28. The Small Town Crime That Gripped the Gilded Age
Not much happens in Crawfordsville, a small western Indiana town. Its main historic distinction is probably that Lew Wallace, a failed Civil War general but successful post-war writer, penned Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ, while he lived there. Crawford has another distinction: it was the site of a once-famous Gilded Age scandal. It stemmed from a steamy – and seedy – love triangle that involved a reverend, his wife, and his lover. The main culprit was William F. Pettit, a New Yorker with rough edges from an early age. He hung out with hooligans, dabbled in crime, and eventually did a jail stint for stealing a pistol.
Pettit became a schoolteacher when he got out, a fervent Methodist, and an unordained revival preacher. That was how he came into contact with Hattie Sperry, an older schoolteacher. They got married, but it was not to be a happy union. William still liked to carouse with his friends and chase women. The couple eventually moved to Indiana. There, William concealed his past, became an enthusiastic Freemason, and worked his Masonic connections to get a gig as an ordained Methodist minister in 1886. He eventually ended up at Shawnee Mound Methodist Episcopal Church, in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
27. A Seedy Gilded Age Reverend and a Small Town Heiress
Mrs. Pettit might have thought that her husband would mend his ways now that he was a man of the cloth. If so, she thought wrong. William – now the Reverend Pettit – continued to carouse and womanize. Seedy clergymen were no different in the Gilded Age than they are today. It soon became known that Reverand Pettit pinched many of his female congregants, and liked to cop a feel every now and then. His most significant pursuit was of Elma “Clementine” Whitehead. She was the widowed daughter of David Meharry, a founder and patron of Pettit’s church, and one of the richest men in the region.
Elma was no beauty, and as one contemporary reporter put it in less-than-chivalrous terms: “the most liberal of men would hesitate to call her attractive“. However, what she lacked in looks, Elma more than made up for in wealth; she was one of western Indiana’s richest widows. That made her one of the region’s most desirable women. Reverend Pettit had helped Elma’s father write his will in 1888. He was thus aware that she would inherit most of his estate, valued at $40,000 – a hefty sum back then. She also had a nice nest egg of her own, that she had inherited from her late husband.
Reverend Pettit had first started to frequent the Meharrys’ house in a quest to seduce their maid. Soon, however, he set his sights higher, and began to pursue the rich mistress, instead. Elma, who was often surrounded by the whiff of scandal, was game. Her father was the local Postmaster, but when he took ill, she took over his duties, and often tampered with the mail – apparently a common occurrence back in the Gilded Age. It led to an official investigation and censure. What made tongues wag even more furiously in that straitlaced era, however, was Elma’s adulterous affairs.
One of them was with the married publisher and editor of several regional newspapers. It was carried out so openly with unchaperoned nighttime rides and unaccompanied trips throughout the Midwest, that it scandalized the locals. Victorian mores had crossed the Pond to America in the Gilded Age, and that kind of stuff done openly was, well – not done. It finally ended when Elma’s family threatened to do her lover in if he showed up in their neck of the woods again. He figured that discretion was the better part of valor, and stayed far away from Shawnee Mound.
William Pettit, he made a lucrative conquest soon after he blew into town. Within a year of his arrival in Shawnee Mound, the Reverend and Elma Whitehead had become lovers. The adulterous affair was an open secret. The duo, oblivious to or reckless of local opinion, openly traveled together, unaccompanied, all over the region, before they returned late at night. They were also observed mooning over each other, and before long, many locals had begun to refer to Elma as Reverend Pettit’s “second wife”.
Things got even steamier between William Pettit and Elma Whitehead when Hattie Pettit left town in June of 1889, for a month-long visit to an old friend in South Bend. With his wife away, the Reverend moved into the Meharry residence, into a room across the hall from Elma’s. The maid, whom William Pettit had hounded before he went after her mistress, heard them getting it on at night. Others observed that the duo acted intimately when they thought they were alone together. It was in that period that they reportedly hatched the plot to end Pettit’s wife.
24. The Start of the Plot That Led to the Gilded Age’s Greatest Trial
On July 1st, 1889, shortly before his wife’s return, William Pettit tried to buy some strychnine from a merchant, but it was out of stock. When he asked that some be ordered for him, something about the Reverend’s manner made the merchant uneasy, and he declined. It was not a huge setback, as William had some leftover from the previous summer – he just was not sure whether it was still good. He tested it on his daughter’s dog, and the pooch promptly keeled over. The plot that would lead to the Gilded Age’s most gripping trial was on.
Hattie Pettit returned on July 12th and was gone within days. She had been poisoned on at least three occasions. Only her husband and Elma Whitehead fed her in that time, and witnesses reported that they fed the victim shortly before she went into convulsions. A doctor friend of William treated Hattie the victim, suspected that she had strychnine poisoning, but thought she had ingested it accidentally when she cleaned the cupboards a day earlier. Her husband dismissed that as womanly silliness, and convinced the doctor that she had malaria. Unsuspecting to the last, Hattie Pettit was grateful to Elma for nursing her. She even begged her at some point: “Don’t go away. I want you in the house“. Hattie Pettit passed on July 17th, 1889.
23. Only Public Pressure Finally Forced the Authorities to Act
Reverend Pettit arranged a hurried funeral for his wife, after which her remains were swiftly sent to her hometown for burial. Between that and the adulterous affair with Elma Whitehead, suspicions sprouted that Hattie Pettit had been poisoned. Public pressure worked in the Gilded Age just like it does today, and eventually, the authorities had to act. In November, 1889, Mrs. Pettit’s remains were ordered to be exhumed and examined. Laboratory results revealed large amounts of strychnine in her body. Prosecutors immediately sent agents to arrest Pettit in Ohio. In the meantime, one of his fellow Freemasons and Methodist clergymen got Elma to tell him of her adulterous affair. He also got her to reveal that she had agreed to marry William Pettit three weeks before his wife’s passing.
However, Elma denied that she had played any role in Hattie’s demise. Within days, the Methodist clergyman testified before a grand jury about all that Elma had told him. In January, 1890, Elma pled the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and refused to answer grand jury questions. She specifically objected to the question: “State whether there was any talk or understanding of marriage, some time, had between you and said Pettit: said talk or agreement occurring prior to the 17th day of July, 1889“. She also refused to answer the question: “State whether or not there was any understanding or agreement between William F. Pettit and you as to marriage, after the 17th day of July, 1889“.
The grand jury indicted Elma Whitehead and William Pettit. William was already in custody, so a warrant was issued for Elma’s immediate arrest. As a local newspaper described what happened when the Sheriff arrived: “A cheerful fire burned on the hearth and it seemed almost sacrilege to break the pleasure of that circle with such cruel news. After discussing the weather for a few minutes, the deputy told Mrs. Whitehead he had a warrant for her arrest. The information was received with composure by herself and father.
It was not until a half later, when Mrs. Whitehead had prepared herself for the cold, cheerless drive before her that she evinced signs of emotion. Her admirable self-control gave way then, and she cried without restraint“. Elma arrived at the courthouse jail, which already hosted her coconspirator, around midnight. A comfortable couch had been arranged for her, and she was given the most commodious and cheerful – relatively speaking – cell in the establishment. Newspapers reported that she was remarkably composed, but doubted whether she had managed to get any sleep that night. The next morning, William was served with the charges.
21. A Rich Gilded Age Woman Who Got Away With a Heinous Act
The case of the tragic reverend’s wife gripped Gilded Age America. The court granted William Pettit a continuance in March, 1890. The prosecutor then sought a continuance for Elma Whitehead, as well. In support of the state’s motion, the prosecutor amended the charging documents to aver that, two weeks before Mrs. Pettit’s passing, her husband had proposed marriage to Elma Whitehead. She was alleged to have accepted, the marriage to occur when William Pettit was “left alone”. As reported by a local newspaper, the prosecutor further alleged: “many secret conversations and much correspondence between the two defendants, and charges them with criminal intimacy, both immediately before and after Mrs. Pettit’s death.” The court granted the prosecution’s request for a continuance. While the evidence seemed strong against William, there was widespread public doubt about whether he would get convicted.
Aside from the fact that William had many powerful friends, Elma funded his defense and paid for top-notch lawyers. She was eventually released on bail, and her trial was delayed indefinitely. She immediately hit the road along with her father, and traveled throughout the US for a couple of years to avoid a subpoena. William remained behind bars until the trial. The doubters proved wrong; a jury convicted the reverend in late 1890, and sentenced him to life with hard labor. He contracted tuberculosis in prison, but even as he wasted away, he appealed his verdict, his legal bills still footed by the absent Elma. He won the appeal and was granted a new trial in 1893, but passed on the same day the ruling was handed down. Elma Whitehead, in poor health since her lover’s demise, passed five years later.
The Gilded Age was full of cons and hoaxes. A literally giant hoax began on October 16th, 1869, as workers dug a well behind the barn of William C. “Stub” Newell, in Cardiff, New York, and struck stone about three feet down. When they cleared the soil around the obstruction, they discovered a huge foot. Excitedly, the workers continued digging, and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a ten-foot-tall man. As news of the find spread, hundreds of archaeologists and scientists, and thousands of the curious, flocked to Newell’s farm. There, he charged visitors 50 cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity, but invited visitors to draw their own conclusions. It seemed to many observant people to be a crude statue. Many more, however, saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth.
The Cardiff giant was actually a statue, created by an atheist named George Hull. He got the idea after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which claimed that the earth had once been inhabited by giants. Hull bought a ten-foot block of gypsum in Iowa, and shipped it to Chicago. There, he swore a stonecutter to secrecy, then commissioned him to shape the gypsum into the likeness of a man. Chemicals were applied to give the carving an aged look, and needles were used to puncture and pit its surface and make it look more weathered. Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the buried hoax.
19. The Gilded Age Roots of the Term “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute“
From the first, archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant declared it a fraud. However, many theologians and preachers stepped forth and passionately defended its authenticity. Crowds of the curious and faithful flocked to William Newell’s farm in ever greater numbers. Hull, who had spent the equivalent of about $60,000 in 2022 dollars, sold his share in the Cardiff Giant to a syndicate for about half a million in today’s money. The Giant was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew ever larger crowds.
Eventually, P. T. Barnum, the Gilded Age’s greatest huckster, offered the equivalent of a million dollars for the find. When the owners refused to sell, Barnum commissioned his own plaster copy and exhibited it in New York City. He declared his giant to be the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. That brazenness worked, and gave rise to the phrase, coined in reference to those who paid to see Barnum’s copy, that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the hoax. The court declared both giants fakes, and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
One of the odder Gilded Age criminal cases was described by the Court of Appeals of Kentucky in Fain v. The Commonwealth, 78 Ky. 183 (1879). It was a cold February evening in 1879 when a criminal defendant named Fain and a friend entered the lobby of the Veranda Hotel in Nicholasville, Kentucky. They shook the snow off their coats, and sat down. Both were tired, especially Fain, who had not slept much lately because of sick children at home who kept him awake at night.
It was warm inside the hotel lobby, the lights were dim, and it was not long before Fain and his friend fell asleep where they sat. Eventually, Fain’s friend woke up and tried to wake Fain but could not. He went to the reception desk and booked a room with two beds, then sent the receptionist to wake Fain. The receptionist tried, but could not, and told Fain’s friend that he thought the defendant was dead. The friend told him to not be silly, and to get on with it. As seen below, it did not turn out well for the receptionist when he got on with it.
17. Attempts to Wake Up This Sleepy Head Ended in Tragedy
What followed, in the words of a court as attempts were made to rouse the sleeping Fain: “The [receptionist] shook him harder and harder until [Fain] looked up and asked what he wanted. The [receptionist] said he wanted him to go to bed. [Fain] said he would not, and told the [receptionist]deceased to go away and let him alone. The [receptionist] said it was getting late, and he wanted to close the house, and still holding [Fain] by the coat, the latter either raised or was lifted up…
“… as he arose, he threw his hand to his side as if to draw a weapon. A by stander said to him, don’t shoot; but without noticing or giving any sign that he heard what was said, he drew a pistol and fired. The deceased instantly grappled him to prevent him from shooting again, but a second shot was fired almost immediately, and a third soon followed “. Fain shouted “How-wee!“, then rushed out of the lobby and into the street, pistol in hand.
Out on the street, Fain thrust the pistol into a bystander’s hand, and asked him to defend him because he had just shot somebody, but did not know who. The receptionist succumbed to his wounds, and Fain was arrested. Tried, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison, from which sentence he appealed. The appellate court reversed the conviction. It held that the trial court erred when it refused to allow Fain to introduce evidence by medical experts of somnambulism, or that he had been a lifelong sleepwalker.
The lower court had denied Fain’s request to introduce evidence that he had to be watched since infancy lest he injure himself while asleep. Additionally, he had witnesses who were prevented from testifying that when aroused from sleep, Fain frequently got up frightened and resorted to violence as if resisting an assault. For minutes thereafter, he would seem unconscious of what he did or what was going around him. In conclusion, the appellate court held that what mattered was whether Fain had been unconscious or nearly so of what he was doing or what was being done to him. If in such a state he thought he was being attacked and so resisted an attempt to end or injure him, he should be acquitted.
For ages, humans have believed that they could invite rain. In ancient times, it was believed that battles were often followed by rain because of religious reasons. In the modern era, that belief was updated with pseudo-scientific theories that revolved around dins of battle that shook the clouds and caused them to release their water. Serious attempts, with official support from the US government, were made to pursue that line of logic and try to make it rain in the Gilded Age.
In 1871, former Civil War general Edward Powers wrote War and the Weather, in which he documented several historic battles that were followed by rain. Powers theorized that the din of battle agitated the clouds, and caused them to release their rain. He took that premise to an extreme conclusion that came to be known as “Concussion Theory”: loud noises could be used to force clouds to yield rain on demand. As Powers put it: “If lightning and thunder and rain have been brought on by the agency of man, when bloodshed and slaughter were only intended, this surely can be done without these latter concomitants“. In 1891, Robert G. Dyrenforth was tasked with testing that theory.
14. A Cockamamie Gilded Age Attempt to Make it Rain
Edward Powers and his “Concussion Theory” were scoffed at by reputable scholars and scientists. Two decades later, however, Senator Charles B. Farwell of Illinois read General Powers’ book, and decided to test his pseudo-science. So he got Congress to appropriate $10,000 – a sizeable amount at the time – to make the tests. No legit scholars or scientists wanted to risk their reputations by associating with something so wacky. So a patent lawyer named Robert G. Dyrenforth was assigned the task of carrying out the experiment.
In August, 1891, Dyrenforth set up shop in the Texas prairie, and put on an impressive pyrotechnic display. His men blasted clouds with mortars and with dynamite carried aloft by kites, trailed by balloons filled with flammable hydrogen. To add to the noise and take it up to the extreme, Dyrenforth’s men packed prairie dog holes full of dynamite, and blew them up as well to increase the decibel levels. Unsurprisingly, the plan did not work. Undaunted by failure, Dyrenforth falsely claimed that he had succeeded. His fabrications were exposed when a meteorologist, who had observed the experiment, published a scathing report about it in Nature.
13. The Gilded Age Confederates Who Took Their Show to Africa
Confederates in Africa sounds like the start of a joke, along the lines of the one defining chutzpah as a Ku Klux Klan chapter in the Congo. While the KKK (probably) never established a chapter in Africa, beaten Confederates in the Gilded Age actually did head to and fought in Africa. To be sure, by the time that happened the Confederate States of America had been defeated and consigned to the trash heap of history, and the Confederates in question were veterans of the defunct state. Still, it was a fascinating tale.
It began in 1868, when Union Army veteran Thaddeus Mott met the Khedive Ismail, Egypt’s ruler, and regaled him with tales about American military advances in the recently-concluded US Civil War. Ismail was impressed, and decided to hire veterans of that conflict to help modernize the Egyptian army. The first of them, Confederate veterans William Wing Loring and Henry Hopkins Sibley, arrived in 1870. Loring became the Egyptian army’s Inspector-General, and in 1875 was appointed chief of staff of an army that was sent to fight Ethiopia.
Confederates such as William Wing Loring (1818 – 1886) had fought in the US Civil War, in part, to preserve a system based on the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. A decade later, Loring was back at war, this time in Africa. He sought to realize the Khedive Ismail’s dream to create an Egyptian empire in Africa that stretched from the Mediterranean to Lake Victoria, and from the Sahara to Somalia. In 1874, Ismail decided to get a start on the realization of his dreams and ordered an invasion of Ethiopia, Egypt’s chief rival in northeast Africa.
In the resultant Egyptian-Ethiopian War (1874 – 1876), Egyptian columns twice set out to conquer Ethiopia. Once from Egyptian-controlled Sudan, and again from the Egyptian-controlled Red Sea coast of what is now Eritrea. Each time, the Egyptian forces, equipped with modern weapons and led by Western officers such as Loring, were crushed by poorly equipped but numerically superior Ethiopians. Loring played a significant role in the second failed attempt, which ended in a major defeat at the Battle of Gura in 1876.
11. Confederate Machismo Led to Yet Another Defeat, Thousands of Miles Away From Dixie
William Wing Loring was promised command of the second Egyptian invasion of Ethiopia. However, the assignment went to an Egyptian named Ratib Pasha, and Loring was appointed his chief of staff. In March, 1876, an Egyptian army of 13,000 equipped with modern firearms and artillery, and an Ethiopian force of 50,000 armed mostly with swords and spears, drew near at the Plain of Gura, in today’s Eritrea. The Egyptian commander sought to fight a defensive battle from a fortified position. It was a sensible choice, but Loring taunted Ratib Pasham and accused him of cowardice for his refusal to march out and meet the Ethiopian host in an open valley.
Stung, the Egyptian commander led his army out of its fortifications to offer battle in the surrounding plain. He should not have listened to the former Reb. The Egyptian army got routed at the Battle of Gura, a disastrous defeat that ended Egypt’s ambitions to conquer Ethiopia. Loring, who rose to the rank of major general in the Egyptian army, was heavily criticized. In 1878, he and other American officers were dismissed. He returned to America, where he penned his experiences in Africa, A Confederate Soldier in Egypt, published in 1884.
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