How a notorious Wyoming outlaw became a pair of shoes

JACKSON, Wyo. — Hanging George Parrott was only the beginning of his punishment. His languishing disgrace would span generations.

As cattle rustlers and highwaymen go, Parrott was a run-of-the-mill outlaw. Born in Montbéliard, France in 1834, not much is known about his upbringing or what brought him stateside and to the great American West.

Parrott also went by George Warden and George Manuse, but his gang members and anyone who ever laid eyes on his distinctive schnoz simply called him “Big Nose.”

Parrott, and the members of his rowdy bunch, would all meet with grisly endings—each more gruesome than the last.

The Ambush (The Road Agents) one of several paintings by Charles M. Russell, who was reportedly fascinated by Parrott and his gang. Image: Sid Richardson Museum

The making of an outlaw

Big Nose first shows up in the annals of Wyoming history in the late 1870s. His gang—which Big Nose insisted to anyone who ever asked was really led by a man named Sim Wann (sometimes Sim Jan)—included Frank McKinney, Frank Towle (sometimes Tole), Dutch “Charley” Bates (sometimes Burress), and others.

Big Nose and company knocked off a few stagecoaches and began gaining notoriety as the worst scourge on the Wyoming Territory’s virtuous and upright citizens. Wyoming had become an official “territory” only a decade previous, and if statehood was ever to come about, scoundrels like Big Nose would have to be eradicated.

Parrott soon tired of coaches and decided the big money was in trains. But with bigger risk, came a bigger reward…on his head.

The fateful train job

In mid-August 1878, the gang gathered near Como Lake, midway between Medicine Bow and Hanna, Wyoming. The plan was to knock off a Union Pacific Railroad pay car by derailing the train, which carried cash for the railroad’s monthly company payroll.

The bandits loosened a few spikes in the rails and waited for the No. 3 Westbound to arrive.

But their plans were foiled. An alert section inspector Erick Brown and his crew spotted the sabotaged rail, repaired it before the train arrived, and alerted authorities in Carbon County. Within hours a two-man posse consisting of Wyoming deputy sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Union Pacific detective Henry H. “Tip” Vincent began tracking the gang.

Wanted poster for Big Nose George circa 1978. Image: Carbon County Museum

Meanwhile, Big Nose George and the boys knew the jig was up and lit out for Elk Mountain. They headed south, skirting Halleck Ridge until they came to Rattlesnake Canyon where they holed up to wait and ambush the posse.

It took a few days but the two lawmen arrived on August 19, 1878—the day both would die. With no warning, a shot rang out from Dutch Charley’s rifle and Widdowfield fell from his horse, instantly dead.

Vincent spurred his horse and took off up the canyon but a shot from Big Nose George knocked him from his mount. Vincent rose to his knees to return fire but was gunned down in a hail of bullets.

The gang stripped both dead lawmen of anything useful and pulled their bodies into the nearby brush. They then split up, never to work together again.

When Widdowfield and Vincent failed to return, a search party led by John F. Foote set out to look for them. They discovered the bodies in Rattlesnake Canyon hidden in the thick underbrush. They pieced together what had happened.

Widdowfield had a single gunshot wound to the head. Vincent’s body was found some 50 yards away, riddled with bullet holes. The bodies were taken to Rawlins for burial.

County authorities placed a reported $10,000 bounty on Big George and his gang members. That number has likely been an exaggeration of an actual $1,000—still an enormous amount of money at the time. The reward was soon doubled by UP Railroad officials.

The skull of Big Nose can be seen today at the Carbon County Museum. Photo: Carbon County Museum

The bell ‘Towles’ for thee

Frank Towle was the first to go. A month after the killings, Towle and fellow gang member John Irwin hooked up with the Joel Collins gang based in Deadwood. When Collins headed south to rob trains, Towle and Irwin stayed behind to rob stagecoaches—no doubt soured on railroad robbery.

On September 13, 1878, Towle stopped a stage bound for Deadwood somewhere between Old Woman’s Fork and Lance Creek on the Laramie to Deadwood run of the Black Hills Stage Line. They encountered only two passengers—a woman and a working man. They relieved the pair of some $10 and took the mailbags before allowing the coach to continue north.

Towle thought the Laramie-bound coach might have more loot and decided to wait for it to arrive. It was a terrible mistake.

As the recently robbed northbound coach passed the southbound stage, the coachman warned the stage that highwaymen likely lay in wait for them. Boone May and John Zimmerman were outriders for the southbound coach, armed to the teeth and “riding shotgun” for just such a scenario.

The two lagged back from the coach purposefully and soon watched as Towle and his gang stopped the stage and began taking money and jewelry from its passengers.

May and Zimmerman rushed the group and opened fire. In the exchange of gunfire, Towle was killed from a shotgun blast by May. Other gang members fled and the coach continued on with May and Zimmerman escorting it safely to Laramie.

Lawmen returned to the scene the next day to find the discarded mailbags near a pool of blood. No bodies in sight.

Three months later, John Irwin was captured and confessed to taking part in the Widdowfield-Vincent murders. He received a life sentence. During the interview, he mentioned the stagecoach robbery with Towle and admitted he buried his partner at the scene. When May heard this, he tracked down the shallow grave, dug up Towle and sawed his head off, hoping to get a hefty reward.

May brought the decaying head to a county commissioner meeting in Cheyenne but was told it was impossible to identify Towle based on the amount of decomposition. May then hauled his gruesome gunnysack to Carbon County where authorities there told him the same thing as they held their noses.

Memorabilia once displayed at the Rawlins Bank, 1949. Photo: Carbon County Museum

Charley gets in ‘Dutch’ with the law

Following the botched train robbery, Big Nose George and Dutch Charley Bates beat it north for Montana. Along the way, they stocked up at Trabing Station on Crazy Woman Creek near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming. They stole needed supplies at gunpoint including two barrels of whiskey and then laid low in a trapping community on the Musselshell in Montana.

Parrott reportedly traded some whiskey to Native Americans for horses, drove them to Canada where he sold them. He then stole more horses, returned to Montana where he sold those in Fort Benton.

But in December 1878, a soldier from Fort Benton who had traveled to Rawlins mentioned a large-nosed man named George Reynolds who had been bragging around town of his exploits. A posse was assembled in Rawlins and dispatched to Fort Benton but, when they arrived, Parrott and Bates were gone.

Bates’ description was circulated and he was soon arrested by Albany County Deputy Sheriff John LaFever at the Pioneer Hotel in Green River. Bates was then taken from a Laramie City jail cell and put on a train bound for Rawlins to face murder charges there. He never made it.

On January 5 or 23, (dates vary) in 1879, the locomotive stopped for coal and water at Carbon when a lynch mob boarded the train, overpowered officer Ed Kern, and hauled Dutch Charley off. A rope was tied around his neck and the other end tossed over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole. A barrel was placed beneath his feet.

Bates quickly confessed and reportedly begged to be shot rather than hanged. Legend has it, Elizabeth Widdowfield, sister-in-law of the murdered lawman, kicked the barrel out from under Bates herself. Historians say that was probably not the case.

The whole affair delayed the train no more than 15 minutes before it resumed its way to Rawlins. Considered unfit to lay near his victim, Bates was buried somewhere outside the cemetery boundaries of Carbon Cemetery where Deputy Widdowfield was laid to rest.

Gravestone of Robert Widdowfield, first Wyoming lawman to be killed in the line of duty. Photo: Wikimedia

Bye George: Big Nose is the last to go

And now we come to the star of our story. A man so despicable, killing him wasn’t enough. He was skinned, his brain was harvested for research purposes, and a ‘death mask’ was made of his face for posterity.

As his former gang members were being picked up and strung up one by one, Parrott laid low and struck only when he needed the money.

In July 1880, he reportedly robbed a large convoy of 15 soldiers headed from Fort Keogh escorting prominent businessman Morris Cahn in broad daylight, netting some $4,000 to $14,000 in Cahn’s money and army payroll. The area approximately 10 miles outside of Powder River Crossing, near present-day Terry, Montana, has been known as Cahn’s Coulee ever since.

Big Nose George Parrott. Photo: Wikipedia

But a big mouth was Big Nose’s downfall. Parrott got to boasting of his dastardly deeds. His boardinghouse landlady recognized him by his ample beak from a wanted poster and contacted authorities.

When Sheriff Robert Rankin arrived from Rawlins, he found Big Nose in a local saloon in Miles City and arrested him without incident. Lawmen anticipated a lynch mob would try to string up Parrott so they took a circuitous route through Carbon where former gang member Bates had met with his neck-tie party. Word leaked out, though, and on August 7, 1880, some twenty masked men boarded the train at Carbon, subdued Rankin, and dragged Parrott outside to a familiar telegraph pole.

Up he went by the neck. After dangling awhile, the mob let him down and asked for a full confession. Big Nose George at first resisted. Up he went again, hoisted several times until the mob promised if he spilled his guts they would cut him down and let him stand trial.

Parrott finally sang. He told them everything, every grisly detail of his crimes. True to their word, the mob returned Big Nose back to the custody of Sheriff Rankin and the sheriff escorted his prisoner the rest of the way to Rawlins.

On September 13, 1880, Big Nose George was arraigned in Rawlins. He told his lawyer, C. W. Bramel of Laramie, his name was George Francis Warden, reporting his birthdate as April 1843 in Dayton, Ohio.

Death mask of Parrott, missing an ear that was reportedly torn off in the hanging. Photo: Carbon County Museum

A jury was sworn in on November 16, 1880 and the trial began with Associate Justice William Ware Peck, of the Wyoming Supreme Court, presiding. The trial was over in two days, the verdict: Guilty! On December 15, Parrott was sentenced to hang for the murder of Tip Vincent. His trip to the gallows was scheduled for April 2, 1881.

For months leading up to his date with the hangman, Parrott plotted his escape. On the night of March 20, 1881, Big Nose made his move. With a pocket knife he was allowed to keep and a piece of sandstone, Parrott managed to saw through the rivets on the leather portion of the heavy leg shackles that bound him. He hid in the washroom area outside his cell and waited for lockdown.

When Sheriff Rankin entered the jail corridor at about 7:30 p.m., Big Nose struck the sheriff repeatedly with the iron manacles, knocking Rankin semi-unconscious. Rankin’s wife Rosa heard the commotion and managed to close the outer cell door and lock it. She fired a shot in the air with a nearby pistol and then trained the six-shooter on the condemned man.

Help came running. Rankin was beat up but alive. The guard was doubled on Parrott for the following day but the sheriff knew the townspeople were not going to wait until April 2.

On March 22 at 10:35 p.m., a group of about thirty masked men came calling at the jail. The sheriff put up little resistance. Hands bound behind his back, Parrott was led outside to an awaiting rope that had been tossed over the crossbar of the telegraph pole in front Hugus & Company general store on Main Street. About 200 people had already gathered to watch the outlaw swing.

Big Nose George was made to stand on a kerosene barrel. He pleaded to be shot rather than slowly strangled by the rope. When the barrel was kicked out from under him, the rope sagged so much Parrot’s feet were able to reach the ground.

Disgusted, the mob cut him down and found a stouter rope and a 12-foot ladder. Big Nose was coaxed to the top, again pleading to be shot instead. Once at the top, Parrott’s final words on this earth were, “I will jump off, boys, and break my neck.”

But the ladder was slowly pulled away and George hit the end of the rope. While kicking and dangling, Big Nose managed to free his hands and attempted to grab the telegraph pole and climb it. But he soon tired with the weight of his shackles pulling him down. Finally, he stopped struggling and dangled in the quiet night air.

Hours later, Coroner AG Edgerton took the body to Daley’s Undertaking Parlor assisted by Dr. John E. Osborne. An autopsy was conducted.

An artist’s interpretation of the hanging of George Parrott done in 1929. Image: Thomas Rooney

Big Nose becomes a pair of shoes

When no one came to claim the body, Osborne, with the assistance of another doctor, Thomas Maghee, a Union Pacific Railroad physician and surgeon, made a plaster of Paris cast of Parrott’s face, cut a large swath of skin from his chest, and removed the dead man’s skull cap to examine the brain.

Dr. John Osborne

While autopsies were not uncommon at that time, studying the brain for abnormalities that may cause a person to gravitate toward a life of crime was but a burgeoning practice. Taking parts of a dead man’s body as a souvenir was unheard of. Especially from a man who would one day become Wyoming’s third governor. More on that in a moment.

Dr. Lilian Heath. Photo: Wikipedia

Dr. Maghee gave the skull cap of the notorious Wyoming outlaw to his 15-year-old assistant, Lillian Heath, who, incidentally, would go on to become Wyoming’s first female physician. For decades, she used the skull piece as an ashtray, a doorstop, and flower pot.

Dr. Osborne, meanwhile, sent Parrott’s skin to a tannery in Denver with the instructions to fashion him a pair of shoes with the dead man’s nipples on each to prove they were footwear made from a human being. He also wanted a doctor’s bag if there was any of George’s skin leftover.

When Osborne received the shoes, he reportedly was miffed that the nipples were not included in the macabre taxidermy but nonetheless was proud to wear them to his inauguration ball when he was elected Governor of the State of Wyoming in 1893.

John Osborne’s shoes made from the skin of George Parrott. Photo: Carbon County Museum

Osborne pickled Parrot’s remains in an alcohol and saline solution, using pieces for dissection purposes until he finally buried the body in the alley behind his house. Heath, meanwhile, hung on to the skull cap for years…and it’s fortunate she did.

Long after the memory of Big Nose George had faded and seven years after the death of Osborne in 1943, construction workers were laying the foundation for a new store building when they dug up a whiskey barrel filled with human remains, a bottle of vegetable compound, and a pair of shoes (presumably the shoes Parrott was wearing when hung).

It was May 11, 1950. Dr. Lillian Heath, then in her 80s, was summoned. She brought the piece of skull cap to the scene and it fit perfectly. Later DNA testing confirmed for a fact the remains to be those of Big Nose George Parrott.

The two halves of Big Nose George Parrott’s skull were briefly reunited in 1950. Lou Nelson, left, was the husband of Dr. Lillian Heath, who had kept the top half since the time of Dr. Thomas Maghee’s original post-mortem investigation of Parrott’s brain. The bottom half of the skull turned up in a buried whiskey barrel with the rest of the outlaw’s bones. On the right is Ben Sturgis. Photo: Carbon County Museum

Where is George today?

For a time, the shoes, the death mask, a wanted poster, and the skull cap were on display at the Rawlins Bank. They are now in the permanent collection of the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.

The leg shackles worn by Parrott when he was hung were removed by Dr. Osborne. He kept them until 1928 when he donated them to the Union Pacific Railroad for display in their museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

The medicine bag made from Big Nose George’s skin has never been found.

The display of George “Big Nose” Parrott is one of the most popular draws at the Carbon County Museum. Photo: Carbon County Museum
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