Okay, I'm going to apologize, this is a re-post of a blog I did a few years back. But the story of Big Nose George is a ghoulishly wonderful way to wrap up the Halloween season and...it's just a great story to prove truth is so much stranger than fiction.
We don’t know much about George Parrot other than he was a cattle
rustler, and then joined a gang. Known for his large nose and therefore
called Big Nose George, he was a member of a gang of road agents and
horse thieves. The leader of the gang was a man named Sim Jan, and they
were active in the Powder River country, robbing pay wagons and
stagecoaches. Other gang members included: Frank McKinney, Joe Manuse,
Jack Campbell, John Wells, Tom Reed, Frank Tole, and “Dutch Charley”
After a series of successful robberies, the gang decided
to expand their operation to robbing trains. On August 16, 1878, they
planned to rob a Union Pacific train near Medicine Bow by manipulating
the tracks so the train would derail. However, as the outlaws waited in
the brush for the train, a section crew from the railroad came along and
discovered the tampered rail.
Frank McKinney wanted to shoot the
rail crew, but Big Nose George and Frank Tole objected, saying they
hadn’t come to kill. As the crewmen repaired the track, a railroad
foreman rode ahead to stop the approaching train and inform the law that
the rail had been tampered with. Forced to abort the robbery, the
outlaws watched helplessly as the track was repaired. After the workers
left, the gang rode off.
A posse was hastily formed and rode out
to apprehend the would-be train robbers. Two lawmen tracked the gang to
Rattlesnake Canyon in Elk Mountain. The outlaws shot and killed both
lawmen. Wanted now for attempted robbery and the murder of two lawmen,
the outlaws went their separate ways.
One of the victims killed
that day was Robert Widdowfield. Widdowfield was born in County Durham,
England, the son of a miner. In 1870, when Widdowfield was twenty-one,
the family moved to America and settled in Wyoming where Robert became a
deputy sheriff in Carbon County. On August, 19, 1878, he became
Wyoming’s first officer to be killed in the line of duty.
Union Pacific Railroad doubled their efforts in tracking the gang
members and county authorities offered a $10,000 reward for their
capture. Frank Tole was killed the next month while attempting to rob
the Black Hills Stage line.
“Dutch Charley” was apprehended in
1879. However, when the westbound train transporting the outlaw to
Rawlins for trial passed Carbon it was stopped by a mob. “Dutch
Charley" was forcibly taken from the train and hanged from a telegraph
pole, with one of the widows kicking the barrel out from under “Dutch
Charley” and ending his career.
Two years later in Miles City,
Montana, Big Nose George, in a drunken stupor, bragged about killing two
Wyoming lawmen. A telegraph was sent to Rawlins, and in July, 1880,
Sheriff James Rankin of Carbon County went to Montana to collect his
prisoner and bring George back to Wyoming. A second time, the train
bringing a gang member back was stopped in Carbon by the same mob that
lynched “Dutch Charley.” Big Nose was hauled off the train and prepared
for hanging. But the outlaw confessed and pleaded for his life,
promising to tell all he knew if they let him live. The vigilantes cut
him down and he was allowed to continue the journey to Rawlins to stand
When he arrived in Rawlins, he recanted his confession
after he was told if he pleaded guilty there would be no trial if his
plea was accepted and he would face a mandatory death sentence. His
trial began in November of 1880, and he again changed his plea to
guilty. The plea was accepted and on December 15, 1880, he was sentenced
to hang on April 2, 1881.
While Big Nose was in jail, he stated
Frank McKinney claimed to be Frank James, which led to some speculation
that Frank McKinney and the gang’s leader, Sim Jan, were Frank and Jesse
James. The only gang members ever caught were: Frank Tole, “Dutch
Charley,” and Big Nose George. McKinney, Jan and the rest of the gang
George managed to file the rivets of the heavy shackles on his ankles, using a
pocket knife and a piece of sandstone. After removing his shackles, he
hid until jailor Robert Rankin (brother of Sheriff James Rankin) entered
the area. Big Nose struck Robert Rankin with the shackles, fracturing
his skull, but Rankin fought back and called out to his wife, Rosa.
Rosa grabbed a pistol and forced Big Nose back into his cell.
of the attempted escape spread through Rawlins, and a mob descended on
the jail determined to see Big Nose hang. They dragged Big Nose George
from the jail to a telegraph pole on what is now Front Street. A crowd
of about 200 people gathered. The first effort using a Kerosine barrel
was unsuccessful. On the second attempt, Big Nose was made to ascend a
ladder leaning against a telegraph pole. When the ladder was pulled out
from under him, Big Nose managed to get his hands free and clung to the
pole begging for someone to have mercy and shoot him. No one did. Tired,
Big Nose let go and strangled to death.
The body was left hanging for hours until the undertaker cut it down. With no family to claim
the body, Doctors Thomas Maghee and John Osborne took possession of it.
The doctors wanted to study the outlaw’s brain for the purpose of
determining whether there were any visible criminal abnormalities. The
skull cap was removed and given to Lillian Heath (later Lillian Nelson),
a fifteen-year-old apprentice of Dr. Maghee. Heath, who became the
first woman doctor in Wyoming, used the skull cap as an ashtray, pencil
holder and doorstop until her death. Though Dr. Maghee acted within the
medical ethics of the time, Dr. Osborne’s activities became bizarre.
first molded a death mask of George’s face using plaster of paris. The
mask was without ears because while George struggled at the end of the
rope his ears were torn off.
Next, Osborne removed the skin from
the dead man’s thighs and chest, which he shipped to a tannery in Denver
with a set of grotesque instructions. The tannery was to use the skin,
including the nipples, to make him a pair of shoes and a medicine bag.
When Dr. Osborne received the shoes, he was disappointed to find they
didn’t include the nipples, but proudly wore them despite his
instructions not being followed.
The rest of Big Nose George’s
dismembered body was kept in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt
solution for about a year as Osborne continued his dissection and
experiments. Finally, the whiskey barrel was buried by Osborne’s office
Despite this odd behavior, Osborne was elected as
Wyoming’s first Democratic governor, in 1892. Although, the
circumstances surrounding his election are a bit sketchy, and it is
often said he sneaked into office when the Republicans weren’t looking.
Returns from Converse and Fremont Counties were delayed, and the State
Canvassing Board was unable to certify the results. Taking matters in
his own hands, Osborne took the oath of office on December 2, before a
notary public and allegedly crawled along a ledge of the State House and
in through the window into the Governor’s Office and refused to leave.
The scene culminated with a wrestling match between Acting Governor
Barber’s secretary and Osborne for the key to the office.
Osborne wore the shoes made of George’s skin to his inaugural ball,
which seems fitting since it appears he was as much a criminal as Big
Big Nose George was all but forgotten until May 11, 1950,
when a construction crew excavating for a new building unearthed a
whiskey barrel filled with bones. Included in the mass of bones was a
skull with the top sawed off.
A citizen recalled Dr. Lillian Heath
Nelson kept a skull cap. Nelson was still alive, but well into her
eighties. Her family was contacted and her husband brought the skull
cap to the scene, it fit perfectly with the skull found in the barrel.
Subsequent DNA testing has occurred and verified the results.
if you’ve got a hankerin’, the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins displays
Big Nose George’s death mask, his skull and the infamous shoes. Also
on display, is a watch given by the County Commissioners to Rosa Rankin
for stopping Big Nose’s escape. The shackles used on Big Nose during his
hanging and the skull cap are on display at the Union Pacific Museum in
Omaha, Nebraska. The medicine bag has never been found.
go, folks! Not a pretty story, and frankly Cookie’s been yarkin’ in a
pail since George was skinned and turned inta shoes! Truth be told, I’m
lookin’ for my own pail! But if yer lookin’ for somethin’ a little
different to see on the trail head on over to Rawlins and take a look at
Thanks for indulging me. Now I have to go vote for the new governor of Wyoming...I'll be checking out his footwear to be sure.
Kirsten Lynn writes stories based on the people and history of the
West, more specifically those who live and love in Wyoming and Montana.
Using her MA in Naval History, Kirsten, weaves her love of the West and
the military together in many of her stories, merging these two halves
of her heart. When she's not roping, riding and rabble-rousing with the
cowboys and cowgirls who reside in her endless imagination, Kirsten
works as a professional historian.
COMING NOVEMBER 13TH