Wednesday, January 20

The Robber Baron of Arizona

James Addison Reavis
By Art Cashin

On this day (-2) in 1896, one of the greatest schemes in American history began to come apart - just as it was on the verge of changing the future of the nation. The scheme was to lay a land grant claim on what was virtually two states - Arizona and New Mexico. But it had all started earlier and simpler.

During the Civil War, a certain James Addison Reavis was kind of the "Radar O'Reilly" of the Confederate Army. He managed to get officer's signatures on passes and requisitions without troubling the respective officers. was so good that after the war a pal took him to St. Louis where he showed creativity in the office of public deeds.

In 1871, he met George Willing who had a very creative mind but very poor "penmanship." Willing suggested "back signing" and "redrawing" old Spanish land grants. Reavis began to think Willing was thinking small. But he needn't have worried, because Willing died of poisoning shortly thereafter.

Reavis traveled to Mexico and spent some time in missions, monasteries and libraries. He mastered the language and idiom of formal documents of the 1600's and 1700's. Shortly thereafter, he emerged to lay claim to the fabulous "Peralta Grants." And fabulous they were - they showed Reavis to be the owner of nearly 19,000 square miles of Arizona and New Mexico.

Panic set in immediately. The Southern Pacific paid Reavis $50,000 good faith deposit to protect its right of way. The fabled Silver King Mine gave $25,000 as the first year's rent. And when Reavis, amid great pomp, married a "Peralta Heiress" (a poor Mexican girl he set up with phony credentials), he claimed thousands more square miles. Soon there were lines of folks waiting to give money to the "Baron of Arizona." But as your grandmother said "Pride cometh before a fall" (maybe that was my come to think of was "four Manhattans cometh before a fall).

Anyway, Reavis got a case of the "haughties" and turned down a newspaper interview. The publisher decided to do a background piece anyway. It was then that he noticed the type-face on some of the documents was of rather recent origin. He then talked an official into letting him see one of the "official documents." He noticed the century old parchment paper had a watermark from a factory in Wisconsin. Since neither the King of Spain nor the original Don Diego Peralta were known to cavort with cheeseheads, an odor ensued.

On this day in 1896, the Baron of Arizona was indicted. He was quickly convicted and sent to prison. Later released, he died a pauper in 1908. There lies a lesson - forge not on recycled paper.

Many thanks to Mr. Cashin and UBS Financial Services who graciously allow his historical musings to be republished on this site. To enjoy more of Art's posts simply click on "Cashin's Comments" in the label section on the sidebar.

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