I reject the idea that people are born evil. Lord knows we often do evil. But my reading of people and history sees little evidence of the level of competency in for example the cruelty required to spend ten years patiently inflating the dreams of a lonely and abandoned young woman, before smashing her psyche into a billion pieces on the anvil of your own ambition, almost as an afterthought in a plot to steal the modern equivalent of $116 million. Nobody is that smart or that evil. Rather, I see the subject of this story as a lucky, amoral selfish sociopath, like a common street thug or a banker. Please, allow me to explain.
His name was James Addison Reavis and he was the second son of a Missouri store owner. And to those racists seeking a genetic component to crime, I hasten to point out that he was half Welsh, one quarter Scots and one quarter Mexican. James grew up fluent in both Spanish and English. And, as any young creature entering the world, his initial survival depended on the skills nature had provided him and his ambition. In James' case, nature had made Missouri a border state, torn between Union loyalties and Southern sympathies. When civil war broke out in 1861 the 18 year old James volunteered for military service in a Confederate regiment, where he discovered he had a facility for forging his commanding officer's signature. He supplemented his army pay by selling passes to his fellow soldiers, until the officers grew suspicious. Before things got to too hot, James wrote himself a pass and changed sides, enlisting in the Union Army. After the war James returned home with confidence in his own survival skills, and, oddly, having added the Portuguese language to his skill set.
James Reavis now fell in with a group of organized criminals - real estate agents. They put his skill with a pen to work again, creating the missing link in many a legal ownership trail. And it was as a real estate agent in 1871 that James met what was to be his life's work, in the person of the aptly named George Willing. Willing wanted James' help in validating yet another land claim. But this one, while thinner than any other claim Willing had handled before, had the advantage of being romantic.
Willing claimed that in October of 1864, while working on a mining claim in Black Canyon, Arizona Territory - about 50 miles north of Phoenix - he had bought mineral rights for a poorly defined grant of land from a Miguel Peralta (Spanish for "high rock" or mountain) in exchange for $20,000 in gold, some equipment and mules. He had written the bill of sale in pencil, explained Willing, on the only piece of paper in the camp. But he did not record the sale until three years later, in Prescott, Arizona, the territorial capital. This type of claim, called “a floater” was not unusual in mining districts, and was popular with scam artists because the real mine owners would often settle the suit out of court, just to avoid the expense of proving the claim false. And it turned out there were several established mines already working the land which Willing was now claiming title to. But so familiar were the local miners with this particular scam that George Willing's filing quickly resulted in threats of tar and feathers. So George Willing had retreated, eventually all the way to Missouri, looking for some financial backing to pursue his claim in a safer venue - the Federal courts.
In Missouri over the next two years, James and George spent many hours discussing how best to secure the backing they required. They teamed up with a lawyer named William Gitt, who was an expert, of a sorts, in old Spanish land claims, including one out of Guadalajara, Mexico dating back to 1847. Mr. Gitt had been forced to abandon that particular case after a Mexican bench warrant had been issued for his arrest for fraud. Gitt lectured James and George about the intricacies of Mexican and Spanish land law. And in January of 1874, on Gitt's advice, James and George formed a legal partnership. Then, they separated. George Willing took the paperwork they had “discovered” (meaning created) by rail and horseback back to Prescott, Arizona, to re-file his claim. James Reavis took a train to New York, where he boarded a ship, bound for San Francisco.
The plan was for James to go first to Sacramento, California, to meet up with a merchant named Florin Massol. Massol had been duped into loaning Willing money years earlier, with collateral as some fraudulent mining rights on the mythical Miguel Peralta land grant. Paying back the loan would provide a seemingly valid paper trail. The plan was for James to arrive in Prescott later that summer with the mineral rights now free and clear, appearing unconnected to George's earlier filling for the same Peralta grant. The idea was that two seemingly unconnected individuals filing separate claims on the Peralta grant would increase the pressure on the mine owners to settle the suits even quicker. But upon arriving in San Francisco, James received a startling letter from an Arizona Sheriff.
The letter was addressed to the only name found in George Willing's address book - James Reeves, care of general delivery, San Francisco. According to the sheriff, George Willing had safely arrived in Prescott in March of 1874, and had immediately filed his claim at the Yavapai County Court house. Willing had then checked into a hotel, eaten a hearty dinner and retired to his room In the morning, he was found dead. George Willing was willing no more. The sheriff offered no cause of death. Maybe it had been a heart attack, or maybe someone remembered George Willing from his earlier adventures in questionable mining claims. The sheriff was only interested in preforming his civic duty, and finding someone to pay the undertaker. And with that shocking news, the partnership was dissolved and whatever plans had been assembled to profit from the mythical Peralta land grant, died with George.
James Reeves was in a terrible fix. He was not interested in paying for poor George's funeral. He wasn't even happy about being connected in public with George's claim. But, according to the sheriff's letter, the papers James had forged to support George's claim on the mining lands, were still on file at the Yavapai County Court house. James could not pursue the claim without those papers. But, if George's death had not been accident, traveling to Prescott might not be the safest thing to do right now. James needed time to think. So, on May 5, 1874, he got married.
The lucky lady was Ada Pope. After a short honeymoon, James went looking for work and Ada never saw him again.. Six years later the unfortunate lady finally filed for divorce. In the meantime, James had found a job as a school teacher in the tiny Orange County farming town of Downey, in Southern California. After two quiet years there, James returned to San Francisco, where he became a newspaper correspondent for "The Examiner" and "The Call", specializing in covering the Public Land Commission. He also made himself familiar to the most powerful men in the city, such as those who had just built the Southern Pacific Railroad, the western half of the transcontinental railroad, Collis Huntington and Charles Crocker - two of the biggest crooks in American history.. By now a plan had formed in James' mind, a way to re-assemble the pieces of his search for wealth and security.
It would be a great gamble. But then America had been built on gambles, usually with other people's money. And that was just what James Addison Reavis was going to try to do - use other people's money to steal a personal fortune for himself.
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