Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Big Nose George

George Parrott, also known as Big Nose George, George Manuse and George Warden, was a cattle rustler in the American Wild West in the late 19th century. He is famous for his skin being made into a pair of shoes after his execution.

In 1878, Parrott and his gang murdered two law enforcement officers—Wyoming deputy sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Union Pacific detective Tip Vincent—while trying to escape following a bungled train robbery. Widdowfield and Vincent were ordered to track down Parrott's gang on August 19, 1878, following the attempted robbery on an isolated stretch of track near the Medicine Bow River. The officers traced the outlaws to a camp at Rattlesnake Canyon, near Elk Mountain, where they were spotted by a gang lookout. The robbers stamped out their fire and hid in a bush but, when Widdowfield arrived at the scene, he realised the ashes of the fire were still hot. The gang then opened fire and Widdowfield was shot in the face. Vincent tried to escape, but was shot before he made it out of the canyon. The gang stole the weapons of both men, as well as one of their horses, before covering up the bodies and fleeing the area. The murder of the two lawmen was quickly discovered and a $10,000 reward was offered for the "apprehension of their murderers". This was later doubled to $20,000.

In February 1879, Big Nose George and his cohorts were in Milestown, later present day Miles City, Montana. It was known around Milestown that a prosperous local merchant, one Morris Cahn would be taking money east to buy stocks of merchandise. Big Nose George, Charlie Burris and two others planned and carried out a daring daylight robbery even though Morris Cahn was traveling with a group of 15 soldiers, two officers, an ambulance and a wagon from Fort Keogh, who were going east to collect the army payroll. At a site about 10 miles beyond the Powder River Crossing, near present day Terry, Montana, there is a steep coulee (known ever since as "Cahn's Coulee"). Approaching the coulee over a five-mile plateau, the soldiers, ambulance and the wagon got strung out. The gang donned masks and stationed themselves at the bottom of the coulee, at a turn in the trail. The gang first surprised and then captured the lead element of soldiers, as well as the ambulance with Cahn and the officers. Then they waited and likewise captured the rear element of soldiers with the wagon. Cahn was robbed of somewhere between $3,600 and $14,000, depending on who was doing the reporting.

In 1880 following the robbery of Cahn, Big Nose George Parrott and his second, Charlie Burris or "Dutch Charley", were arrested in Miles City by two local deputies, Lem Wilson and Fred Schmalsle, after Big Nose and Charlie got drunk and boasted of killing the two Wyoming lawmen, thus identifying themselves as men with a price on their head. Parott was returned to Wyoming to face charges of murder. Parrott was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881, following a trial, but tried to escape while being held at a Rawlins, Wyoming jail. Parrott was able to wedge and file the rivets of the heavy shackles on his ankles, using a pocket knife and a piece of sandstone. On March 22, having removed his shackles, he hid in the washroom until jailor Robert Rankin entered the area. Using the shackles, Parrott struck Rankin over the head, fracturing his skull. Rankin managed to fight back, calling out to his wife, Rosa, for help at the same time. Grabbing a pistol, she managed to persuade Parrott to return to his cell. News of the escape attempt spread through Rawlins and groups of people started making their way to the jail. While Rankin lay recovering, masked men with pistols burst into the jail. Holding Rankin at gunpoint, they took his keys, then dragged George from his cell. The 200-strong lynch mob strung him up from a telegraph pole. Charlie Burris suffered a similar lynching not long after his capture; having been transported by train to Rawlins, a group of locals found him hiding in a baggage compartment and proceeded to hang him on the crossbeam of a nearby telegraph pole.

Doctors Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne took possession of Parrott's body after his death, to study the outlaw's brain for clues to his criminality. 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. Heath became the first female doctor in Wyoming and is said to have used the cap as an ash tray, a pen holder and a doorstop. A death mask was also created of Parrott's face, and skin from his thighs and chest was removed. The skin, including the dead man's nipples, was sent to a tannery in Denver, where it was made into a pair of shoes and a medical bag. They were kept by Osborne, who wore the shoes to his inaugural ball after being elected as the first Democratic Governor of the State of Wyoming. Parrott's dismembered body was stored in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt solution for about a year, while the experiments continued, until he was buried in the yard behind Maghee's office.

The death of Big Nose George faded into history over the years until May 11, 1950, when construction workers unearthed a whiskey barrel filled with bones while working on 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 thigh flesh. Dr. Lillian Heath, then in her eighties, was contacted and her skull cap was sent to the scene. It was found to fit the skull in the barrel perfectly, and DNA testing later confirmed the remains were those of Big Nose George. Today the shoes made from the skin of Big Nose George are on permanent display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, together with the bottom part of the outlaw's skull and Big Nose George's 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 has never been found

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