucson, this time with two associates. One was Cyril Barratt, a disbarred, alcoholic attorney wanted on graft and malpractice charges in California. Reavis' first meeting with Barratt was as the latter lay in a San Francisco gutter. His other new friend was Pedro Cuervo, a short, thick Mexican who would soon get a reputation in Tucson's bordellos as a perverted sadist. These two acted as Reavis' counsel and bodyguard, respectively.
The motley trio made their way to the Surveyor General's office on March 27th. Lugging in several heavy trunks filled with the forged documents, they confronted the Surveyor General and insisted he pass judgement on the lot.
The Surveyor General, one Joseph Robbins, spent hours with his clerks and the Reavis party examining the documents. As he scanned one seemingly-legitimate Spanish deed after another, Robbins grew worried and perplexed; it seemed that the man the press insisted was a mountebank had a strong claim to a huge piece of Arizona.
By now, the claim had grown far beyond Doc Willing's original 2,000 square miles. The deeds Reavis forged specified the Peralta grant as an immense, 18,750-square-mile chunk of land, a 75- by 250-mile rectangle that ranged over alpine mountains and river valleys, dry deserts and evergreen forests, farmlands, ranches, and Indian reservations. It encompassed Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Casa Grande, Florence, Globe and Safford. It took in the fabulous Silver King mine, as well as the rich copper deposits at Globe, San Carlos, Miami, Ray and Morenci. A portion of the Peralta claim crossed the border and swallowed much of New Mexico's Mogollon Mountains.
If this claim was legitimate, Robbins thought with a twinge of dread, Reavis would control an area bigger than the combined states of New Jersey, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Buying time, the surveyor told Reavis that he couldn't do anything about the claim for now, besides filing a report to the Federal Government, who would make the final decision in any case.
But the would-be Baron was already settling into his domain. After finding some ruined foundations near Casa Grande, and passing them off as the old Peralta garrison, Reavis committed some of his San Francisco capital to construction.
And less than a mile from the ancient four-story adobe shell of Casa Grande, an equally imposing structure was raised: Arizola, the ten-room, red-brick home of Baron de Arizonac James Reavis, the finest house in the Arizona Territory, outfitted with such luxuries as running water. It would serve as a comfortable home base for shaking down the citizenry of Arizona.
Reavis' first target was Col. James Barney, the president of the Silver King Mining Company. Fearful of losing his fabulous lode to the deed-waving upstart, Barney recognized Reavis' claim on his land in June 1883 and coughed up a $25,000 royalty payment. This was mere chicken feed to a man who mined over $6 million of ore a year, but it was an important symbolic victory for Reavis in what would soon be a major effort.
Though he had a clever tongue, a quick mind and unflappable nerves, Reavis realized he couldn't mulct the whole population alone. With the help of his lawyer, Reavis recruited an army of extortionists to help him: badmen, hustlers, bandits and mercenaries from all over the territory.
Garrisoned like his fictitious Peralta milita at Casa Grande, Reavis' agents' first job was to post notices around the expanse of the claim. Though there was talk and considerable worry in their wake, especially after the Silver King deal became public knowledge, nobody wanted to make the first move.
But Reavis wasn't bluffing. Soon his agents rode back into the towns, ranches, and farms with disturbing messages to the various landwoners. Though they never quite came out and said it, the Baron's boys strongly hinted to property-holders that they were in danger of losing their land if they didn't immediately settle up with their new landlord at Arizola. Since he wasn't quite ready to evict thousands of people from territory they'd occupied for years, Reavis was willing to sign quitclaims and issue deeds of tenure in exchange for rent payments. His agents took signatures from the citizenry on deeds for deposit money, then returned days later and burn the leasees for whatever extra fees they or their boss thought were appropriate.
Of course, not everybody cooperated. Landholders who resisted the agent's overtures the first time were often confronted with guns and muscle on the second visit. Truly stubborn property owners had their servants beaten up, their livestock stolen or their farms burned, though nobody was ever able to prove that Reavis was directly connected with these attacks.
The grumbling of the citizens soon rose to an angry media campaign against Reavis. The Phoenix Gazette editorialized bitterly against him, soon followed by the rival Phoenix Herald, which called attention to Reavis' strong-arm tactics and shaky legal standing: apparently, Surveyor General Robbins was still unconvinced by the claim, though his aide had traveled to Guadalajara and had been fooled by the phony documents filed there.
The Herald was especially pleased by a revelation about its rival later that summer. Gazette editor Homer McNeil, a big property owner in Phoenix, lacked the courage of his journalistic convictions and cut a secret deal with Reavis: he laid off the fiery editorials and paid "an undisclosed sum" in exchange for an ironclad transfer deed for his properties from Reavis. When the Herald found out, it mercilessly pilloried McNeil, whose business droped off so badly that he was forced to publicly cancel the deal and go on the warpath against the Arizola land shark again.
But Reavis' biggest enemy that year was Tom Weedin. Publisher-printer of the Florence Enterprise, a classically feisty frontier journal from the namesake town near Casa Grande, Weedin heard no end of complaints from his accounts and subscribers about the mansion-dwelling shyster and his army of carpetbaggers.
Weedin took up the cause more fully than any paper in the territory and endlessly hammered away at Reavis and his strong-armed extortion of Arizona citizenry. For his efforts, Weedin got a personal visit from the schemer himself, who tried to bribe the editor. When Weedin flatly turned down his offer, Reavis threatened the man's family.
Days later, Weedin's office was wrecked and almost burned down by persons unknown. Though there was no proof, the brave newspaperman had no doubt who was behind it, and began to attack Reavis even more vehemently. Citizen's committees sprang up over the region with the object of removing Reavis from his perch forever.
Soon the efforts of Weedin and others bore fruit. Arizona Attorney General Clark Churchill, an important landowner in the Territory, filed a suit against Reavis in February 1884 in an effort to show cause and bring the claim to public scrutiny. When the case came to court, Reavis insisted that his claim was valid. He backed it up with the many signatories, from the Silver King and Southern Pacific concerns on down, who had voluntarily complied with his requests and contributed money. Cross-examined by Churchill, Reavis cunningly dodged questions about the nature of his operations or finances, though he did admit his connections with the Southern Pacific interests in California. The case dragged on for over a year, and Churchill finally gave up in the face of Reavis' intrasingence.
Reavis pressed on, though, taking his case to higher authorities. He befriended Roscoe Conkling, a powerful Republican Senator from New York, to help represent his interests in Washington, and made a local alliance with Republican Congressional nominee Thomas Wilson.
Had the GOP won the 1884 elections, the well-connected con man might well have pushed his scam successfully through Congress. But Democrat Grover Cleveland was now the president-elect, and his man in Arizona, Marcus Smith, made no secret of his desire to run Reavis out of the territory forever.
To make things worse, Royal Johnson, the new Surveyor General had just released an 18-month study of the Peralta Grant. Addressed to the General Land Office, Johnson's survey labeled the grant a fake. When the news hit the Arizona grapevine, Reavis' quitclaims-and-rents scheme collapsed almost overnight, and his agents scattered. The forger quietly skulked off to California to cook up a new scheme.
Reavis reasoned that if he could create a live, human heiress to the Peralta Grant and had himself legally tied to her, the claim and his status would be far stronger.
Putting his considerable skills in fakery to work, Reavis invented a living Peralta heir. The daughter of Don Miguel the Younger, who had disappeared from Reavis' fabricated family history long before the elderly Mexican pawned off his estates to Dr. Willing, was now written into a new series of forged documents.
Her name was Dona Sofia Loreta Micaela de Maso y de Peralta. According to the continued history, she lived with her father after her mother's death, and saw the dissolute aristocrat blow most of his fortune in a few years.
In 1860, the 28-year old heiress married a ne'er-do-well Angeleno named Don Jose Ramon Carmen de Maso y Castilla, better known as Jose Maso. Her husband lived off his spendthrift father-in-law, squandering what was left of the family fortune on high living, and forced the entire family to decamp to California in 1862 in search of a better life.
Reavis' story then produced the figure he needed to bolster the scam. At Agua Mansa farm, near San Bernardino, the pregnant Dona Sofia gave birth to twins: a boy and a girl. The son was sickly, and both he and his mother died soon after birth. With his wife dead, Jose ran off to Spain, and Don Miguel gave up his granddaughter to be raised by his friend John Treadway, a rancher in Mendocino County, California.
By 1877, the girl was 15. On a train trip, she ran into a Hearst reporter named James Reavis, who remarked on her amazing resemblance to Dona Sofia, the last known Peralta female heir. Though Reavis didn't explain how he could have seen the woman who died when he was still a Confederate Army goldbricker thousands of miles away, he quickly started a friendship and correspondence with her daughter. Reavis was amazed when he found out the secret of her heritage, and married her on New Year's Eve, 1882.
To the girl, now named Dona Carmelita Sofia Micaela de Peralta, Reavis was a fairy-tale prince who had lifted her out of a dead-end life of drudgery. Though her real name and identity is now lost to history, the young woman Reavis picked to be his wife and Peralta-heir stand-in was probably a frontier orphan or love child who had been brought up as a household servant or cantina waitress. Wherever Reavis found her, it is known that he told and retold her the Peralta legend until she believed every word, then sent her to the Convent of San Luis Rey for an education in reading, writing and the social graces. Carmelita was to graduate there as a poised, cultured young lady, precisely the well-bred specimen that Reavis needed to exhibit as proof of his noble holdings.
Meanwhile, Reavis went to the San Salvador church at San Bernardino. There he talked the young priest on duty into loaning him the birth register, then erased two spaces for the year 1862, and inserted the names of the fictitious Peralta twins. Unknown to the forger however, was the existence of a separate church index for births; his failure to alter it as well would come back to haunt him.
Reavis also rode into the barren Sierras Estrellas range southwest of Phoenix, looking for a big rock with a wide face. When he found an appropriate boulder, he marked it with an elaborate series of script and symbols referring to the Peralta family and the Spanish Crown. This, of course, was the "Initial Monument" that marked the southwestern corner of his 18,750 square-mile empire.
Though his quitclaims business had collapsed, Reavis was still getting royalties from the Southern Pacific in San Francisco. In the spring of 1885 he took his new wife and his remaining entourage and paid his powerful friends there a visit. Though Collis Huntington had since settled his feud with Jay Gould, Charles Crocker still thought he could use Reavis to conquer the Arizona Territory. He kept the payments coming, and introduced the Southwestern schemer to banker Maurice Herr, who put up $25,000 capital and with Reavis formed the Arizona Development Corporation, floated on a huge issue of public shares.
Reavis and company then went to New York City, where he made contact with his friend Senator Conkling. There he again used his peculiar powers of persuasion and bled a group of Conkling's financier friends for a large sum of cash; in return he promised them influence throughout his holdings. Then he caught a ship for Spain.
By now, the former streetcar conductor and real-estate hustler was a wealthy, influential man. Now the Baron de Peralta because of his marriage to the titled heir, he traveled in first-class style, and lovely Carmelita was the object of much wonder and envy. They arrived in the old country in 1886, carrying open invitations to some of the highest echelons of Spanish society.
Spain embraced the bogus Baron, but only partly for sentimental reasons. The moribund empire was still smarting from its loss of New World colonies to Latin American nationalism and Yankee Manifest Destiny, and many Spanish military, financial and aristocratic figures saw in Reavis a potential foothold to regain the old territories from the upstart New World republics. After all, the Spanish-American War was still twelve years in the future.
Reavis stayed in Madrid for many weeks. He took advantage of his noble title and celebrity status to gain entry into the national archives there and in Seville, forging documents by night and planting them in the archives the following day. He placed one particularly important fake-a codicil from Don Miguel the Younger specifying Carmelita as his sole heir-in a vault at the Banca d'Espana.
Reavis also haunted the junk stores and flea markets of the city. He bought up miniatures, portraits and photographs of nameless noble men and women who had fallen on hard times and had hocked their heirlooms. They were to be passed off as portraits of the fictitious Peraltas, and Reavis even cynically presented them to his wife as her long-lost ancestors. Too happy in her never-never land of wealth and fame to possibly suspect the man who had made her a noblewoman, she believed him.
By the fall of 1886, the Reavises were at the top of Madrid's social "A" list. They appeared before Regent Queen Maria Christina and her infant son King Alfonso XIII; the grey-templed, stiff-backed Baron clad in the silk stockings and breeches of the Spanish cortes, and the Baronness the very soul of a Castillan blueblood in her diamond tiara and deeply-cut gown.
Though he was honored to appear at the royal court, Reavis was more interested in cozying up to Madrid's financial movers. He met several times with Ignace Bauer, a German-born Jew and self-made millionaire, the scion of the Rothschild banking interests in Spain and master of most of the country's stock exchanges, banks and state finances. Bauer's crowd included such tycoons as fellow immigrant financier Georges Polak, and native Spanish plutocrats like the Marques de Campo and the Marques Cayo de Rey.
The financiers tried to draft the Yankee Baron into various schemes, but nothing ever came of the talking and planning. Perhaps they saw through Reavis' act and decided that although he was a skilled charlatan, his business skills weren't up to their considerable tasks. Reavis himself might have realized that he was out of his league among men who could have bought and sold American industrialists like Huntington.
Reavis spent his last weeks in Spain conspiring with a group of high-ranked military figures. What they planned is unknown, though there was talk of a plot to retake California from the United States. At any rate, the Baron soon tired of trying to help breath life and glory into the faded Spanish Empire. His talents, he figured, were more useful in the world's richest and most powerful imperial nation, and he used his influential Castillan friends and his old buddy Senator Conkling to get invitations into high society across the channel in Great Britain.
The Baron and Baronness arrived in Queen Victoria's London during the Golden Jubilee Year, 1887. Through his contacts Lord Derby and Lord Granville, Reavis and wife scored an invitation to an audience with the Queen herself. As usual, beautiful Carmelita was the belle of the ball at Buckingham Palace, almost upstaging the diminutive monarch herself as the absolute center of attention.
She caught the attention of the fabulously wealthy Baron Alfred Rothschild. A close friend of the Prince of Wales, the British banker-peer was smitten by the penniless orphan-cum-New World noblewoman, and took her and her husband through the rounds of London high society. Their adventures in British ruling-class circles peaked on June 21, 1887, when they represented the Barony of Arizonac at the fabulous Golden Jubilee ceremony, with most of the world's monarchy and rulers in attendance.
Reavis might have lived like this indefinitely, spending Southern Pacific's money on countless hotel bills and parties. But his barony was being challenged back home. A cable to London told him that George Willing Sr., the father of the frontier doctor who Reavis had befriended in another life sixteen years earlier, was pressing a claim for the Peralta grant.
The alarm turned out to be a false one. By the time Reavis and company had returned to America, the elder Willing had bungled his case, and the grant was temporarily safe again. But Willing's cause had rekindled interest in Reavis and his dubious empire, and once again the calls to finish him off once and for all sounded across Arizona.
Despite the renewed hostility to the Peralta scheme, Reavis pressed ahead with his most ambitious ventures yet. He expanded his development plans, forming over a score of development, mining, construction and communications, most of them paper entities all named "Casa Grande" after the great ruin near his old headquarters. Reavis' flagship company was The Casa Grande Corporation; he claimed it was worth $50,000,000 and issued 500,000 shares in the operation.
Anticipating the Florida land boom by almost forty years, the Baron hyped Arizona as a cornucopia of potential fortunes, proposing to build huge dams, fabulous mines, and immense ranches and farms across his territory. Of course, Reavis had none of the capital he claimed backed up his own operations, much less the kind these ambitious schemes required. But investors still snapped up his stocks, and he took in millions for his troubles.
For this kind of big-time action the Baron got the best help he could afford. While Senator Roscoe Conkling handled his legal claims with Washington, Reavis' business operations were overseen by none other than Robert G. Ingersoll, the famed atheist/suffragist/reformist lawyer.
Ingersoll, who commanded a then-amazing $150,000 a year in fees, saw Reavis as more than just a well-paying client. He tended to side with underdogs and mavericks of all description, and had himself been mixed up in sleazy, quasi-legal mining and ranching operations in the Southwest. Doubtless Ingersoll identified so strongly with the Baron that the genuineness of his claim never troubled the counsel's first-rate legal mind.
Others weren't so sure. When Reavis resubmitted his claim to Arizona Surveyor General John Hise in 1888, the Democratic official was deeply suspicious of the Republican-backed, big money-powered landholder who had been unofficially labeled a fake by his predecessor. Hise balked when Reavis asked for an immediate survey of his domain, starting at the bogus "Initial Monument" in the Sierra Estrellas.
Word got out that the Baron de Arizonac was about to push through his claim, and Arizona exploded in righteous fury as never before. The man who had left Arizona as a failed extortionist less than three years earlier had returned backed up by millions in investment capital, a fleet of corporations at his command, such powerful figures as Ingersoll and Conkling in his employ, and important political and financial connections that stretched from San Francisco to London. He was easily the most hated man in the American Southwest; the Tucson Citizen, whose readership lived well outside of the Peralta territory, openly editorialized that the solution to the Reavis problem was a tall tree and a long rope. One can only imagine how the citizens of Phoenix and other settlements inside the claimed domain felt about their would-be landlord.
Knowing how unpopular he was in the Territory, Reavis left immediately after filing his claim. He stayed on the road for the next year, crisscrossing the US and Mexico, making big plans and soliciting investments. Though Roscoe Conkling died late in 1888, the rest of the Baron's financial and legal machine remained intact, ready for action.
Back in Arizona, the Peralta Grant was about to sustain a serious blow. Reavis' old nemesis Royal Johnson was Surveyor General again, and had just completed his massive, six-year study of every aspect of the grant.
On October 12, 1889, Johnson sent an official report to Washington. The report said that the Peralta Grant was an utterly fraudulent fiction. There were major discrepancies and inconsistencies in the deeds and documents. Much of the Spanish text was mispelled, misused or generally ungrammatical, hardly the sort of usage appropriate for the royal clerks who had allegedly drawn up such papers.
Johnson had given the papers to forensics experts for examination, and their conclusions were damning. Much of the mid-18th century text was written with a steel pen, an invention that hadn't appeared until 1800. The deeds sported typefaces unique to late-19th century lithography. And many documents showed signs of being erased, overwritten, pasted, or otherwise altered in a suspicious manner.
For his efforts, Johnson was hailed by the Arizona press, and became something of a folk hero to the territory's beleaguered landholders.
Reavis reacted by instructing Ingersoll and his other attorney, James O. Broadhead of St. Louis, to bypass the Arizona powers and sue the Federal Government directly over the claim. This was probably a bad move; had he concentrated on his phony investment scams, he might have remained a rich, powerful figure indefinitely. But he said Washington had ruined many of his development schemes through its failure to rule on the Peralta claim, and he sought $11,000,000 in damages.
Reavis waited until 1891 to really press his attack. That year, the Federal Government established the Court of Private Land Claims in Santa Fe, New Mexico to rule on such disputes. The Baron of Arizona figured that he had a much better chance to win his case in New Mexico than either Arizona or Washington D.C., so he agreed to a hearing there.
When the case was docketed, the Federal Government assigned attorney Matthew Reynolds to act as its special investigator, and the lawyer began to assemble a mountain of evidence against the millionaire forger.
Reavis was getting organized as well. He spent the early 1890s collecting every bit of evidence that could possibly help him. No tactic was beneath him: in California, he hired four men to perjure themselves in the upcoming case by claiming knowledge of Carmelita and her fictional noble father from years earlier.
By 1893 Reavis figured that it was safe to return to his old haunts. He had his neglected mansion at Arizola restored, and moved back in. Though the old hostility persisted in many quarters, some newer settlers not conscious of the Baron's decade-long scam against the territory were intrigued and even supportive of the aristocratic, strangely magnetic figure whose grand developments bore the name of the ancient monument that stood near his big brick house.
Meanwhile, the Government was beginning to piece together the ugly truth behind the the Reavis Romance. In 1894, an investigator retracing the Baron's steps through Spain found out that he had been caught trying to steal some documents at Seville's Archivos de Indias. He had escaped prosecution only after the intercession of some of his powerful friends, and had thereafter been seen by his old Madrid landlady to spend long nights painstakingly copying and altering old documents.
Another investigation followed Reavis' tracks in California. Checking the birth records at the San Salvador church of San Bernardino, the investigator caught the discrepancy between the altered chronological birth record, where the Peralta twins had been inserted; and the indexed one that Reavis had missed, where they were absent, but two other names appeared for their birthdate.
Up north, the four men who Reavis had solicited for false testimony were flushed out and interrogated. No arrests were made, however, since the Feds felt that Reavis would bury himself much deeper if he tried to get them to falsely testify, thereby implicating himself in an undeniable, serious felony.
By the time the case came to court, Reavis was in serious trouble. A long string of bad financial breaks, coupled with a series of minor legal decisions against his businesses, had drained his empire's finances. All his wealthy and powerful friends turned deaf ears to his desperate pleas for financial aid. He couldn't even afford a lawyer, and headed to the Court of Private Land Claims to defend himself.
On June 3, 1895, the Court met in Santa Fe, New Mexico to hear the case of James Addison Peralta-Reavis, Dona Sofia Loreta Micaela Reavis and Clinton F. Farrell (a Reavis financier who never appeared) vs. the United States of America." Ironically, the town that hosted the legal proceedings had itself been founded by a real Peralta grandee, Don Pedro de Peralta, almost 300 years before. To compound the problem, 106 descendants of the real Miguel Peralta were after Reavis, clamoring for pieces of the grant they believed was legitimate.
To the dismay of the genuine Peraltas and the government, the Baron de Arizonac was nowhere to be seen for three days. In his absence, Matthew Reynolds and the government witnesses spent the week presenting the devastating case against Reavis, reiterating the now-familiar charges: "Miguel Peralta" never existed; the claims are false; and America's only native nobleman is a clever but failed forger, conman and legally a fugitive from Spanish justice re the Seville incident.
Reavis finally showed up on June 6, and presented his case in court four days later. Few Federal cases have quite illustrated the cliche, "Any man who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client" as well as this one.
When he considered the mountain of criminal evidence against him that had been presented in his absence, Reavis tried to get his once innocuous civil case dismissed. Not surprisingly, the court denied him his request.
After this failed gambit, it was Reynolds' turn. The government attorney brutally cross-examined Reavis, and introduced more damaging evidence, this time in his presence. Three witnesses were especially effective: government investigator Severo Mallet-Prevost, who illustrated Reavis' modus operandi in his forging schemes; and the two San Bernardino priests, who recalled the schemer's underhanded visit to their parish. During his cross-examination, Reavis viciously abused the padres, not a wise tactic in Catholic New Mexico.
But by now Reavis was a desperate man. His major statement to the court was a pompous, long-winded, half-crazed defense-rant, baiting Reynolds, his witnesses, the Federal Government, and anyone else who had the slightest doubts about the Peralta Grant's legitimacy or his rights to it. In the midst of his jeremiad, Reavis actually made a few logical points and displayed some keen wit, but the great flood of verbiage surely concealed the great forger's private knowledge that he was doomed. Even his name-dropping bolstering of his business operations was in vain: everybody knew that Huntington, Ingersoll and his other powerful friends had dropped the baron as soon as he looked like a loser.
The only sympathetic notes displayed towards the Reavis claim were for the Baroness. Arriving on June 14 with her twin sons in tow, Carmelita was brought to the witness stand and quickly cracked under cross-examination, breaking into tears several times. Clearly she was guilty of nothing worse than believing everything her husband told her about her past, not a great offense for an ignorant, penniless girl whose suitor gave her fabulous wealth and a glamorous life among the world's most powerful figures. To the court, it seemed almost as if Carmelita was a real-life Cinderella condemned to slave for her stepsisters once more, and whose dashing prince had suddenly transformed into a cornered rat.
As if to follow tragedy with comic relief, Reavis fired his last, most desperate, most ridiculous shot. He dragged his collection of secondhand Spanish oil paintings, portraits and miniatures into the courtroom, insisting that they were irrefutable proof of the Peralta line's existence. He even had the nerve to compare his twin sons' faces with the likeness of the nameless noble who he passed off as Don Miguel the Younger.
The court wasn't impressed. On June 28, 1895, the claim was ruled fictitious and fraudulent, and the documents, clever forgeries. Still grasping a desperate optimism, Reavis told reporters in the court hallway that he considered the ruling a victory, since it got the messy Peralta affairs settled and cleared the way for his real interest in Arizona: developing the Gila River for irrigation.
Once again, he spoke too soon. As Reavis walked onto the street outside the courtroom, he was arrested by a U.S. Marshall. Hauled back in front of a federal judge just minutes after his civil defeat, he was charged this time with attempted fraud. Now the Peralta Grant was a criminal case.
Broke, and with his rich friends deaf to his pleas, Reavis couldn't make his $10,000 bail, and rotted in the city jail for a year. In June 1896, he went to trial again, and was again found wanting. This time, however, he owed the Feds two years of his life and a $5,000 fine.
Reavis emerged from the federal pen in April 1898 with some faint glimmers of hope left. He worked ceaselessly to start developments in Arizona, but his name was poison among investors and developers, and his grand schemes came to naught.
Prison, frustration and failure had aged the former Baron of Arizona. Deserted by Carmelita, who returned to a life of dead-end poverty with her twins, a broken, sick and dejected Reavis wandered the streets of Phoenix. Not too many years earlier, he might have been lynched in broad daylight had he dared to show his face there; now, he was mostly ignored as he walked the now-paved, pedestrian-choked streets, in the shadows of tall modern buildings and passing streetcars.
Those few who noticed Reavis said that he spent his last days there skulking through the public library. They said he pored ceaselessly over yellowing newspapers, reading old stories of his exploits as the greatest American swindler of the late-Victorian era, the land-stealing, empire-building friend of tycoons and royalty alike, the first, last and greatest Baron of Arizona.
From The Downey (Calif.) Eagle
When 'The Baron' taught school here
By John Adams
DOWNEY, CALIFORNIA - The man who called himself "The Baron" and threatened to steal most of Arizona with a fake land grant in the 1880s once worked as a school principal in Downey.
James Addison Reavis duped railroads and gold mines, and lived like a king until his adventurous scheme was unmasked. He served as a principal at Gallatin School for two years before he sprang his mega-scheme. Later, after six years in a Santa Fe prison, he returned to Downey where he raised vegetables and lived until 1913, often in the county poorhouse.
At the height of his scheme, Reavis cut a powerful figure. He proclaimed himself, "The Baron of Arizona" in the 1880s, and might have duped everyone. It took a special federal court and years of investigation to unmask him.
His story is so colorful it was dramatized in a motion picture, "The Baron of Arizona," starring Vincent Price.
But the real story is richer than any Hollywood movie. Reavis actually negotiated with the United States Government for a settlement of $25 million for his claim that he was the husband of the heir to the Peralta Land Grant. The Gadsden Purchase, by which the U.S. acquired title to Arizona from Mexico, guaranteed such old deeds. And Reavis tied the U. S. Government up in knots for seven years with his bogus document.
Historians suggest Reavis, a native of Missouri, apparently learned to forge papers while in the Confederate army. His popularity was based, it is said, on his ability to forge military passes for his friends.
After the war he appeared in Santa Fe, where he told the locals he had been sent by the San Francisco Examiner to look into "business possibilities."
The Territory of Arizona was vast, and there was obvious difficulty in determining just how far some of the old hidalgo grants extended.
Reavis was a stickler for detail. He studied old land grants and worked out a plan to fake one. Not a land grant that was already known, but a new one created by his imagination combined with hard work and skill at forgery.
He even forged a stone monument in a remote area of the desert. But he needed a grantee to whom he could link his claim. From the myths of the past he invented Miguel de Peralta, an alleged friend of King Ferdinand of Spain.
For seven years he crossed Mexico, Portugal and Spain. Even the monks and holy fathers who guarded the documents of old Spain were duped into granting him access.
Eventually he spotted documents on two continents to authenticate Don Miguel and the fake family tree that allegedly sprang from him.
But he still had to establish a connection between the bogus noble family and himself. Reavis had no Spanish blood.
He used George Willing, a man he met in Prescott, Ariz. He created a story that Willing had bought the deed to the vast land grant for $1,000 from a poor Mexican, who was allegedly the rightful heir to the fake grant.
Then Reavis claimed Willing had sold it to him for $30,000.
Curiously, Reavis recorded his deed, Willing died that night, and Reavis "found" papers in Willing’s attic the next morning substantiating the claim, according to later investigators.
He then began to terrify the landowners for hundreds of miles by posting his bogus claim. He ordered them to settle with him at once for the rent of their land, or face eviction.
The ruse was nearly perfect. Even the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad and its lawyers blinked.
The Reavis claim was 225 miles long and 75 miles wide, and was equivalent to half of the state of Indiana. Lawyers looked into the case and shook their heads. They were attorneys, not experts on Spanish nobility.
The railroad and Silver King Mine actually capitulated. Many major ranchers did as well. They began to pay, and some major interests in the territory actually became Reavis’s allies, hoping to benefit from his expected victory.
But he still needed a final piece for the puzzle. He hoped to end any question of his purchase of the grant. He did it through marriage, picking a 14-year-old waif from a San Bernardino, Calif., ranch. He made her his bride, and set about authenticating a claim in er name that she was the last Peralta.
He trained her to act as a noblewoman, a heritage she wasn’t entitled to at all. And he then laid claim to the title he said was due him through the marriage-Baron of Arizona.
It was 1884. While Reavis traveled the world spending the money frightened landowners paid him, the U.S. Surveyor General studied. And studied. Finally, in 1890, it published a critical report pointing up certain errors in Reavis’s documentation.
In 1891 the U.S. Court of Private Land Grant Claims was established. It was the beginning of the end for Reavis.
The camera proved useful. The court’s investigators traveled to Europe and photographed and tested documents that Reavis had handled years before.
Chemicals were used to test parchment. Marks of a steel pen were found where a quill should have been used. And most damning of all, certain documents carried modern water marks.
Reavis was brought to trial in 1895 and was sentenced to six years in the Santa Fe penitentiary.
The story does not end there. On his release, Reavis came to Downey, living for many years in the county poor farm which later became Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center.
William McKellar, lifetime resident, wrote in his memoirs, "About 1913 James Addison Reavis, former claimant of the Peralta land grant, was residing in Downey where he made his living growing vegetables and doing odd jobs.
"The school boys in town used to, upon meeting Reavis, mock him and call him ‘The Baron.’ I recall him well . . . we boys always considered him crazy, for he still talked of his huge estate."
Reavis had first come to Downey during his wanderings when he was still putting together his land grant plot.
Judie McKellar, also a lifelong Downey resident, recalled Reavis when he first came to Downey in 1876. He was principal of the old Gallatin School here.
She wrote that Reavis taught history, math and other subjects, and was very proud in his appearance.
Reavis taught a while in Gallatin’s two room school house, then left to make his outlandish run at history.
He must have liked Downey. For after riches, after prison, he came back-to spend his later years on the poor farm which became the hospital we know today as Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center.