Scam Watch: James A. Reavis

August 06, 2010
It seems that in this day and age, there are more scams around than ever before.  Rarely can you go a week without hearing about the suspicious letter your neighbor received from a lottery company or about your relative who lost money while trying to bid on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in an eBay auction.  In actuality, scam operators have been running elaborate hoaxes for centuries.  Take the Baron of Arizona, for example. This scam artist fooled Spanish royalty and US government officials into thinking he owned most of the state of Arizona in the late 1800s when he had no ties to it.  How did he do it?

As a young man serving in the confederate army, James A. Reavis earned a second income forging furlough and supply documents for fellow soldiers.  He had a knack for forgeries and utilized his talents to pass his time before growing bored and fleeing to join the North.  He was forced to disappear when his new commanders discovered his shady endeavors.

The following years were filled with odd jobs.  He eventually opened a realty agency in Missouri and had a chance meeting with a doctor who’d managed to acquire land deeds to parts of Arizona through a trade with a man named Miguel Peralta.  At that time, deeds made before the US annexed the southwestern states were still being honored.   After the doctor died years later, Reavis came up with a clever plan that would involve the doctor’s deeds, manipulation, and forgery.

Reavis spent years studying the lines of the Peralta family and all of the deeds and documents passed down through generations.  He stole copies of originals and used them to imitate the font, wording, and paper style of the authentic documents. While working on the papers, he hobnobbed and became friendly with railroad authorities who he’d promised would have access to Arizona land once his title cleared.  With this promise, Reavis received steady monetary backing from the railroad which allowed him to live a lavish lifestyle and further develop his character as a Spanish land heir.  

Reavis turned over his drafted papers to the Surveyor’s General who then filed a report to the Federal Government to find out if the deeds were legitimate.  If it turned out to be the real thing, Reavis would have inherited an 18,750 square mile piece of land in Arizona.  Without waiting for a final answer, Reavis began to set up shop in the Casa Grande area, building a fancy home and sending out representatives to collect rent from the people who’d already been living on the land for years. One of his most prominent collections involved a wealthy mine owner who paid him $25,000 to continue using his land.  To other inhabitants, this official act made Reavis’s land claim appear legitimate and caused a widespread panic throughout the area.

When the then current AZ Attorney General challenged the claims, Reavis took it upon himself to create a more realistic heir to the deeds; a wife he named Dona Sofia Peralta.  Using his renowned persuasion techniques, he convinced an unknown girl that she was the legitimate heir and after marrying her, he whisked her away to a life of travel, fortune, and parties with Spanish royal contacts who’d all fallen for his ploy.  Reavis submitted his deed claim again to the Surveyor General in 1888.  In 1889, Washington received a report from the Surveyor General stating the deeds were fake.  Words were misspelled, grammar was incorrect, and the metal pen tip used to draft up the grant had not existed at the time it was said to have been written.  

In 1895, after the Federal Government initiated a fraud trial against him, Peralta-Reavis showed up to present his side of the story after a 3 day absence during which he secured stand ins to pose as family members and photos to indicate a family blood line for his wife.  The trial determined that the deeds were forgeries and fraud in both a civil and criminal case.  After serving several years in prison, Reavis re-emerged but never overcame the stigma associated with his name.