Notes From The Frontier
The Grisly Tale of Big Nose George
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
Frontier justice could be harsh, but few Wild West legends ended as badly for a bad guy as did the life of Big Nose George. You wouldn’t have wanted to walk a mile in his shoes, especially since his mortal soul became none other than a SOLE of a shoe—not just one shoe but a pair of shoes. In fact, George would be “reincarnated” into a variety of other unlikely objects, including a doctor’s bag and an ashtray. The old saying, “ashes to ashes” took on macabre meaning for old George. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves...
George Parrott was born on March 20, 1834 in Montbeliard, France. Little is known about his early life or how he ended up in the Wild West 44 years later as a desperado, cattle rustler, highwayman, train robber, and, finally, murderer. It is one of those strange twists of fate that his last name, Parrott, was ironic in that he was born with an immense, hooked nose very much like a parrot. Thus, he came to be known by the nicknames “Big Beak Parrott” and “Big Nose George.” His distinctive face first showed up on “wanted” posters in Wyoming in 1878 for murder and train robbery. He and his gang of outlaws had tried to wreck a train near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, so they could rob it. Wyoming Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Union Pacific Detective Tip Vincent and a posse pursued Big Nose George and his gang to Rattlesnake Canyon, near Elk Mountain, where they were ambushed and Widdowfield and Vincent were killed.
Big Nose George continued to wreak havoc for several more years, robbing a Montana military convoy of 15 soldiers, two officers, an ambulance, and the Army payroll of between $4,000 and $14,000. The gang also held up several stagecoaches, including an especially profitable job in July 1880. The bounty on him quickly went up to $2,000.
Aside from a whopping bounty on his head, George had another big liability: he had a big mouth and liked to boast. When he bragged to a saloon dancer in Miles City, Montana, that he had killed two men and pulled off some big robberies, word quickly reached the sheriff. Within an hour, he was under an arrest, then returned to Wyoming for trial.
In Rawlins, Wyoming, he was sentenced on April 2, 1881 to hang. But in a scene right out of a Hollywood movie, he tried to escape 13 days before hanging day by knocking Sheriff Rankin unconscious. But, Mrs. Rankin, ever the vigilant wife, foiled his escape by locking the cell door before Parrott could reach it. A vigilante group of masked men decided to take justice into their own hands. Despite Sheriff Rankin’s pleading that they wait for the legal hanging day, they dragged the prisoner out and marched him to telegraph pole and threw a rope was over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole. The noose was secured around the prisoner's neck with Parrott standing on a barrel. But when they kicked the barrel out from under him, his toes touched the ground.
The mob cut him down, secured a ladder, then shortened the rope. Parrott dutifully climbed the ladder but, the vigilantes, wishing him to die a painful, lingering death pulled it out from him rather than having him jump from the top and he slowly strangled to death, tearing off one of his ears in the process, as 200 townspeople watched. George Parrott was 47 years old.
Doctors Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne were present for the hanging to declare the condemned man dead. Since there were no kin to claim George’s remains, the doctors took possession of Parrott's body to study the outlaw's brain for clues of abnormality. The top of Parrott's skull was crudely sawn off, and the cap was presented to 15-year-old Lillian Heath, then a medical assistant to Maghee. She would become Wyoming’s first female doctor and is said to have used the skull cap as an ash tray.
The doctors also created a death mask, then Osborne began stripping skin from George’s chest, back and thighs. He had an idea; he sent the skin to a Denver tannery to be made into a pair of shoes and a medical bag. As an afterthought, Osborne cut off the nipples also, requesting they be placed at the toe ends of the shoes as ornamentation. (Wing tits?!) He was later disappointed when he received the shoes from the shoemaker, who had opted not to add the nipple flourishes. Nevertheless, Osborne later proudly wore the shoes to his inaugural ball after being elected Governor of the State of Wyoming in 1893.
The death of Big Nose George faded into obscurity over the years until May 11, 1950, when construction workers unearthed a whiskey barrel filled with bones while building the Rawlins National Bank on Cedar Street in Rawlins. Inside the barrel was a skull with the top sawed off, a bottle of vegetable compound, and the shoes said to have been made from Parrott's flesh. Dr. Lillian Heath, then in her eighties, was contacted and asked if she still had the skull cap of Big Nose George that she had been given nearly 60 years before. She brought the cap and it fit the skull in the barrel perfectly. Later, when DNA testing cane into use, they would also confirm the remains to be those of Big Nose George.
Today the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming, has as part of their permanent displays the shoes made from the skin of Big Nose George, the bottom part of his skull and his earless death mask. The shackles used during the hanging of the outlaw, as well as the skull cap, are on show at the Union Pacific Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The medicine bag made from his skin, however, has never been found.
Big Nose George’s notoriety continues into modern times as citizens throughout the United States and Canada who believe they might be relatives of the outlaw contact historians at the Carbon County Museum. Wyoming State Archeologist Mark Miller, who retired several years ago, said that DNA tests have been done but there have been no DNA matches of yet.
Miller, who has family connection to the story, is the great grandson of I.C. Miller, who served as Carbon County sheriff at the time of Big Nose George’s lynching, but was working in another area of the county that night. “In fact, we may not be able to submit a sample for study, because we don’t have much,” Miller said in a 2014 interview. “I don’t know that we will have new research available for a year or more.” To date, would-be descendants of George Parrott have not been found.
Who knows how his legacy will resurface in the future? But, as fate would have it, generations later, we are still reading about Big Nose George Parrott. Indeed, he got a “leg up” over the man who wore his shoes!
PHOTOS: (1) A detail of the 1895 painting, "Big Nose George and the Road Agents," by famous Western artist, Charles M. Russell. Photograph by Jonathan Blair at Corbis/Getty Images. (2) Big Nose George Parrott was wanted for robbery, train robbery and murder, among other transgressions, in the 1870s. He came to a bad end on the end of a rope and was hung on March 22, 1881. But even that wasn’t quite the end of it. (3 & 4) Dr. John Eugene Osborn was present at the hanging. Since no kin claimed the body of George Parrott, Osborn confiscated the body and conducted an autopsy. With a colleague, Dr. Thomas Gillis Maghee, he examined Parrott's brain but could find no apparent abnormalities, then removed a large piece of skin from the dead man's chest, back and thighs which her sent to a Denver tannery to be made into shoes and a doctor’s bag. He kept the skullcap and put the rest of the body in a whiskey barrel full of saline solution, effectively pickling it. (5) Wanted poster for Big Nose George Parrott, dated August 22, 1878 in Carbon County, Wyoming. The reward was $1,000 in 1878, about $25,000 in today’s currency. (6) Death mask of Big Nose George Parrott and shoes made from his skin were put on display at the Rawlins National Bank, 1949. Historical Reproductions by Perue. (7) "Big Nose George Turns Up—In Whisky Barrel,” Rawlins Daily Times, May 12, 1950. The subhead reads: “Notorious Desperado’s Bones Found, Identified as Skull Sections Fit” (8) Osborne sent George’s skin to a Denver tannery to be made into shoes, which he later wore to his own inauguration as Governor of Wyoming. The shoes are now on permanent display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. (9 & 10 Also on display at the Carbon County Museum are the bottom part of the outlaw's skull and Big Nose George's earless death mask. (His ear was ripped off during his hanging.)
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted October 5, 2019
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