I doubt anyone in the court room on Monday, 10 June, 1895 was surprise that the first words James Reavis-Peralta, Baron of Arizona spoke when he stood up. He asked for a delay, while he tried to find a new attorney. When Mathew Reynolds, lawyer for the government, objected, Reavis counter punched, and made a motion to have the case dismissed entirely. Despite being the plaintiff - he was sueing the government, his motion was dismissed. But he was granted a one day continuance. And when the trial reconvened on Tuesday, June 11th, the Baron of Arizona announced that he was going to be doing a single: lawyer, plaintiff and witness. He spent most of his direct testimony by describing his dealings with Huntington, Crocker, various Senators and cabinet members. If the jury was impressed by his name dropping, they had little time to be, because Reynolds began his cross examination that very afternoon.
No matter what question Reynolds presented to him, Reavis' answers were endless and rambling. Did he not notice that the documents he claimed to have discovered in the San Xavier record books, were on a different paper than the other pages in the book, and at right angles to the standard pages? What about his marriage contract with his wife? And what about the questionable testimony regarding Sophia's noble birth? Did he pay anyone to lie in their testimony? But no matter how long Reavis talked, no matter how many twist and turns he made in responding, Reynolds just kept attacking. By Wednesday, June 13, Reavis had been forced to admit that even he had doubts about some of his documents. His explanation was that he just filed them, he wasn't vouching for them.
On Monday, June 17, the Baroness Sophia Reavis Peralta took the stand. She admitted she had no knowledge about any of the documents filed supporting her noble birth. Perhaps it was the paternalistic Victorian machismo at play, but the courtroom was convinced the lady was telling the truth, as she believed the truth to be. Presented with convincing evidence that she was in fact the daughter of John A.Treadway and an Indian squaw named Kate Loreta, she broke down in tears, but still insisted, through her sobs, that she was the wife and granddaughter of the Baron of Arizona..
Having put his wife through this emotional torture, on Tuesday June 18th, Reavis introduced a portrait he claimed was of Don Miguel Nemecio de Peralta de la Cordoba (above), and noted the facial resemblance to his own two sons (below).
After that he just ran out of gas, and was reduced to rants about grand conspiracies and lunatic explanations and justifications. During his closing Reavis did not even bother arguing his case, but rather entered a list of 52 objections to rulings the court had made. They would be ignored.
The government did not even bother to present a final argument. Ten days later, the Court of Private Land Claims, created by political allies to control the Peralta Grant case, found “the claim is wholly fictitious and fraudulent”, and dismissed it entirely. That was, of course, not the end. James Reavis (above) had gone too far for that to be the end of the affair.
Reavis was arrested as he left the courtroom, and charged with 42 counts of forgery, presenting false documents to the Land Court and conspiracy to defraud the United States Government. Bail was set at $500. And although the court allowed him to telegraph his connections in California and Washington, D.C., nobody stepped up with the cash. James Reavis-Peralta spent the next year in jail, awaiting trial. It finally began on Saturday, June 27, 1896 and ended on Tuesday June 30, with a verdict of guilty. Two weeks later, on Friday July 17, James Reavis-Peralta was sentenced to two years in jail – one year of which he had already served – and a $5,000 fine –about $130,000 today.
To pay the fine, the mansion in San Francisco was sold. Arizola, the fortress that represented the single reality of the Peralta grant, was seized by the U.S. government. It was later used for a barn. When James Reavis was released from prison in April of 1898, he and his family lived in Denver, where he tried for many years to find investors for his various schemes and plans. But all that any one was interested in buying from him was copies of his book, “The Confessions of the Baron of Arizona”, which had been serialized in his old newspaper, "The San Francisco Call". He may not have even written it himself.
But whoever the actual author, it was presented as a classic Victorian morality tale. “The plan to secure the Peralta Grant and defraud the Government out of land valued at $100,000,000 was not conceived in a day. It was the result of a series of crimes extending over nearly a score of years. At first the stake was small, but it grew and grew in magnitude until even I sometimes was appalled at the thought of the possibilities. I was playing a game which to win meant greater wealth than that of a Vanderbilt. My hand constantly gained strength, noted men pleaded my cause, and unlimited capital was at my command. My opponent was the Government, and I baffled its agents at every turn. Gradually I became absolutely sure of success.”
"As I neared the verge of triumph”, wrote Reavis, “I was exultant and sure. Until the very moment of my downfall I gave no thought to failure. But my sins found me out, and as in the twinkling of an eye I saw the millions which had seemed already in my grasp fade away and I heard the courts doom me to a prison cell. Now I am growing old and the thing hangs upon me like a nightmare until I am driven to make a clean breast of it all, that I may end my days in peace.”
No where in his “clean breast” account did James Reavis mention Mr. Huntington, or Charles Crocker or any of the other wealthy and powerful men who had financed his scam. It seemed that Reavis had learned something from the affair, after all. Sophia had certainly gained in knowledge. In 1902, she filed for divorce on the grounds of “nonsupport”. And the old forger who began his career at 18, faking passes for his army buddies, died alone, at the age of 71 on November 20, 1914, in Denver Colorado. Cause of death was listed as bronchitis, but I suspect he just ran out of ideas. He was buried in paupers grave. Sophia, once the child of royalty and then just the daughter of an Indian squaw, lived the last years of her life under the name Sophia Treadway Reavis. She died on April 5, 1934. Her obituary in the Rocky Mountain News failed to even mention the Peralta Grant. That was probably not an accident.
In 1963 the National Park Service decided that it was not financially feasible to save the the fortress south of Casa Grande. The ten room mansion of Arizola was allowed to slowly decay and collapse into the desert. The next year they erected a maker on Arizona route 84 at milepost 181, to explain the significance of the spot to passersby. It reads (inaccurately), “James Addison Peralta Reavis was a brazen forger who claimed over 12 million acres of Central Arizona and Western New Mexico as an Old Spanish Land grant. He and his family lived here in royal style until his fraud was exposed. From the barony he went to federal prison in 1895 “
And that is all most people will ever know about this story. But now, you know better.
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