When we talk about “Wild West”, referring, of course, to the conquest of the western territories of the United States, perhaps we do not have the real perception of how that era was dangerous and characterized by chilling events, not all linked to the genocide of Native Americans.
Exposed at the Carbon County Museum in the town of Rawlins, Wyoming, there is a macabre trophy: a pair of shoes made of human skin, that of a man named George Parrot. The man, who was also known as Big Nose George, was a small time cattle rustler and highwayman in the American Wild West in the late 19th century. He was reputed to have a large nose, hence the nickname.
He was certainly a bandit, but not the most notorious at the time. Why then did a gruesome end touch him?
Even before he was wanted for murder, George Parrot was known for his raids, carried out with a band of outlaws: thefts of cattle but also assaults on freight wagons, trains and stage coaches. In those days, all business transactions were done in cash, and coaches often carried large amounts of paper money especially during paydays.
It was an attempt to rob a Union Pacific Rail Road train to turn Big Nose into a murderer: in August 1878 Parrot and his gang decided to try their luck on a Union Pacific train that was carrying payrolls for its employees. They found a lonely stretch of tracks near Medicine Bow River, in Wyoming, loosened a spike in the rails and waited for the train to arrive.
However, the robbery failed because a sharp-eyed railroad employee spotted the tampered rail, repaired the damage and alerted lawmen before the train could arrive.
Big Nose and his men fled through a Rattlesnake Canyon at the base of Elk Mountain and camped at the foot of a mountain, about 40 kilometers from the site of the attempted robbery. Hot on their heels were two law enforcement officers: Wyoming deputy sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Union Pacific detective Tip Vincent. When the officers arrived at Rattlesnake Canyon, they saw the ashes of a campfire that was hastily stamped out. As Widdowfield stooped to feel the ashes to see how recent the fire was, a shot from the bushes stuck him in the face killing him instantly. Vincent turned and tried to run but was shot next. The outlaws, who managed to stay free for the next two years, still continuing to make fruitful robberies in other states.
In the meantime, the railway company had put an interesting bounty ($ 10,000, then doubled) on the head of Big Nose George, who who got drunk in a bar in Miles City, Montana, and boasted of the killings of Vincent and Widdowfield on Elk Mountain. Immediately arrested and returned to Wyoming, the bandit was tried and sentenced to death by hanging.
On March 22, 1881, ten days before the execution, Parrot tried to escape, foiled by the sheriff’s wife, who fired a gunshot in the air to call people back, after her husband had been stunned by the bandit who, using a pocket knife, he sawed through the rivets on the heavy leg shackles that bound him and struck jailer Robert Rankin in the head cracking his skull.
So, a crowd of about 200 people gathered, and after a failed attempt managed to hang the outlaw.
Having no relatives to claim the corpse, Doctors Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne took possession of Parrott’s body in order to study the outlaw’s brain for clues to his criminality. The upper part of the skull was cut and given to Maghee’s fifteen-year-old assistant, Lillian Heath (who became the first Wyoming doctor), who it seems, used it as an ashtray and later as a doorstop in her office.
Osborne made a Parrot death mask, Then he removed skin from the dead man’s thighs and chest, and sent it to a tannery in Denver, with precise instructions: the hide—which included George’s nipples—was to be fashioned into a pair of shoes and a medicine bag.
When Dr. Osborn received the shoes, he was disappointed to find they didn’t include the nipples, but he wore them anyway.
The rest of George’s dismembered body was kept in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt solution, and Osborn continued his bizarre dissection and experiments for a year. Eventually, the whiskey barrel was buried in the yard behind Dr. Maghee’s office.
In the following years Osborne entered politics, and went on to become the first Democratic Governor of Wyoming, and later the assistant Secretary of State under President Wilson. It seems that at the ball, on the occasion of his election, in 1893, he wore the popular shoes. Later, when he became director of Rawlins National Bank, he kept his shoes on display in a glass case in the lobby of the bank.
Big Nose George, his criminal history and his remains were forgotten for decades, until one May afternoon in 1950, when construction workers unearthed a whiskey barrel filled with bones while excavating for a new building. Inside the barrel was a skull with the top sawed off, a bottle of vegetable compound, and a pair of shoes.
In the small town many remembered the events of the end of the 1800s, and the local authorities were certain that the remains belonged to Big Nose George. However, a check was needed. Someone remembered Lillian Heath, and tried to contact her: the doctor, who at the time was about eighty years old, kept the upper part of the skull of Parrot, which went to fit perfectly with the sawn skull on the barrel.
A local newspaper article reports the discovery of “Big Nose” George Parrott’s remains in 1950 in Rawlins:
Many decades later, DNA analysis confirmed that the two remains belong to the same individual, George Parrot.
Today, the shoes made from the skin of Big Nose George, together with the bottom part of his skull and his death mask, are on permanent display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. The skull cap is at the Union Pacific Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The medicine bag was never found.