It was a grim ending for Wyoming outlaw “Big Nose” George Parrott — he strangled at the end of a lynch mob’s noose, the top of his skull became an ashtray, pen holder and doorstop, and his skin a pair of shoes, coin purse and medical bag.
He was part of a gang of outlaws led by Sim Jan that terrorized the Powder River area in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana in the 1870s and ’80s. Other gang members were Frank McKinney, Joe Manuse, Jack Campbell, John Wells, Tom Reed, Frank Tole and “Dutch Charley” Burress.
They were good at robbing pay wagons and stagecoaches, but things started going bad when they tried robbing a Union Pacific train.
On Aug. 14, 1878, on an isolated track 6 miles east of Medicine Bow, Wyo., Big Nose George and six other gang members loosened a train track hoping to derail the No. 3 westbound train and steal the railroad’s payroll cash carried in the payroll wagon.
However, a railroad worker who returned to retrieve his toolkit inadvertently left behind alertly noticed loose bolts and fish plates joining the rails, with wires attached to the bolts and leading to a nearby embankment.
The worker immediately suspected that road agents may be hiding there to derail the train. He pretended not to notice the loose rails, picked up his tools and casually sauntered off.
As soon as he was out of sight, he raced up the track to flag down the train. Then he notified Albany County Sheriff Daniel Nottage and chief dispatcher Edward Dickinson.
So the outlaws wouldn’t be alerted, they circulated fake news that “nothing serious had taken place; the train would not have been derailed, and that it was probably someone who bore a grudge against the company.”
(Other accounts said it was a handcart crew that discovered and fixed the sabotaged rails before the train arrived; and the robbers “who were hiding in the bushes nearby” saw it all — and gang member “Frank McKinney wanted to shoot them, but Big Nose George and Frank Tole objected, saying they hadn’t come to kill section men.”)
The next day, Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and railroad detective Henry “Tip” Vincent tracked the gang to Rattlesnake Canyon at Elk Mountain 25 miles southwest, where they were spotted by a gang lookout.
The gang quickly doused the campfire and set up an ambush. Widdowfield was shot in the face and Vincent was killed trying to escape — the first Wyoming lawmen killed in the line of duty.
The gang covered up the bodies, took their weapons and horses, fled the canyon and then split up.
When the bodies were found, the Union Pacific doubled the reward money to $20,000.
A few weeks later, Frank Tole was killed while trying to rob the Black Hills Stage Line.
Big Nose and his cohorts continued robbing. They held up Miles City, Montana Territory merchant Morris Cahn of several thousand dollars when he was accompanying a military wagon en route to picking up money for the fort from the Northern Pacific.
People in southern Wyoming were still seething over the murder of the lawmen when in January 1879, lawmen caught Dutch Charley Burress in the Black Hills and he’d just been shot in the arm in an altercation.
They promptly brought him back to Rawlins for trial.
On the way, the train stopped for coal and water at Carbon, 38 miles east of Rawlins, and a mob of armed townsfolk got wind of Burress being on board and went to get him. They found him under a bunch of buffalo robes in a guarded car and hauled him out.
Marching Burress over to a nearby telegraph pole, they stood him on a 50-gallon whiskey barrel and put a noose around his neck and the rope over the T-bar as Dutch Charley pleaded for his life.
In his journal, Carbon and Hanna, Wyo., local John Milliken Sr. (born in Scotland in 1854) wrote about the hanging:
“One of the leaders of the mob said, ‘Now, if you will tell us the truth and all about who killed Vincent and Widdowfield, we will see you get a fair trial.’ Dutch Charley said, ‘I don’t know nothing about it but if you’ll let me go, I’ll help catch them all.’
“He was standing on the barrel all this time and they got awfully tired of him and they stretched the rope. They said ‘One, two, three’ all together and they pulled him off. Then they let him down…Then the crowd got excited and said ‘Up he goes.’ And away they went…
“I’ll bet they pulled him up a dozen times and each time he came down ker-plop and his neck kept stretching…”
The sheriff cut his body down later in the morning and took it to Rawlins.
None of townspeople admitted participating in the hanging.
The Cheyenne Weekly Leader of Jan. 16, 1879, said, “The body of Dutch Charley has been cut down, and an inquest held — the verdict was death from hanging, by persons unknown. The body was buried Wednesday.”
Medicine Bow resident and Carbon historian Richard Fisher said while conducting a tour of Carbon Cemetery, “Dutch Charley’s grave is just outside the fence, over there (pointing north) — right across from that pine tree. Years ago there was a pile of rocks there.
“He was not considered worthy of burial in the Carbon Cemetery, where Deputy Widdowfield was laid to rest. Dutch Charley’s unmarked grave is located somewhere in the sagebrush outside the cemetery boundaries.”
After the killings near Medicine Bow, Big Nose and some other gang members were in Miles City, Mont., bars bragging about their exploits — including the Wyoming killings.
Carbon County Sheriff James Rankin was alerted and he went to Montana, arrested Big Nose and brought him back to Rawlins for trial.
Two other gang members got away.
Big Nose George was convicted and sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881, but because of an escape attempt, his execution happened 10 days earlier.
While in jail, he sawed off the heavy leg shackles using a knife and piece of sandstone. Then he clobbered jailer Robert Rankin — the sheriff’s brother — with the shackles, cracking his skull. But before he could escape, Rankin’s wife, Rosa, appeared and stopped him with a revolver.
Quickly a mob of about 200 gathered and strung Big Nose up on a telegraph pole — like Dutch Charlie. The first rope broke and as he lay on the ground begging to be shot, he covertly loosened his hands tied behind his back.
Then with a new rope around his neck he was forced 12 feet up a ladder which was then pulled out from under him. He grabbed the pole, but the heavy shackles kept pulling him down. Soon he tired and slowly strangled to death.
No one came forward to claim the body, so local physician Dr. John E. Osborne, present at the hanging, and Dr. Thomas G. Maghee, a Union Pacific Railroad physician and surgeon claimed the corpse in the name of science to study the outlaw’s brain.
Dr. Maghee sawed off the top half of the skull and gave it to 15-year old Lillian Heath, his medical protégé who would become Wyoming’s first female physician.
Dr. Osborne made a death mask and had the body skinned — the skin sent to Denver to be tanned and made into a pair of shoes, coin purse and a medical bag.
Today the shoes can be seen at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, as well as his death mask and the bottom part of his skull.
The medical bag has never been found.
The shackles used during his hanging, and skull cap are on display at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The rest of his body was stored in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt solution for about a year, before being buried in the yard behind Dr. Maghee’s office.
Discovered by construction workers in 1950, the barrel also contained the skull cap, skin shoes and a bottle of vegetable compound.
In 1893, after Dr. Osborne was elected the state of Wyoming’s first Democrat governor, he wore the shoes to his inaugural ball.
Today, that probably wouldn’t be politically correct.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
Den of thieves…
In addition to robbery and murder, Big Nose George Parrott was known as a horse thief. He was arrested on the charge but was acquitted after being tried by a justice of the peace.
He was also believed to have been hanging out with other outlaws at the famous Hole-in-the-Wall west of present-day Kaycee, Wyoming — a favorite hideout for Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.
Skull cap from ashtray to museum…
When Dr. Lillian Heath was in her eighties and the barrel filled with Big Nose George’s remains was found in 1950, she was contacted to see if the skull cap she was given when she was a teenager fit the bottom half. It did, and later DNA testing further proved the remains were Big Nose.
What’s in a name?
George Parrott got his nickname “Big Nose” either because of its unusual large size, or possibly because its shape resembled “the beak of a parrot.”
A legend says that when his body was cut down after the hanging and placed in a coffin, William Dailey the local undertaker had a tough time nailing down the top because the dead man’s nose kept pressing against the lid.
Dr. Maghee years later…
“Dr. Maghee made medical history for completing one of the first successful plastic surgery and facial reconstructions in Wyoming’s history. On November 2, 1886, herder George Webb, age 53, attempted to take his life with a shotgun in a sheep wagon south of Rawlins.
“Webb succeeded only in losing a large portion of his nose, upper and lower jaw. Over the course of 39 surgeries ‘under profound chloroform’ between November 12, 1886 and April 27, 1887, Dr. Maghee was able to reconstruct Webb’s face.”
— Wyoming State Archives “Postscripts”
Guarding passenger sensibilities…
“When the passenger train came through that morning the men and conductors pulled all the curtains down so they couldn’t see Dutch Charley hanging on the pole.”
— John Milliken Sr. from his Journal