There are fewer truly great criminal masterminds than there might be. The average bank robbery nets less than $5000, and the would-be Willie Sutton should remember that most bank robbers are caught. Kidnapping tends to turn into murder all too frequently, and, like blackmail, depends on the victim playing along; when dealing with a hard nut like John Paul Getty, who negotiated his grandson’s ransom down $15 million, this is a tenuous proposition at best. In a world where corporate malfesance can lead to billion-dollar frauds, what can the everyday street criminal do to measure up? Even the crimes of Adam Worth, the criminal mastermind upon whom Professor Moriarty was reportedly based, seem picayune in comparison. Where are the criminals who think big? Oscar Hartzell (thanks to Defective Yeti for bringing ths book to my attention), the swindler who bilked Depression-era Americans out of millions by claiming that he was going to win an immense proportion of England’s national wealth in a lawsuit stemming from the disputed estate of Sir Francis Drake. When Hartzell was dying in prison, he apparently believed that his lies were true, that the Drake fortune was real, and that he was the rightful ruler of much of the free world. What if some Napoleon of Crime tried to take over the world or, if conquering the world was too difficult, a nation? Some people who are criminals have taken over countries; a military coup is obviously illegal, and they happen all the time. Mere ballot rigging doesn’t count; nor does the adventurism that led to Western domination of huge swaths of Africa and Asia. William Walker, the Tennessee boy who took over Nicaragua and attempted to have it annexed as a slave state, was many things, but he wasn’t a street criminal. But at least two criminal visionaries have attempted this most grandiose of schemes, and, surprisingly enough, they were both forgers. Forgers are mostly associated with art (a forged Giacometti or Chagall?) or official documents (a forged signature on loan applications?), but some forgers have aimed higher. One of these was Alves Reis, who worked his way up from small-change embezzlement to control of a mining company in the Portugese colony of Angola to (after a brief jail term) a forged contract to print Angolan banknotes. With his seemingly-legitimate contract, Reis was able to bypass the usual problems that trip up counterfeiters (obtaining legitimate plates, inks, and paper; Reis simply left this job to the printers, England’s Waterlow and Sons), skip the step of marking the bills as Angolan, and focus his efforts on distributing them in Portugal itself. His fake currency helped stir Portugal from recession; he established his own bank and planned a takeover of the Bank of Portugal, which would have enabled him to disguise his crimes (as well as dominate the Portugese economy); when, through sheerest coincidence, his counterfeit notes were discovered (Waterlow and Sons had no reason to avoid duplicating the serial numbers on Portugese currency), Reis managed to turn his trial into a debacle by forging documents implicating his prosecutors in his crimes. Upon his death in 1955 "the British journal The Economist said of the counterfeiting scheme, ‘The perpetrators, however reprehensible their motives, did Portugal a very good turn according to the best Keynesian principles.’"
James Reavis‘ plan was less audacious in one respect: he didn’t seek to take over an entire country, only Arizona. A bright and ambitious man, Reavis (whose criminal career began when he forged furloughs for his fellow Confederate soldiers) — a one-time school principal and advertising salesman for the San Francisco Examiner — seized upon a stranger’s story that he had purchased a vast Arizonan land claim for $1,000 from a Mexican; Reavis claimed that he, in turn, had purchased it for $30,000 (the stranger had conveniently died). Reavis convinced Collis Huntington of the Southern Pacific railoroad that his story, if not true, was at least plausible, travelled to Arizona, and began to threaten various landowners with eviction once his Peralta claim was validated. He was convincing enough and had enough spurious evidence that some of his victims fell into line; others were apoplectic with rage, however, and Reavis retreated to obtain a suitably anonymous bride — a 14-year-old Mexican girl, Carmelita, whose origins have never been conclusively determined — and more convincing evidence, courteousy of a trip to Spain. E. H. Cookridge writes in The Baron of Arizona that Reavis
noted the outmoded terms for money, lineal measures, and geographic locations and compared the paper and inks of documents issued in Madrid and Seville with those produced by the Jesuits in New Spain…. Inks had to be mixed to produce many different shades; chemical methods of fading the inks and yellowing the paper had to be devised. Acids which would erase writing on genuine documents or turn a parchment blank were needed…. Slowly but surely [Reavis assembled] a set of documents that created a great and glorious family — a family that existed only in his imagination.
While in Spain, the Reavises travelled in the highest of social circles, including an audience with the royal family. Upon their return, armed with his new evidence showing that his wife, "Sofia Loreta Micaela de Maso y de Peralta", was the last heir to the Peralta land grant, Reavis launched a lawsuit to get what he had coming to him.
And he did; although his forgeries were excellent, Reavis had attatched himself to the Republican party, and Democrat Grover Cleveland’s election to the Presidency in 1884 turned the politicians running Arizona Territory against him. The loss of political backing, combined with an unprecedented campaign against him by almost every newspaper in Arizona and the intense scrutiny given to his forgeries, doomed Reavis. He had made slight grammatical errors; there were inconsistancies in some of his documents (one had a supposed Peralta ancestor dying at the age of one hundred sixteen); he had used a steel nib on the papers despite the fact that it wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century. Reavis was found guilty; although sentenced to only two years in prison, he was a broken man. He attempted to serialize his life’s story (the magazine he started, Peraltareavis Real Life Illustrated, folded after one issue), tried and failed to attract interest in an Arizona real estate development project, abandoned his wife and children to drift back West. His life, for all intents and purposes, was over; the final judgment had been rendered at his trial by Severo Mallet-Prevost, a Mexican-born attourney and Spanish legal expert serving as a government expert witness. Reavis was pressing an argument about the existance of one of his wife’s invented ancestors:
Reavis asked, "Would you believe that there was such a man as Don Miguel Nemecio Silva de Peralta and Duke of Santistebán, if you saw his name on a tombstone with the date of his birth and death? Would you, Mr. Mallet-Prevost?"
The hilarity in court persisted for a minute or two when the Government expert crisply replied, "Not if you had been at that tombstone first, Mr. Reavis."
James Reavis, the master criminal who had consorted with kings and nearly made off with twelve million acres of Arizona land, died in a Los Angeles poorhouse in 1914.