Outlaws and lawmen in the last days of the Old West
In the final days of the ‘Wild West’, in turn-of-the-century Arizona, Augustine Chacon was one of the last charismatic outlaws. As with all proper Western bad guys, he had a ‘Robin Hood’ reputation (like most of them, quite undeserved), myths and legends grew around him and he was protected by large swathes of the civilian population – just as bank robbers such as Pretty Boy Floyd were to be right into the 1930s. No one knows exactly how many people Chacon killed but it was certainly a lot, probably around thirty, and he ended on the gallows in 1902.
There has not been (as far as I know) a full biography of Chacon but several writers have dealt with him, notably Michael R Wilson in Legal Executions in the Western Territories, 1847-1911 (2005) and Jan Cleere in Outlaw Tales of Arizona: True Stories of Arizona’s Most Nefarious Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats (2006).
Burton C Mossman was the cattleman and lawman who became Captain of the new Arizona Rangers and was chiefly responsible for capturing Chacon. Once again I know of no biography, but he has been discussed in various publications, such as Bill O’Neal’s Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters (1991).
Rather surprisingly perhaps, because you wouldn’t say that these gentlemen were exactly the most famous of all Western outlaws/lawmen, these characters figured in two 1950s/60s TV shows, Studio City TV’s Stories of the Century, S2E5, Augustine Chacon, first aired January 30, 1955, and the syndicated show with Gene Autry as executive producer Death Valley Days, S12E2, Measure of a Man, screened on October 1, 1963.
Let’s look at these two shows and see how true to life they were. If you want to watch them, by the way, both are up on YouTube and Stories of the Century is available on the Westernmania channel of Amazon Prime, which is where I watched it.
Death Valley Days
The Death Valley Days episode stars Rory Calhoun. He plays Mossman, and the 25-minute show (in color; it was a S12 one), after the usual intro by ‘The Old Ranger’ (Stanley Andrews), opens with Burton Mossman wearing a lawman’s star talking to Governor Nathan Oakes Murphy (Chick Chandler) and outlining a plan to capture Chacon.
He will go alone (gasp!) to recruit a fellow named Burt Alvord, a train robber, who knew Chacon well, to persuade the man to turn stoolpigeon in return for a lenient sentence and the reward for Chacon, which is promised in a letter Mossman will carry from Judge Barnes (Robert P Lieb). Curious that Mossman and Alvord should have the same name, Burt. In fact Alvord’s first name was Albert, so if anything he ought to have been Bert Alvord.
Mossman pays a man named Turner (Joseph V Perry) for a tip on Alvord’s wife Ruth (Constance Dane) and she tells him where to find her husband. So he easily tracks down Alvord (Bing Russell). In reality it seems that on April 22, 1902, after traveling for several days by wagon and on horseback, Mossman discovered Alvord’s hideout, a small hut located some distance away from San Jose de Pima. The captain approached the cabin unarmed and by chance he found Alvord standing alone outside while the rest of his gang were playing cards inside. Mossman introduced himself and though Alvord was immediately alarmed about the presence of a police officer at his hideout, he agreed to feed Mossman and listen to what he had to say. The two men agreed to cooperate and that a certain Billy Stiles would act as their messenger, for it would take while for Alvord to find Chacon and convince him to cross the Arizona border.
The real Mossman had been born in 1867 and his family moved to Missouri, then to New Mexico. As a teenager he became a cowboy for the Aztec Land & Cattle Company, more commonly known as the Hashknife Outfit, and at the age of twenty was appointed ranch foreman. In his twenties, aside from ranching, Mossman and a partner operated a stagecoach line and in 1898, aged 31, he was elected sheriff of Navajo County. He was one of four partners who built a brick opera house in Winslow, but later sold his share. Some say he joined Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba in 1898 but this is disputed.
He was involved in various ‘situations’. In 1896 he fought a pistol duel with a Mexican captain (the captain missed but Mossman shot him in the shoulder). In 1898, while sheriff, he knocked a rustler off his horse with a Winchester rifle, though the man’s accomplices shot back and one bullet grazed Mossman’s nose. Later the same year, when he was in a hotel in Springer, NM, a bullet was fired from the saloon below up into his room, then another, and he angrily returned fire with his rifle, the bar being vacated immediately and nobody harmed, though a bullet put a hole through the brim of a man’s hat and a second one smashed a glass out of another man’s hand. In 1901 an outlaw bushwhacked him from some bushes, he returned fire approximately in that direction and later found that a lucky shot had hit the man in the head, killing him. And later still he found six train robbers in an adobe house, which he proceeded to destroy with dynamite, knocking the bandits down with rifle fire when they made a run for it to avoid the explosions. So he was no stranger to firearms and dangerous situations.
The Arizona Rangers
By 1901 banditry had become so widespread in the territory that Governor Murphy decided to reconstitute a Ranger force. One company was authorized, consisting of a captain, a sergeant and not more than twelve privates, though in 1903, the force was increased to twenty-six men. Murphy appointed Burton Mossman the first captain.
The very first Arizona Rangers had been informally organized to police the new gold-boom towns and mining camps in the western half of the New Mexico Territory that arose after the first gold strike in 1858 in Gila City. Confederate Governor John Baylor later established a force of Rangers during the Civil War, based on the Texas Rangers, and then Governor Frederick Tritle authorized a company of Rangers in Tombstone in 1882. But these came and went. The lawmakers were never ready to fund the force properly and in fact in 1909 the Arizona Legislature would repeal the act establishing the Rangers. During the seven years of its operations, 107 men served with the force. The Rangers wore no uniforms; their only means of identification was a silver star, worn inside a jacket and displayed only when an arrest was made.
Back to the TV show. President McKinley is assassinated and Governor Murphy is “asked to resign” by the new prez (Theodore Roosevelt). Murphy tells Mossman that he is “going down with the ship” and must resign too. Mossman chucks his star on the desk but says he is going after Chacon anyway, as a private citizen. He has come too far to stop now.
Styles [sic] carries the message (he’s played by Richard Webb) and Mossman and Alvord set out to meet the bandit. Alvord gets cold feet, and he has a gangrenous wrist, so he backs out. But finally Mossman meets up with Chacon (Michael Pate). Pate was an Australian who came to Hollywood and made a specialty of playing Indians, and the occasional Mexican. The ex-captain gets the drop on the outlaw with his six-gun (as usual, all the clothes and guns are 1870s standard Western issue; no concessions are made to the fact of being in the twentieth century). There’s a fistfight, which Rory wins of course. Mossman takes Chacon back to Solomonville (now Solomon, AZ) where he is duly hanged.
The teleplay was written by Sloan Nibley, reasonably close to the facts, or anyway as much as these TV shows ever were. He was a regular writer on Roy Rogers oaters. The director was Tay Garnett, a successful writer who moved to directing. He helmed a lot of TV Westerns.
Stories of the Century
In Stories of the Century, now, it is naturally railroad detective Matt Clark (Jim Davis) who tracks Chacon down, and Burton Mossman is written out entirely. He never existed. Matt Clark managed, in the 37 episodes of the series, to capture every known Western owlhoot, from before the Civil War well into the 1900s, all without looking a day older, a trick I’d like to know how to do. The shows are of course 100% historically accurate, as Matt tells us in his sonorous voiceover, because they are based on “official newspaper files” (whatever they may be). Most of the stories had a light sprinkling of historical verisimilitude but it is decorative at best. Much of the series was complete hooey.
It doesn’t stop the episodes from being fun. Matt tells us that Chacon (whose name he pronounces CHAYkon, while Rory & Co had used the more chic ShaCON) was “one of the most ruthless killers who ever operated on the Mexican border.” Chacon seems to have a business in smuggling Americans over the border into American Arizona for money, then killing them after taking all the rest of the money they had. Early in the show he abandons two men locked in a box on a wagon which he leaves straddling the railroad line so that the train smashes into it and it’s RIP Americans. When Rangers chase him he shoots them off their horses, at 300 yards with a sixgun at full gallop, which isn’t bad going.
So Matt and his glam sidekick Margaret Jones (Kristine Miller) are sent to investigate. They find the lock which secured the dead men in their crate and it’s marked AZTEC. No, it’s not the Hashknife Outfit: it’s the name of a mining company down in Mexico, so with permission of the Mex authorities they go south of the border and interview the mine boss. Yup, it was their wagon. They find that Chacon’s gal, Felicia (Laurette Luez), works in cantina there but they just miss her. She has left to join her lover, back in AZ. To Bisbee, then. After further adventures, Matt and Margaret find themselves in a wagon, like those unfortunate two who were rammed by the train, but our two heroes shall suffer no such fate. Some Arizona Rangers come up and start shootin’, the wagon driver is killed, Matt and Margaret jump clear in the nick of time, and – oh, poetic justice – Chacon (it’s good old Rodolfo Hoyos Jr) is hit by a train. He isn’t killed, though (amazingly). He’s well enough to be taken to the gallows (which we see in a shadow on the wall; don’t want to frighten the horses) and Matt regrets only that they didn’t catch him earlier, before he had killed 29 Americans – oh, and 80-odd Mexicans, but you know.
In all honesty this show didn’t have the quality of Death Valley Days, and the writing (Milton Raison) was pretty clunky and heavy-handed, not to say lurid. The director was Franklin Adreon, a Republic hack who worked on their Lone Ranger, Zorro and Red Ryder serials.
Interestingly, though, another episode of Stories of the Century, S2E1, concerned Alvord, the
train robber who turned coat and got Chacon captured. Alvord (born 1867, died some time after 1910) was a reverse example of that well-known Western figure the outlaw turned lawman: he was a deputy sheriff who became a train robber. There’s a book, Spawn
Gone Wrong – The Odyssey of Burt Alvord: Lawman, Train Robber, Fugitive., by Donald Chaput (2000).
His father was a constable and justice of the peace in several of the places that the family lived. In 1880 they were in Tombstone, and Burt worked in the famous OK Corral there. Sheriff John Slaughter recruited Alvord as a deputy in 1886. Chaput says Alvord was “not noble, temperate, far seeing, or unselfish”. He seems to have been a hard-drinking, violent young man. He was an habitué of saloons and associated with gamblers and suspected outlaws. When Sheriff Slaughter reprimanded him, he quit. He worked as a lawman in several other Arizona towns in the 1890s. He married a certain Lola Ochoa in 1896 but three years later he left her, gave up his deputy job and turned to crime. With Billy Stiles and a man with the colorful soubriquet Three-Fingered Jack Dunlop he embarked on a spree of armed robberies.
In 1900 Three-Fingered Jack was killed and Alvord arrested and taken to Tombstone but Billy Stiles came there, wounded the deputy and enabled Alvord’s escape. It’s all pretty good Wild-West stuff. After he had done that deal with Mossman to capture Augustine Chacon, Alvord decided it was wiser not to surrender after all, a reduced sentence still being a sentence, but instead returned to crime with Stiles. The Arizona Rangers pursued the outlaws across
the border into Mexico, trapping them near Naco in February 1904. The outlaws resisted, but they surrendered after they both had been wounded. Alvord would spend two years in Yuma prison. Following his release, he announced he was going by ship to start anew in Central America. He was last seen in 1910 working as a canal employee but as to his eventual fate, nothing is known.
In the Stories of the Century version, it is of course not the Arizona Rangers who catch Alvord but Matt Clark. Matt arrives in Wilcox, AZ (on a rather fancy palomino) to investigate a train robbery – the robbers got away with cases of dynamite – and meets the old sheriff (Howard Wright) whose son is also his deputy, Burt. Burt is played by Chris Drake (it was Bing Russell in Death Valley Days). Billy Stiles (Paul Sorenson) is also a deputy – Burt has talked his reluctant dad into hiring him. Margaret Jones also arrives, following a woman, Molly Brandon (Fran Bennett) from Bisbee, who is freely spending money which was loot from a hold-up, and it was of course Burt who committed that crime. It appears that Alvord got Molly pregnant in Bisbee and then abandoned her. The screenplay is extremely mealy-mouthed about this, and no such word as pregnant is uttered, just a lot of euphemisms and circumlocutions, but we get the gist. Sheriff/Daddy Alvord determines to do his duty as a lawman rather than as a father, and moves to arrest Burt, but in a stable his son shoots the old man in the leg, then lights the fuse on a case of dynamite. That’s mean. The wounded sheriff and Matt are both inside the stable, Matt trapped under some heavy sacks of grain, but fortunately plucky Margaret gets them both out before BOOM! That allows Matt to disarm and capture the rascally Alvord and Stiles and we finally see Matt and Margaret, as well as the old sheriff on crutches, in Tombstone where the ne’er-do-wells are sentenced to Yuma. Matt and Margaret walk off, The End.
Well, as I said before, as long as you don’t take this as historical gospel and just enjoy it as a Western TV show, you’ll be OK.
So there we are, Chacon, Mossman, Alvord, three interesting characters of the latter days of the Old West.