I want to give Captain Limantour (above) the benefit of the doubt. He might have been a thief, but theft is the corner stone of California history. The Spanish stole the place from the natives, the French stole it from the Spanish, and in 1821 the Mexicans stole it from the French. So after the American armed robbery of 1848, M. Limantour should have fit right in with the Yankee power elites. Yes, he was argumentative, crude and vulgar. He spoke his native French clumsily, and managed just enough Spanish and English to curse and insult his competitors and even his partners. And he did try to steal most of the city of San Francisco. However, many of his harshest critics were bigger thieves than he was.
Captain Joseph-Yves Limantour. arrived at the Golden Gate on 26 October, 1841. For the previous decade the 28 year old had lived hand to mouth aboard his 232 ton brig the “Ayucucho”, trading along the Pacific coast. But on his first visit to San Francisco Bay, he wrecked his ship in the fog. Suddenly bereft of his only source of income, he dragged her salvageable cargo onto the sand spit that now bears his name – Limantour Beach (above) – and opened a store in the nearby village of Yerba Buena.
The problem was that Yerba Buena, in fact everybody in California, was cash poor. So the Captain was still stuck there in December when a traveling merchant advised Captain Limantour that if he could “obtain a grant of land on the Bay of San Francisco, he would one day be as rich as a prince.” Limantour liked that idea.
A year later, Limantour engineered a swap of goods and services that got him a new ship, in which he returned down the coast. Stopping to do a little trading in Los Angeles he ran into the Mexican Governor of California, José Micheltorena. The flat broke Governor of the flat broke Mexican state of California was happy to trade a heavily inflated $4,000 worth of real goods for a grant of empty land south of Yerba Buena, and one including all the empty islands inside and outside of the bay, and a third land grant for empty land around the beach where the “Ayucucho” had run aground. These grants were finalized on 27 February, 1843. But Captain Limantour was too busy with his shipping operations to exercise his dry land property rights. Or so he later said.
In 1848 $2 billion worth of gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Over the next four years, Yerba Buena became San Francisco and the population mushroomed from 1,000 to 50,000, all the while suffering six major fires, assorted earthquakes, a few epidemics and uncountable bank failures.
About the only way to go broke in San Francisco during the gold rush was to be a miner. Levi Strauss made a fortune overcharging for pants. John Studebaker made a fortune profiteering on wheel barrows.
Henry Wells and William Fargo made a fortune gouging their banking customers. And the original “robber barons”, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker each made fortunes foreclosing on miners in debt. San Francisco was a thievery boom town. And in the midst of this capitalistic orgy, on 2 January 1853, the three man United States Land Commission began ruling on the validity of grants made under Spanish and Mexican rule.
Back in Mexico City, Captain Limantour had found a bright young Frenchman working at one of his investments, a would-be inventor named Auguste Jouan. In 1850 Limantour dispatched Jouan to San Francisco (above) to begin title searches on properties.
And just a month after the Commission commenced hearings in 1853, Limantour filed a claim to 17,800 acres of San Francisco, south from “California Street”, including “The Mission district”...
Nob Hill, The Tenderloin, the Sunset district, and everything south, half way to Monterrey Bay - about $33 million worth of real estate. Referring to Joseph now as “Jose' ”, one mocking newspaper snorted, “Can’t he also find...some papers that will permit him to establish claims to Vancouver Island?” Vancouver, Canada, that is.
In 1854, while the commission was considering Limantour's claim,. Auguste Jouan started asking for his back pay. Limantour kept putting him off. Jouan finally got angry enough to quit, and started hinting in public that his ex-boss was a crook. According to Limantour, Jouan's gossip had created “such animosity and furor...that my life and property were in danger”. Belatedly the Captain agreed to pay Jouan what he was owed, tossing in a $25,000. bonus. However, Limantour insisted they return to Mexico to close the deal, away from prying American reporters. The trusting blackmailer returned to Mexico with Limantour and was immediately arrested for forgery and attempted murder.
In January of 1856, to great public surprise, the Land Commission validated Limantour's claims. San Francisco went into panic mode.
Half the banks in town, half the newspapers, half the bars, churches, hotels, bawdy houses and private residences, City Hall, and...
most importantly, all the mansions on Nob Hill, were now officially owned by Joseph-Yves Limantour. The new land lord tried to put his victims- ah, tenants – at ease.
From his suite of rooms in the Washington Hotel, the Captain offered to provide quit claims to all property for just 10% of the listed value. It became instantly known as the “Limantour Tax”.
Many paid the tax, just to be rid of the troublesome Frenchman. Estimates of his “take” ranged from $100,000 to $250,000, in 1855 dollars. And then, Auguste Jouan managed to escape from his Mexican jail, and reappeared in San Francisco, still looking for his bonus. He now accused his ex-employer of framing him, and offered to provide proof that Limantour had committed fraud, for an additional $30,000.
A pro-Limantour paper called Jouan “a rascal of the worst kind....he attempted to extort money by means of threats, or a pretended knowledge of secrets, which is not calculated to modify our opinion of this blackleg.” Jouan responded by hitting the paper with a million dollar libel suit. Observed another editor, “For all we know he may be justly entitled to it; but we doubt whether there is an editor in San Francisco who has that amount of loose change about him...” Evidently, somebody paid at least part of Jouan's price. In April, the inventor sailed quietly for New York, claiming he was going to exploit his patent for new paddle blades for steam ships.
Meanwhile, the thieves of San Francisco funded an investigation of M. Limantour's documents, and came up with enough inconsistencies to justify a Grand Jury. And the local U.S. Attorney filed suit in Federal Court (above, left) to the overturn the Land Commission's decision. No thieving lawyer works harder or is more effective than a thieving lawyer protecting his own “ill gotten booty”. The only problem was, for every allegation or witness who swore the obnoxious captain was a thief, there were others who swore he was not. It did not matter. The Grand Jury indicted “Jose' “Joseph-Yves Limantour for fraud and perjury, and he was promptly arrested. The captain posted $35, 000 bail, and headed back to Mexico, swearing to return with more evidence.
When Limantour did return in July of 1857, one surprised reporter noted a vigilantly committee had threatened to lynch him. The captain replied, in French, “I should rather be hanged than to pass for a forger.” His self assurance, and his new witnesses and documents had the local thieving class nervous. The government's case was flimsy at best. The locals might provide a conviction, but an appeal would be heard in the big pond back east in Washington, where the local thieves were small fry. And then, the new U.S. Attorney General, Jeremiah Black, decided to provide $70,000 to fund the prosecution of “the most stupendous fraud ever perpetrated since the beginning of the world.”. Barely pausing after that hyperbole, he dispatched a special prosecutor to take over the case, Edwin M, Stanton.
Stanton (above) arrived in San Francisco in March of 1858, just about the time a new box of Mexican records which cast more doubt on Limantour's claim was found. It was almost as if the prosecution had decided to play by the same rules they assumed Limantour was playing by. But the prosecution also managed to produce close up daguerreotypes taken of the document daguerreotypes introduced to support Limantour's claims. Blowing up the images clearly showed the forgery errors. The signatures of the Mexican officials were real. But the seals applied to them were fakes.
Stanton made a three hour closing argument, filled with hyperbole. Limantour's lawyer gave no closing argument at all. He must have already suspected his client had cut his losses, taken his own ill gotten booty, jumped bail and returned to Mexico.
Back in San Francisco, on 19 November, 1858, Federal District Judge Ogden Hoffman, Jr.'s (above) 56 page judgment, admitted “The case...is extraordinary and surprising...astonishing if not incredible”, before claiming a “scandalous conspiracy”, adding the vast over-statement, “the proofs of fraud are as conclusive and irresistible as the attempted fraud itself has been flagrant and audacious.” Limantour was convicted, but never jailed, and never pursued. Better gone and quickly forgotten.
Edwin Stanton went back to Washington, where in 1861 he was appointed Secretary of War in the administration of Abraham Lincoln. He was eventually named a Supreme Court Justice, but died before taking his seat. The wealthy thieves of San Francisco added to their wealth, in particular the Big Four, Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker, doubled or tripled their wealth by duping shareholders in the Southern Pacific, the western leg of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Joseph-Yves Limantour left California with somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000 in gold, which made him one of the lesser robber barons of San Francisco (above). The government even failed to collect from the bail bondsman, after the Captain's escape. The public ended up footing the bill for the prosecution, and then shared few of the fruits of the victory.
Joseph-Yves first born son, Jose' Yves Limantour (above), added greatly to his father's fortune. But after the Captain's death in 1885, and his mother Adele's death, her will left the fortune to his younger son Julio. Jose's took the blow in stride, and went on to become Secretary of Finance of Mexico. However, in 1911 this son-of-a- thief was forced to leave Mexico, and died in a self imposed exile in Paris, in 1935. The Limantours had come full circle. And there is honor in that.