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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blog47Welcome to Nome, Alaska on July 4, 1900! Talk about a tough city!  It was only about a dozen blocks deep but stretched along 20 miles of the Bering Sea coastline. The streets were frozen from October to April, mud until June and then dirt for July and August. Then it was back to mud and ice. The city had plank sidewalks, which you can see on the left of the photograph, and lots of air pollution which you can see in the background. Nome was famous for the gold on its beach.  You could not stake a claim because tidelands were federal property. But you could mine the beach – until the tide came in. Nome’s population in 1900 was about 13,000; ten years later it was down to 850.

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blog46Here’s a blast from the past.  This is Joshua Pusey, the inventor of the matchbook.  (If you happen to be under 35, that’s how you made fire before the lighter.) Pusey was a cigar smoker in the 1880s and became tired of carrying around boxes of wooden matchsticks in his pocket. So, in 1889, he came up with the prototype of the matchbook we used to have: two rowes of combustible cardboards sticks. He called them “flexibles.” Four years later the matchbook was improved by a Pennsylvania inventor by the name of Charles Bowman who patented a “safe match.”  In those days, a “safe match” was one that would not ignite if chewed by a rat.

It is easy to say we live in a high-tech world and every invention needs to be high-tech to succeed.  This is in error. There is still a lot of possiblity in low-tech ideas.  If you doubt that, spend an hour watching the PI, per inquiry channel.  Wait! Wait!  If you call right now we’ll double your order and you will only have to pay for the extra shipping and handling!  Keep in mind that there are more than 6,000 companies on the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ.  Do you know what every one of those companies has in common?  Every one of them started out with a Joshua Pusey, an individual with a unique idea who did more than just think about it.

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blog44Can you see the difference in height between these two men?  No, these are not identical twins.  They are the same man, Clarence E. Willard, the Vaudeville attraction known as the “The Man Who Grows Before Your Eyes.” Williard, who died in 1962, could grow – ON STAGE – from 5’ 10” to 6’ 4”!  He did so by elongating his spine.  He could also make one leg four inches shorter than the other – in short period of time on stage.

This past week a significant piece of Americana shuttered its doors, so to speak.  Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey held it last performance. For a century and a half elephants, trapeze artist, bearded ladies and lion tamers toured America bringing the world to the streets of small and large town America.

And men like Clarence E. Willard are vanishing from the pages of history. In a decade, how many young Americans will even know that once upon a time, clowns were as American as apple pie and just as accessible.

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blog44One fateful day in the 1870s, the James Robinson Circus traveled to Middleton, Missouri.  As was usual in those days, the Circus made a parade circuit around town.  To drum up business, management told the circus band to ride on top of the lion’s cage and perform as the circus made its circuit. The band told Robinson this was not a good idea as the top of the cage was probably not strong enough to support ten men and their instruments.  Management disagreed and the band mounted the lion’s wagon.  All was going well until the driver of the wagon tangled the reins and the horses took off at a gallop.  But they did not gallop long. The wagon hit a large rock and the jarring motion – along with the weight of band – caused the roof of the lion’s cage to collapse.  Seven members of the band fell into the lion’s cage. Four were killed and three were badly mauled before they were pulled out of the lion’s cage.

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blog43I, as an Alaskan, am outraged some people are giving fake news a bad name.  A bad name!  Fake news in Alaska is as sacred as smoked salmon, ice worms and penguins. Alaskans live for fake news! We have to. Every summer we have a million tourists we believe Alaska has six months of darkness followed immediatly by six months of unbroken light. They believe we have penguins. They don’t know what an Ulu is cannot handle a oosik. Sad folks, these.  Alaskans – and if you are a cheechacko I am specifically talking to you – you need to learn to “lie like an Alaskan.”  To help you in this noble endeavor: 


When it comes to tall tales, Alaskans are king.   No one can tell a whopper like an Alaskan. In fact, telling fabricated tales of the Northland and being an Alaskan go hand-in-hand.  This is not to say that all Alaskans tell lies — most of them do, though not all of them — but so many Alaskans have grown accustomed to telling wild tales about the northland that the only person with a lower credibility than an Alaskan with a bear story is a politician proposing a tax cut three days before a primary election.

And Alaskans have such easy marks!   For the most part, Outsiders, I.E., people from the Lower 48, are amazingly ignorant when it comes to Alaska.  Though Alaska is a state of the United States, many Americans continue to believe that it is a different country, uses another form of currency and requires a visa for travel.  These same people, many of them with college educations, also fervently believe that Alaska is a land of ice and snow where the residents live in igloos and ranch penguins.  In fact, in downtown Anchorage it is not uncommon to hear tourists actually asking which restaurants serve blubber stew, the location of the nearest igloo, or where the Northern Lights go when the sun is up for twenty-hours a day.

During the summer, it takes Alaskans all of about two weeks to get tired of setting the record straight for Outsiders.  It is just too time-consuming for Alaskans to be truthful because of the number of visitors that flood the state during the summer months. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, only has 265,000 people but it hosts more than one million travelers during the 90 days of summer.  That’s quite a few people to set straight.  After about the l5th of June, tired of constantly telling tourists that there are no igloos in Alaska or that penguins are only indigenous to Antarctica, Alaskans begin to fudge on the truth.  They aren’t really lying; it’s an Alaskan folk art form kindly known as “absurding.”

More precisely, absurding is a technique similar to the tall tale.  But it is different from the tall tale because it is the art of deliberately confirming whatever bizarre fantasy a tourist believes of Alaska, regardless of how incredible that might be, and then expanding the absurdity even further. For example, if a tourist were to ask where he or she might see a penguin nest, an Alaskan intent on absurding might respond, “Well, it’s been a lean year for penguins because the alligators keep forcing them out of the beaver lodges.  That’s where they spend the summer, you know, in beaver lodges.”

While this may sound like a bizarre answer, it is not.  Astoundingly, tourists will believe just about any tale about Alaska, and the more fantastic the lie, the more believable it will appear to be.  From giant, man-eating crabs in the Kuskokwim River to a genetic cross between a moose and a walrus (called an alascattalo), tourists are constantly being absurded by Alaskans who weave the most ludicrous of stories from the threads of the tourist’s imagination.

What makes this easy for Alaskans is the incredible diversity of the state.  Since Alaska is so large, there are few statements that are true from Ketchikan to Barrow.  Take the myth of Alaska’s seasons.  In the far north, Barrow, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, the sun is aloft for months at a time during the summer.  It does not set, as people in the Lower 48 know the word, for 84 days.  The sun simply circles the horizon.  Time of day is indicated not by when the sun sets, but at what point of compass it happens to be.

Then there is the flipside to this good news.  During the winter there are 67 days when the sun does not ‘hop’ above the horizon at all.  In other words, on November 18, the sun sets and does not rise until January 24.

But in Anchorage and Fairbanks there are sunsets during the summer and sunrises during the winter, just as there are in Seattle, Denver, Chicago and New York.  Yet, over the years, textbooks have mistakenly stated that Alaska, the Land of the Midnight Sun, has six months of darkness and six months of light leaving many college-educated Americans to firmly believe that Alaska has six months of pitch darkness followed instantaneously by six months of unbroken sunshine.

Living in Alaska also requires an adjustment in one’s vocabulary.  While most Alaskans speak English, there are many terms which Alaskans use daily that are not even in uncommon usage in the rest of America. “Sitka slippers,” for instance, are plastic boots with felt liners which are the preferred footwear in cities like Sitka, obviously, where the only time it isn’t raining is when the storm clouds are gathering.   A “cache,” is a place to store food and “hooch” is a cheap form of alcoholic beverage.   Alaskans, to the distress of Cheechakos, frequently use such terms as taku, kuspik, chinook, williwaw, Orca, muktuk, blue ticket, Lower 48, pingo, berm, breakup, scrimshaw, square tires, and termination dust.  While each of these has a specific, Alaskan meaning, sometimes the use of these terms can lead to humorous confusion.

One evening a news reporter called a public relations representative for a large oil company only to be told by the man’s wife that he was “outside.”  “Outside,” to an Alaskan, means the Lower 48 or, to Cheechakos, the contiguous 48 states.

“Will he be gone long?” the reporter asked, assuming that he was in Seattle.

“I hope not,” his wife replied.  “He’s only taking out the garbage.”

Alaskans also thrive on the differences between their state and the rest of the union.  Beards and bear stories are in; yuppies are out. Functional dress is expected; a three-piece suit is reserved for IBM salesmen and Xerox repair personnel. Backpacks are as accepted at business meetings as briefcases.

Alaskan humor is different as well.  Take Alaskan holidays. Every February, Cordova, on the shores of Prince William Sound, sponsors an Ice Worm Festival to commemorate the beastie of Robert Service invention.  Though there really are ice worms which live near the surface of glaciers, the beast of Robert Service creation was a piece of spaghetti with inked-in eyes that was dropped into a shot glass of whiskey to bamboozle a Cheechako.  Honoring the ice worm, and Alaskan humor, each year the citizens of Cordova conclude their Ice Worm Festival with a parade highlighted by the appearance of a l50 foot ‘ice worm’ that weaves its way along the parade route.

Farther north, Talkeetna sponsors a Moose Dropping Festival with contests involving another item of Alaskan humor:  moose “nuggets.”  In Anchorage, each November there is the Alascattalo Day Parade. Taken from a story in Warren Sitka’s SOURDOUGH JOURNALIST, the alascattalo is a genetic cross between a moose and a walrus.  Billed as the longest running, shortest parade in American history, the Alascattalo Day Parade is one block long down an alley.  It is held the first Sunday after the third Saturday in November and begins at precisely 12:03.  “If you want to march in the parade,” Warren Sitka advises, “you’d better be on time.  If you’re 30 seconds late, the parade’s half over.”

Alaskan humor is different because Alaska is different. While many regions of America can point with pride to their own homespun humorists, Alaska is not so fortunate.  Mark Twain captured the spirit of Western humor while Uncle Remus did the same in the South.  In the East there is Washington Irving. Alaska, however, is a land without a written heritage of humor.

But Alaskans, one by one, each in his or her own small way, are changing that. One winter, as an example, during the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, a bearded Alaskan was pawing through a pile of imported kangaroo pelts on the floor of a fur shop.  Looking for just the right color combination to make himself a floppy winter hat, he was dividing the pelts into piles of possibilities.  Just as he was finishing, a tourist, fresh from the thrill of her first, open-air, fur auction, stepped into the shop and spotted this bearded character, clearly one those grizzled sourdoughs of which she had read so much, with piles of pelts on the floor.  Pulling out her camera and adjusting the focus she asked what kind of pelts he was handling.

“Kangaroo,” he said without looking up.

“Oh,” she replied.  “Are they Alaskan?”

An evil gleam flashed in his eye for a split second.  “Yeah,” he grumbled without looking up, “from up ’round Bethel.”

And right now, somewhere in upstate New York, there is some woman swearing to her friends that there really are kangaroos in Alaska.

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blog42One of the easiest things to do is complain.  And the people who do it most loudly most often are those who do not read history.  “Why,” they say, “in the old days things were so much better and efficient.”  Really? Here is how you got your mail during the early days of Alaska.  Until the city of Anchorage was founded in 1916 – can you see the “city” of Anchorage in the background – mail only came on ships.  When they came in. Imagine living in a “city” where there was only one doctor – if you were lucky.  Newspapers came out infrequently and everything was incredibly expensive because of travel costs. But giving credit where credit was due, if a public official in “the old days” proved incompetent, members of both parties made sure he no longer held that office. Humm, I wonder if there’s an historical lesson here.

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blog41One of the easiest things to do is believe “it can’t happen here.”  Well, it can. It has and it will again. The only rights we all have are the ones we are willing to fight for. And those rights are not just OUR rights; they are everyone else’s as well. You must fight for the rights of others because someday they will be fighting for yours. A good example is the recently passed health care bill by the United States Congress.  It is very easy for the young to say that the “old” should pay their own health bills because, well, they are old. Well, the young people will be “old” someday and some other young people will be paying their bills.  In America, we are “all in this together.”  We all pay taxes for roads we will never drive on, schools our children will never attend, fire departments that never come to our home, police that never have cause to question us and catastrophic illnesses to families we will never meet. The reason America is great is because we do not leave anyone behind and photos like this remind us there will always be idiots with the IQ of room temperature and they do not national policy make.

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40On December 31, 1899, Captain John Phillips in command of the SS Warrimoo discovered he could do what no human being had ever done: to be in two places at the same time. On a trip between Vancouver, BC and Australia, he found himself close to both the equator and the International Date Line. So, he changed course so he would arrive at that confluence of both lineal demarcations at exactly midnight.  He succeeded. At the stroke of midnight, the front of the ship, the bow, was in the Southern Hemisphere in the middle of summer and the stern of the ship was in the Northern Hemisphere in the middle of winter. AND, the bow of the ship was in January 1, 1900 while the stern was in December 31, 1899.

This put the ship – in one instant – in two different hemispheres on two different days in two different months in two different years in two different seasons in two different centuries.

This feat would not be accomplished again until December 31, 1999 when it was repeated by the USS Topeka. The Topeka added one more twist: it accomplished the same feat as the Warrimoo but at a depth of 400 feet.

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40After the death of Harry Reichenbach, the leading ballyhooer of the era was Jim Moran, a Hollywood publicist and prankster.  Active from the 1930s to the 1960s, he made a name for himself by publicizing outrageous stunts that drew attention to himself and his clients.  In February of 1939 he spent 82.5 hours looking through a haystack for a needle. In January of 1940 he led a bull through a China shop and in June of 1946 he sat on an ostrich egg for 19 days to hatch it.  He is probably best remembered for his (failed) April of 1951 stunt to advertise a candy bar by having midgets hold pictures of the candy while they were aloft strapped on kites over Central Park in New York. He claimed that this publicity would not only increase candy bar sales but, at the same time, provide gainful employment for “out-of-work midgets.”  The New York police did not see it that way and refused to let him perform the stunt.  Moran was outraged. “It’s a sad day for American capitalism,” he lamented, “when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over Central Park.”

In August of 1938, Moran was walking down a street in New York when he heard a salesman remark that a job had been “as hard a selling an icebox to an Eskimo.” Eskimos do buy iceboxes – the 1930s term for a refrigerator because it was actually a box in which you put large chunks of ice – and Moran saw cash in the expression. He immediately went to NBC and convinced them to advance him $300 for a trip to Alaska – about $10,000 in today’s dollars.  He then convinced the National Association of Ice Advertisers that selling an ice box to an Eskimo would be great for advertising.  They agreed and gave him an ice box and guaranteed him $2,500 if he could sell the ice box to an Eskimo – about $100,000 in today’s dollars.

Moran made it as far as Juneau where he found an Eskimo who spoke no English, Charlie Pastolik. Pastolik bought the icebox for “$100, two fox furs and piece of ivory.”  But that wasn’t the end of Moran’s Alaskan adventure. In addition to his broadcasts on NBC, he hacked 300 pounds of “Arctic ice” from the Mendenhall Glacier – which was quite a feat since the Arctic Circle was 1,000 miles to the north – and collected two fleas from the back of Pastolik’s husky which he secreted in a matchbox.  From Juneau he went directly to Hollywood where he pitched Paramount Pictures on using the fleas in a movie.  These weren’t just regular fleas, he told Paramount executives, they were Alaskan fleas. They were snow-blind and would thus be unaffected by the harsh klieg lights on the studio sets.

Then he went further. “They are trained Alaskan fleas,” he continued. “Most Eskimo have nothing to do during the long winters [so they] spend months training fleas. The best fleas are Eskimo fleas as anybody in the flea business knows.” Paramount saw green in the fleas and paid Moran $750 – about $30,000 in today’s dollars – to get Claudette Colbert to allow the fleas to crawl up her back in her next movie. That went nowhere with Colbert who did not see any value in having a pair of fleas, Alaskan or otherwise, crawl up her bare back. But the photo of her with Moran and the Alaskan fleas was published which, to Paramount, was worth the $750 spent.

But Moran wasn’t through. He sold ten pounds of the alleged-to-be Arctic glacier ice to the press agent for Dorothy Lamour for $500 – about $20,000 in today’s dollars – and garnered press coverage for the “oldest, coldest, slickest ice in existence.”  He sold the rest of the ice to the National Association of Ice Advertisers – even though they had already paid him for the stunt – who placed a chunk of it in their window with a placard stating it was from the same glacier as the ice that had been purchased by Dorothy Lamour.

To this day in Alaska, the expression, “as hard as selling an ice box to an Eskimo” is worth an ethnic chuckle because Eskimos do buy refrigerators. But this has not slowed the use of the expression.

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