I caught a remarkable movie last night on Turner Classic Movies: “The Baron of Arizona.” It tells the tale of James Addison Reavis, a swindler in the class of Bernie Madoff. In the late nineteenth century, Reavis claimed much of the state of Arizona under a bogus Spanish land grant. Several points in the story are dazzling:
- How long Reavis kept at it — over twenty years.
- How much work was involved — he forged land and related records in three countries (U.S., Mexico, and Spain).
- That he created a fictitious Peralta family that included a man who lived to 116 years of age (Sr. Garcia Marquez, call for you!).
- That, in response to one of the periodic challenges to his claim, he married a woman to pass off as a descendant of those fictitious Peraltas.
- How slimy his co-venturers were — railroad czars Collis Huntington and Charles Crocker helped underwrite his efforts for their own purposes.
- How much social acceptance Reavis enjoyed — audiences with Queen Victoria, the queen of Spain, and representation by the whorish Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York.
- How much disruption he caused to land titles in Arizona for two decades.
The movie’s not great, though Vincent Price does his best as an evil but not creepy protagonist. Well, Price is always a little creepy. The movie, naturally, takes a lot of liberties with the story. But what a story!