Outrageous Political Crimes - the Baron of Arizona
Political Factions and Self Promotion
The fascinating history of the Barony of Arizona incidents centers on the Peralta Land Grant from 1864 - 1898. It is not well known among Americans and not much is published about it after the early 1900s, except a few monographs and texts in 1959 and 1960.
It was therefore with surprise that I found an opinion article in the 21st Century on the Internet, pinning the fraud of a fabricated barony squarely on the GOP during Civil War Reconstruction. I think this is incorrect.
The Republican Party was fairly new to national political power in 1864, its first US President having been elected in 1860. The Lincoln Administration saw the end to kickbacks to federal Indian Agents, so I suspect that other former frauds were exposed and eliminated as well. Abraham Lincoln showed no interest, nor had any record of the Peralta Land Grant, nor did his Administration help the false baron, James Reavis.
However, a self-promoting opinion piece on a Questions and Answers website picks up a new bullhorn and blames the US Republican Party for what amounts to a $144,000,000 fraud in 2012 US dollars related to the Barony of Arizona after the Civil War.
Is the charge true, or a controversial rant placed in order to gain clicks and traffic by an "answerer" on a Q&A website? After all, it was the 1888 Republican Pesident Benjamin Harrison and his Administration that made the fraudulent barony a priority for prosecution.
Propaganda and Con Artists
The poster of the essay on the Q& A site lists himself as a professional writer, without documentation of such.
The essay uses a substantial amount of obscene language and profanely graphic imagery to describe what the Republicans were allegedly doing to 1890s America via a scheme to procure illicit funds from corporations, the Federal Government, and the American public. Further, it states that the Government and the People asked for more of the same treatment. The essay is unpalatable and veers from history.
The diatribe seems like many today that denigrate a specific political party in favor of another - a tactic that has escalated since geometrically since the campaign of a Democrat, Bill Clinton, in the early 1990s. Older Republicans started by called him "too young" and muckraking escalated back and forth between the parties to the extent that by 2008 and 2012, a sizable number of Americans said that they would no longer vote for anyone. I think some changed their minds as Election Days approached.
While the false Baron of Arizona did, in fact, seek and gain some support from businessmen, legislators, and attorneys, it came from both Democrats and Republicans, the faithful and agnostics, natural and naturalized citizens. The attempt to blame a single political party or one demographic group for the actions of an experienced professional forge has little merit, in my opnionm
If you have seen the Tonight Show's segment called Jay Walking, you will know that many residents of the USA do not know many details of American history, or even the name of our Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, if they have seen a lot of movies about the American West, they may have viewed The Baron of Arizona, based in actual history.
When asked who the baron was, people may reply "Boris Karloff", when the star of the film was Vincent Price, But they probably won't recall the real baron's name. In fact, they may reply with Bill Hader's name, since he has often portrayed Vincent Price on Saturday Night Live. Showing the film in an American History class and discussing it would probably be a good idea.
Interestingly, about this time in the development of the USA, an Irishman and hero was active in Mexico and Southern California His nickname was Zorro.
American history certainly is interesting when these types of lessons are provided.
James Reavis was almost as good a forge as Frank Abagnale proved to be 100 years later in the docudrama Catch Me If you Can with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. Abagnale became an employee of the US Federal Government and a private security consultant - Reavis went to prison and died penniless and alone.
Reavis was 1/4 Spanish on his mother's side and she taught him early that he was descended from Spanish royalty, which was probably untrue. Born in 1843, he joined the Confederate Army and when it looked like the North would win, switched sides.
Reavis forged documents like passes and supply requisitions during his service in both armies and the Confederate officials never caught him, whereas the Union exposed him quickly and he fled. Trying several occupations, he settled on real estate and met a Dr. Willing as a client in 1871.
Willing claimed to own a block of Arizona land that ultimately stretched to the size of the State of Delaware (roughly today's Pinal County AZ), having paid $20K for it to a Mexican named Peralta in 1864.
However, there was no deed and no receipt. A conman named Gist helped him persuade Reavis to work on a deed certification, but Willing died prematurely.
After an economic crash in America in 1873, James Reavis saw a forger's dream in the missing deed and spent years developing false and altered documents and a false family tree for a Hispanic woman he married, all in order to gain control of the Willing lands.
A Con Artist's Marriage Runs In the Family
He targeted, married, and set up a young wife in 1882 as the Baroness of Arizona, based on false bloodlines connected to the Peralta Land Grant made in Spain.he told her, a 14-year-old, that she was descended from Spanish royalty, just as his mother had told him for nearly 20 years.
Reavis had already conned two railroad tycoons and newspaper publish George Hearst into unwittingly helping him expand his land claim, the former with money and the latter with freedom to write articles in the San Francisco Examiner that legitimized the land claim, but with no byline.
Reavis also ingratiated himself around 1884 with two Republican national legislators, hoping that they could help push his land claims through Congress and shield him from any consequences in the Peralta fraud case. They could not, but there is some record of the Senator working on behalf of the land claim. The Senator was Roscoe Conkling from New York, who was able to secure invitations for the posing baron and baroness to visit the Royals and the financiers of the UK after touring parts of Spain. No financial transactions were completed there, but some of Conkling's financier friends were supplying funds to Reavis, as was a least one railroad tycoon, hoping to gain more power for the railroads in Arizona through land development plans Reavis envisioned. Reavis may have had some good ideas, but he could not follow through with completion.
The Presidential election of 1884 brought in the Democrat Grover Cleveland, who had already determined that he would remove Reavis from the Arizona Territory by proving the land claim false.
The claim stretched to include Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Casa Grande (Reavis claimed the Indian ruins to be Peralta family ruins), Florence, and other Pinal County towns; the famous Silver King Mine; and copper mines in Globe, San Carlos, Miami, Ray, and Morenci AZ. Then he added a large portion of the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico. In early summer 1883, Reavis had associates post legal notices all over the claimed lands and in local newspapers, demanding payment of rents from the inhabitants. The Silver King Mine officials quickly paid $25,000, setting the precedent for more payments by others.
Unmade payments were met with strong-arm tactics of beating and property burning, the local newspapers began writing against Reavis, and the Territory and Federal Governments began investigations that took years of time, until the trials of 1895 and 1896.
The Arizona Territory
The Arizona Territory was taken over by the United States from Mexico in the middle of the War Between the States in 1863 and remained a US Territory until its statehood in 1912. It was a territory for 49 years, but for part of that time, it was considered a baronate or barony and illegally so.
Arizona may be the scene of Mexican Border problems in the 2010s, but it was the site of border problems on all sides during the Civil War, because the Confederate States of America also claimed at least part of the land.
Peralta Land Grant, Pinal County and NM
The Film Compared to the Real Ending
At the end of the 1950 film, Vincent Price as James Reavis leaves prison after nearly two years of incarceration, expecting to be alone as well as without transportation.
James is gladly surprised by a horse and carriage driven by his father-in-law and his wife. It is a happy reunion in what appears to be the start of a new life. However, the real ending was not happy, making a disappointing and sad real life tragedy.
Both a civil trial (1895) and a criminal trial (1896) involved James Reavis as the defendant and he lost both cases. However, his sentence included only two years of prison and a $5,000 fine ($135,000 in USD in 2012). He defrauded individuals and the US Government of $5.3 Million by 1896, or $144 Million in 2012 dollars.
Reavis served 21 months of his sentence, ending in April 1898, and was released for good behavior. However, his wife had moved with their twin sons to Denver, Colorado where she made and sold hats. She was not waiting outside the prison upon his release with a carriage to pick him up.
Giving up his ideas of royalty, Reaves sought investors for Arizona land development and a system of irrigation for Arizona, to no avail. He moved to Denver to reunite with his family, but was unhappy and poor. He took up writing, also to no avail. By early 1902, his wife had filed for divorce.
James Reavis lived in a local poorhouse, growing vegetables, in Los Angeles from about 1903 - 1913 and died in Denver in late November 2014.
The Reavis Mansion in Arizola, Arizona was considered for resoratation by the US National Park Service in 1963, but proved to be to expensive a project. The house had been used too long as a barn and not well maintained.
Map of Pinal County
James Reavis claimed the Casa Grande Ruins were remains of the Peralta family, builiing a mansion & garrison here. Nothing remains of them today.
Pinal County is between Phoenix in the north and Tucson to the south and contains Arizola AZ.Arizola is a tiny unincorporated place. The county encompasses portions of the historic Tohono O'odham Nation, the Gila River Indian Community and the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, and all of the Ak-Chin Indian Community.
Apparently, the Arizona railroad magnates, other industrialists, and Reavis attempted to use one other to gain power and control. They all failed and were not all Republicans. Roscoe Conkling, Republican, should have taken more interest in examining the truth of the land claim, but died in 1888 in time to escape possible consequences himself. I don't see him as a GOP huckster purposely planning to defraud the American People and the USA.
All of the gullible of both political parties or none, who had been taken in by Reavis, abandoned him by 1895.
Two Arizona Surveyor Generals, one Republican (Royal Johnson) and one Democrat (John Hise), followed by the first Republican a second time, both worked to expose Reavis as a fraud. Johnson achieved the bulk of evidence used in the successful cases against Reavis. Robert G. Ingersoll, an agnostic and Republican, defended Reavis and his land claim for a time, but withdrew. Co-counsel was James Broadhead, a Democrat, who left to assume a government post after deciding that the case was hopeless. Attorney Phil B. Thompson, also withdrew from the defense case.
My sense is that people of all demographics and politics saw opportunity and/or a fantastic dream in the false Peralta Land Grant and failed to check it out for accuracy until much money was lost.
- Cleere, J. Outlaw Tales of Arizona, 2nd Ediition: True Stories of the Grand Canyon State's Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats. 2012.
- Fuller, S.; Director. The Baron Of Arizona (1950). Vincent Price, Ed Wood (stunt double).
- Johnson, Royal: Surveyor General for Arizona Territory appointed by Republican President Banjamin Harrison. Adverse report of the Surveyor General of Arizona, Royal A. Johnson, upon the alleged Peralta Grant : a complete expose of its fraudulent character; October 12, 1889. Retrieved from http://www.archive.org/stream/adversereportofs00arizrich/adversereportofs00arizrich_djvu.txt April 2, 2013.
- Lummis, C.F.; Editor. Land of Sunshine, Volume 8 (3, 4): pp 107-118, 161-170. A report from Federal documents analyst William M. Tipton; 1898.
- Powell, D. M. The "Baron of Arizona" Self-Revealed: A letter to His Lawyer (1959).
- Powell, D. M. The Peralta Land Grant. University Press of Oklahoma; 1960.
- Price, Carter. The Man Who Wanted To Be Baron Of Arizona.
- Thompson, P. B. and Reavis, J. A. P. J.A. Peralta Reavis and Do a Sophia Loreta Micaela de Maso Reavis y Peralta de La Cordoba, His Wife, and Clinton P. Farrell, Trustee V. the United States.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Patty Inglish MS