When truth is stranger than fiction

blog48These were the remains of “Big Nose George” Parrot in 1950, half a century after he was hanged.

Sort of.

In fact, he was skinned – after death – and his hide turned into a pair of shoes which are still on display in Rawlings, Wyoming.

 

blog48-1Even a century and a half after the saga of “Big Nose George” Parrott, Rawlins is still a fly speck of civilization. It had been established in the 1870s as a way station for the Union Pacific Railroad as it stretched across the Great Plains toward California. Since it was a waystation, it saw a century of celebrities pass through the train depot until planes stole the traffic away. Another of those oddities of Wyoming, the town was named for General John A. Rawlins, Chief of Staff of the United States Army. In 1867, while on patrol and thirsty, he and a detachment of scouts discovered the springs around which the community was founded. “If anything is ever named after me,” Rawlins reportedly stated as he was drinking the elixir, “I hope it will be a spring of water.” He didn’t say this was the spring he wanted named after him or, for that matter, if he would have preferred another liquid refreshment. Whichever is lost to the sands of time. But the spring was named Rawlins Spring and when a community grew up around the water source, its name was shortened to Rawlins.

Rawlins claim to fame in the annals of law enforcement came in 1878 when a band of violent men came up with a bone-chilling crime. In order to rob the Union Pacific Railroad, they loosened the track so the train would derail. Then they would sift through the wreckage for loot. They were able to manipulate the rail loose from the crossties but luck was not with them. As they stood in the bushes waiting for the carnage, the loosened rail was discovered by a section crew on a handrail car. While some of the crew was repairing the track, the handrail cart was sent down the track to stop the oncoming train. After the train was stopped, a small posse was sent out to chase down the criminals. Unfortunately for the posse, the criminals were run to earth at Rattlesnake Canyon in Elk Mountain where the outlaws slaughtered every member of the posse.

This act of murder on top of the attempt to derail a train and kill dozens of innocent travelers, set off a wave of anger in the newly-formed Territory of Wyoming. A walloping reward of $10,000 was offered for the capture of criminals. One of the gang was killed the next month robbing the Black Hills Stage Line and a second, Dutch Charlie, was captured alive. But he did not stay that way long. On his way back to Rawlins the train was stopped in Carbon, about 50 miles from Rawlins, and Dutch Charlie was unceremoniously lynched from a telegraph pole.

“Big Nose George” Parrot almost suffered the same fate. He took to drinking and boasting – in that order – in Miles City, Montana, and a telegram was sent to the Carbon County sheriff who came north and arrested Parrot. Miles City, interestingly, was named because the local commander, General Nelson Miles, declared that “whiskey caused him more trouble than the Indians” so, in the spring of 1877, he evicted the liquor sellers. The liquor dealers left the small community of Tongue River Cantonment and established their own town where liquor could be sold – two miles away. Over the years, Tongue River Cantonment disappeared and, predictably, Miles City remained, a testament to the ability of whiskey to survive in the even the harshest environment of the American West.

Parrot made it as far as Carbon where, as was expected, he was greeted by a contingent of vigilantes who wished to make him two-of-two. Parrot was clearly a better negotiator than Dutch Charlie because he escaped the noose by promising to tell all if he were to make it to Rawlins alive. Parrot made it back to Rawlins where he told a wild tale of the gang having been led by Jesse and Frank James. This was hard to believe as Wyoming was far from the haunts of the James brothers in Missouri. Telling all did not help Parrot. He was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881.

All seemed to be going well in the law-abiding town of Rawlins until March 22nd, when Parrot attacked his jailer and tried to escape. He was only stopped when the jailer’s wife pulled a gun on Parrot and forced him back into his cell. As far as the vigilantes were concerned, one escape attempt was one too many and “Big Nose George” was dragged from his cell and strung up on a convenient telegraph pole. Twice the hanging was botched but finally Parrott was killed.

In an attempt to discover what had made him a criminal, two local doctors claimed the body to extract the brain for scientific study. A portion of Parrot’s skull was removed and the brain examined. Medical history does not record any aberration in Parrot’s brain which would have led to his criminality. One of the doctors made a death mask of Parrot and sent skin from the outlaw’s thigh and chest to a tannery in Denver with instruction to make a make a pair of shoes and medicine bag. Legend has it that he was displeased with the shoes because the nipples of “Big Nose George” were not visible. The doctor, John Eugene Osborne, later became the third Governor of Wyoming, 1893 to 1895, and wore the shoes made of “Big Nose George” at his inaugural

But the tale of “Big Nose George” did not stop there. Dr. Osborne kept the corpse of Parrot for more than a year while he dissected more and more of it. He kept the cadaver in a whiskey barrel filled with salt water and finally buried it behind the home of the doctor who had removed Parrot’s brain. There the mutilated carcass remained until the 1950’s when it was uncovered during construction by a crew digging a basement for a new building. Any doubts as to the identity of the bones were erased when the piece of cranium from the skull of “Big Nose George” which had been removed by the two doctors was found. For the previous seven decades it had been in the possession of Lillian Heath who had been a 15-year old medical apprentice at the time of Parrot’s demise. She had subsequently gone on to be the first female doctor in Wyoming. In the intervening 70 years, she had used Parrot’s skull cap as both a pen holder and doorstop while her husband had used it as an ash tray.

 

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