James Addison Peralta-Reavis (1843 – 1914), AKA “The Baron of Arizona” was the greatest conman of the Gilded Age, and might be the greatest conman you have never heard of. He defrauded thousands of people, and literally stole most of Arizona from its legal owners. Reavis’ father was a Welshman who arrived in the US in the 1820s, and his mother was a part Spaniard proud of her Spanish heritage. He grew up in Missouri, and in his childhood, Reavis’ mother filled his head with Spanish romantic literature and fired up his imagination.
As a result, Reeves ended up with grandiose notions of himself as a romantic hero in a melodramatic novel. It was reflected in his speech and writing, which was reportedly overly grandiloquent and bombastic. When the Civil War broke out, an eighteen-year-old Reavis enlisted in the Confederate Army. However, he soon discovered that the tedium and travails of real soldiering were not like his romantic image of war. It was right around then that Reavis discovered that he could make a perfect reproduction of his commanding officer’s signature. So he began to issue himself passes, with a forged signature, to escape the drudgery of soldiery and visit his relatives.
When other soldiers noticed that Private Reavis got a whole lot of passes, he started a sideline business and sold his comrades forged passes. When the chain of command got suspicious and began to investigate, Reavis finagled a quick leave, ostensibly to get married. He then promptly hightailed it out of Confederate territory, and surrendered to Union forces. He even switched sides, and served for a while in a Union Army artillery regiment. After the Civil War, Reavis traveled to Brazil, and when he returned home, he got into real estate.
The Gilded Age was a great time for forgers. In the real estate line of business, Reavis discovered that the talent for forgery that he had discovered and honed when he served in the Confederate Army could come in real handy. Especially to clear up messy paperwork, and fix vague property titles. When clients were unable to sell land because they couldn’t establish clear ownership, Reavis would magically produce some document that everybody else had somehow “missed” before, and that cleared up ownership in no uncertain terms. The discovered documents were forged by him, of course.
James Reavis’ career took another turn in 1871, when a prospector named George Willing sought his help with a large Spanish land grant. It consisted of 2000 square miles, about the size of Delaware, in the Arizona Territory. Reavis partnered up with Willing to develop the grant, and in 1874, the duo decided to head to Arizona. Willing got there first, filed a claim in the Yavapai County courthouse, and was found dead the next day. Foul play was suspected. Reavis had made it to California by then, and was there when he received news of his partner’s tragic end.
Low on funds, Reavis got a job as a journalist, which brought him into contact with some railroad magnates. He also came into contact with the Public Lands Commission – an entity established in accordance with the California Land Act of 1851, per the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Its aim was to determine the validity of Mexican and Spanish land grants in the territories won by America in the Mexican-American War. Corruption was rife in the Gilded Age, and the Public Lands Commission was corrupt to a fare-thee-well. Reavis learned that the Commission approved most claims submitted to it, even frivolous ones, so long as a filer paid the examination expenses, coupled with a bribe.
7. A Public Authority That Would Approve Anything for the Right Bribe
The fact that the Public Lands Commission was dirty was good news for James Reavis. Especially because the land claim of his deceased partner, George Willing, was weak. Willing claimed that in 1864, he had paid $20,000 in gold dust, mules, and other goods, to a Miguel Peralta for the land in question. Unfortunately, the deed of transfer was highly irregular, made on a sheet of greasy and marked-up paper, without a notary or justice. However, Reavis discovered how easy it was to get the Public Lands Commission to approve a claim, no matter how iffy, provided the right palms were greased.
So he decided it was time to head to Arizona. As a start, he “tipped off” his Gilded Age railroad tycoon acquaintances to the deceased Willing’s land – without disclosing his interest in it. He then told them that he could negotiate right-of-way privileges for their proposed Southern Pacific line through Arizona. Reavis then traveled to Kentucky, where he met the deceased Willing’s widow, and bought his late partner’s interest in the land. Next, he used his newspaper connections to hype the land grant, and exaggerate the supposed “solidity” of the title claim.
6. This Gilded Age Crook Went to Extraordinary Lengths to Support a Fraudulent Claim
It was now that James Reavis earned his reputation as one of the Gilded Age’s most brazen crooks. To buttress the solidity of the land claim sold by Miguel Peralta to Reavis’ partner George Willing, Reavis fabricated a family history for Peralta out of whole cloth. He went about it in a highly creative way. Reavis knew that the way claims worked, people would check the archives. So he went to Mexico, befriended people in its archives, and inserted forged and artificially aged documents into those archives. They established a fictitious family lineage of an eighteenth-century Don Nemecio Silva de Peralta de la Cordoba.
According to the documents inserted by Reavis in the Mexican archives, that eighteenth-century Peralta was granted the title of Baron Peralta de Los Colorados by Spain’s King Ferdinand VI in 1748. Along with the noble title came a huge grant of land in Arizona – the Peralta Grant out of which Reavis intended to make a fortune. He added more fictitious documents in the Mexican archives to create a family tree of the descendants of “Baron Peralta”. They eventually included an impoverished great-grandson, Miguel Peralta who sold the claim to George Willing, from whom James Reavis acquired the huge chunk of territory in central Arizona.
James Reavis put in a lot of work to create a documentary trail of the aristocratic Peralta family. In addition to Mexico City, he traveled to Guadalajara and Spain. In Madrid, he spent days on end in museums and archives to learn the style and feel of old documents. He experimented tirelessly with various inks and chemicals and papers, to figure out the best materials and processes for producing forgeries that would seamlessly fit in with original old documents. He even scoured Spanish flea markets, where he bought old portraits of random people, whom he then designated – with the requisite forged documentary support – as members of the Peralta family.
That was just the start for this Gilded Age crook. After he created the fictional aristocratic Peralta family, Reavis decided to hedge his bets and create an even closer connection between himself and the Peralta land claim. So he married into the aristocratic Peralta family. The fact that the baronial brood was fictional was not a problem for the brazen Reavis. He came across a sixteen-year-old orphaned Mexican girl named Sophia, and convinced her that she was a descendant of the noble Peraltas.
By the time James Reavis found Sophia, he had honed his forgery skills to the point of being a master forger. As such, it was child’s play for him to alter church records and insert documents that made Sophia the “last surviving” member of the fictional but illustrious Peralta family. Then, after he made her the “Baroness of Arizona”, Reavis married her, and through that marriage became the “Baron of Arizona”. After he had carefully laid the groundwork, Reavis finally made his move in 1883. One fine morning that June, the inhabitants of central Arizona woke up to discover that their land had been stolen from under their feet.
Notices plastered all over public places and printed in newspapers warned all and sundry: “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“. The land Reavis claimed was about twelve million acres, extended from the vicinity of Sun City, Arizona, to Silver City, New Mexico, and included Phoenix.
Throughout the Arizona Territory, people were bewildered and incredulous at first when confronted with James Reavis’ claims. Incredulity turned to panic when they read that the wealthy owners of the Silver King Mine, Arizona’s richest and one of the Gilded Age’s most powerful mining corporations, had paid Reavis $25,000 to avoid litigation. That was quite the princely sum back then. If such big shots had believed Reavis enough to pay him that much, it stood to reason that his claim really was solid. Suddenly, the threat that their land might get taken from them by this Reavis fellow seemed a distinct possibility.
Reavis had no desire to actually evict the occupants of his “barony”. He simply wanted to extort as much as he could out of them in rent or quit claim fees, to support him and his “noble” wife in a manner that befitted an aristocratic land magnate. Surprisingly, it was the large and wealthy landowners who proved to be the easiest marks. They figured it was cheaper to pay the Baron of Arizona, instead of risk litigation that might end in the loss of their valuable properties. Arizona’s biggest mining company paid him $25,000, and he got the Southern Pacific Railroad to cough up $50,000. Thousands of others paid smaller fees that added up to a nice bundle.
At some point, even the US government fell for the con, and considered paying James Reavis millions of dollars to settle his claim. All in all, Reavis collected about $5,300,000 in cash and promissory notes – the equivalent of about $170 million today. With that kind of loot, Reavis and his wife Sophia were able to live it up in style. In addition to various ranches, they maintained nice homes in Arizona, New York City, Washington, DC, San Francisco, St. Louis, Madrid, and Chihuahua City. They traveled throughout Europe and mingled with the Spanish aristocracy – despite the fact that many Spaniards saw through his scam and figured him and his wife for frauds.
Nonetheless, people in Spain got a huge kick out of the brazenness of it all, and how he was tweaking the yanquis’ noses. So the Spaniards went ahead and feted the “Baron and Baroness of Arizona”. Things were going great for Reavis, but all good things come to an end. Even as Reavis lived the high life and enjoyed the Gilded Age version of a rich jet setter existence, the wheels of justice were grinding – slowly but steadily – to expose his fraud and bring about his ruin. For years, an official named Royal Johnson had investigated Reavis’ claim, and in 1889, he released a devastating report that labeled it a fake.
James Reavis had a good run, but despite his meticulous forgeries, this bold Gilded Age crook had not been meticulous enough. His documents used printing styles different from those of the period they supposedly came from. Steel-nibbed pens – which did not come into use until the 1880s – were used instead of quills. There were basic Spanish spelling and grammatical errors, unlikely to have been made by a Spanish official. Reavis tried to brazen it out, and even sued the US government for eleven million dollars. He lost the lawsuit, and the court noted that his claim was “wholly fictitious and fraudulent“, and that his documents had been forged and “surreptitiously introduced” into the records they supposedly came from.
As Reavis left the court, he was arrested, and hit with a 42-count indictment that included charges of fraud, forgery, the presentation of false documents, and conspiracy to defraud the US government. Tried, he was found guilty on June 30th, 1896, and sentenced to two years behind bars, plus a $5000 fine. After his release, Reavis drifted around in poverty, and pitched investment ideas that found no takers. His wife divorced him in 1902, and he eventually ended up in a Los Angeles poor house. He passed away in Colorado in 1914, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading