The Old West has many legends, some larger than life, others hard to believe.
And then, there’s August Chacon.
“He was as infamous as Geronimo,” said David Grasse, author, historian and self-described iconoclast. “Over the years people started questioning (the legend of Chacon), but they never could admit, ‘Oops, we hung an innocent man.’”
Grasse looks like he’s stepped out of the pages of an 1880s Sears and Roebuck catalog. He wears specially tailored clothes, hats and boots cut in the style of the Old West. His mustache curls up into carefully waxed corners. He’s made it his mission as a writer of history to get to the heart of legends of the Old West. In his new novel, “The True Story of Notorious Arizona Outlaw August Chacon,” Grasse rewrites history.
“I seem to find these poor guys,” said Grasse of his habit of clarifying historical wrongs.
In Chacon’s case, Grasse found he fell prey to rumors, lies, and prejudice.
“The Hispanics, Chinese and blacks were thought of as lower class,” said Grasse. “Chacon came to embody all this mass hysteria and lies people believed about the Hispanic people.”
Grasse’s unraveling of Chacon’s story mimics a deep dive into today’s fake news. Only back then, it was called yellow journalism.
“The elements of this style of journalism are present and easily identified ... the use of scare headlines, the sensationalizing of the stories, morbidly graphic descriptions, unverified statements, undisclosed sources and the unsubstituted accusations of complicity or guilt,” wrote Grasse in his newly published book.
Grasse found yellow journalism a powerful force.
“Once a legend takes off, it is really hard to reel it back in,” he said.
In newspaper article after article, Grasse exposed how journalists hungry to feed an insatiable demand from the public for tales of the Wild West accused Chacon of murder after murder.
“By the time August Chacon finally gets caught, they have turned him into a bloodthirsty murderer,” said Grasse.
Grasse found Chacon’s biggest mistake was his choice of friends. Chacon doesn’t show up on any records until he moved to Morenci.
“He shows up ... supplying wood to the mines and also doing low-level cattle rustling,” said Grasse. “He stole a cow here and there and gave it to the butcher shop. He became a Robin Hood to the Mexicans in Morenci.”
Chacon lived peacefully until he ran from the law with two acquaintances. The two had tried to rob the local dry goods store and stabbed the clerk during the crime. During the escape, witnesses saw one criminal murder a posse member.
Grasse picks apart Chacon’s court case. The evidence leads the reader to understand why Chacon saved himself and to escape before his date with a hangman’s noose.
What makes little sense, blaming Chacon for things he never did in subsequent years.
The murder of two Chinese laundry workers — pinned to Chacon.
The murder of two miners.
The murder of ranching brothers.
A gunfight in Safford.
“Pretty soon, every Mexican becomes the friend of Chacon,” said Grasse.
It just didn’t sit right with Grasse.
“They wanted to make an example of him,” he said.
But the final straw for Grasse came when he read the 45-minute statement Chacon made as he stood on the scaffold with a noose around his neck.
Spoken in Spanish and later translated, Chacon’s statement is a study in grace in the face of injustice.
100 years after Chacon’s death Grasse clears up his legacy with attention to detail and unflinching dedication to the truth.
“The True Story of Notorious Arizona Outlaw Augustine Chacon” is available on Grasse’s website and on Amazon.