Big Nose George: The Bandit Who Became a Pair of Shoes in 1881

Death mask of Big Nose George Parrott and shoes made from his skin, on display at the Rawlins National Bank, 1949. Historical Reproductions by Perue.
Death mask of Big Nose George Parrott and shoes made from his skin, on display at the Rawlins National Bank, 1949.

Intro

During North America’s Gold Rush of 1848, the country truly became a ‘Wild West’, a lawless land where bandits, outlaws and cattle rustlers ruled the land, committing heinous crimes and atrocious murders whatever they went.

There are those very rare occasions in which career criminals can evade justice until they die of old age or disease. Those who manage to escape justice have a strange appeal to the public, and they end up becoming part of the popular folklore, and sometimes even urban legends.

Most criminals, however, end up being caught, punished, beaten, and in some cases sentenced to death, according to the penal laws of each country.

The case of Big Nose George is unusual because George did not end up on the gallows, or in prison. Big Nose George, after a lifetime of crime, ended up becoming an ashtray, a mask, a medical bag and a pair of shoes.  

The Pair of Shoes Big Nose George was turned into
The Pair of Shoes ‘Big Nose’ George was turned into

Short Biography of Big Nose George

Big Nose George was a bandit who terrorized the State of Wyoming with his seven-member band of outlaws. He was known by many names, Big Nose George, Big Beak Parrott, George Manuse, and George Warden.

But George was born George Parrott in the French town of Montbéliard in 1834.

The only known image of George Parrot aka Big Nose George
The only known image of George Parrot aka Big Nose George

He left France from the port of Le Havre in 1862, leaving his wife and child behind. The reasons for his departure are unknown. Some believe that he left to seek his fortune in the Land of Opportunity, as so many men did back then. Others believed that he intended to scout the land with the idea of bringing his wife and child at a later time.

He arrived at the port of New York on April 17, 1962, and died, according to genealogy records from the Parrot family, in Rawlins, United States, in 1881.

Genealogy records of the Parrot Family
Genealogy records of the Parrot Family
Port of New York Archives
Port of New York Archives

This is known thanks to the passion and dedication of historian and researcher Jean-Pierre Bohin, who was able to track the Parrot’s family genealogy and find Big George’s birth certificate, as well as his record of arrival in the US.

George Parrot: The Outlaw

It isn’t exactly known why George became a bandit, or how he met his merry band of outlaws. But he became a robber known for stealing cattle (cattle rustler) and for robbing travellers by horse (highwayman).

I878, Big Nose George and his crew decided to try their luck by robbing a train from the Union Pacific Railroad Company that carried the wages of the employees of the train company. The band set loose some spikes on the rails and covered them with telegraph wire. But the plan was discovered by the rail-road employers, who stopped the train, clear the obstruction and called the authorities.

Big George and the outlaws flew the scene and hid near a camp in camp at Rattlesnake Canyon, near Elk Mountain, where they were finally spotted by gang lookouts. The gang ambushed and killed Union Pacific detective Henry “Tip” Vincent, and Country Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Widdowfield.

This made George one of the most wanted criminals in the United States, so much so that $1000 reward posters were posted all over the country. The reward of up to $10 000 was for George and each of his companions. The reward would later be doubled to $20 000.

Big Nose George aka George Parrot Reward of up to $10 000
Big Nose George aka George Parrot Reward of up to $10 000

A year later, Big Nose George and some of his companions found themselves in Milestown (now Miles City, Montana), where they managed to attack and rob a military convoy carrying between $3 600 to $14 000 (depending on accounts).

Not long after, George and his gang were overheard in a bar talking about their misdeeds while in a drunken stupor. He was apprehended in July 1880 and transported by train to Rawlins where he was trialled. George changed his plea from guilty to not guilty, but was denied the motion and was sentenced to death by hanging on April 2, 1881. At that time, death by hanging was the punishment for those found guilty of murder.

George’s Death

Ten days before his scheduled execution, Big Nose George attempted to escape by sawing through the rivets of his shackles with a pocket knife. He then struck his jailer over the head cracking his skull. The jailer’s wife managed to subdue the criminal using a revolver and firing shots in the air to alert the townsfolk.

Pair of boots worn by George Parrot at the time of his lynching
Pair of boots worn by George Parrot at the time of his lynching

News of the attempted escape spread through Rawlins like gunpowder. And shortly after, a group of masked men with pistols entered the jail to retrieve George. Far from being rescued, he was led by a mob of over 200 townspeople clamouring for his lynching. A rope was hanged over a telephone pole while he was made to stand on an empty kerosene barrel. But the rope broke. A few repairs later, George would finally choke to death.

Carbon County Museum’s exhibits about “Big Nose” George Parrott
Carbon County Museum’s exhibits about “Big Nose” George Parrott

Desecrating Remains

The body of George Parrot was left hanging for several hours, but nobody came to claim the body. Eventually, it was taken over by two doctors. A local town doctor by the name of John E. Osborne, and a Union Pacific Railroad physician and surgeon by the name of Dr. Thomas Maghee.

The doctors quickly determined that there must have been a fault with George’s brain and body for him to become a criminal. They proceeded to experiment with his body. Unlike modern coroners and morticians, Big Nose George’s skin was removed from his body, including his nipples, and his skull was cracked in half. Part of the skull went to then 15-year-old assistant physician Lillian Heath, who later went on to become the first female doctor in Wyoming.  Lillian claimed to have used George’s remains as an ashtray, a pen holder and a door stopper.

Parrot's skull and shoes made from his skin
Parrot’s skull and shoes made from his skin

George’s skin was sent by Dr Osborne to the local tannery to be fashioned into a medical bag and a pair of shoes. Currently, the medical bag’s whereabouts are unknown, but the shoes were proudly worn by Dr Osborne when he became the first Democratic Governor of Wyoming in 1892.

Dr Osborne also fashioned a mask out of George’s face skin using plaster of Paris. Minus the ears, since they had been cut off during the first attempted hanging. (See the image at the beginning of the article.)

John Osborne, the doctor who experimented with the remains of George Parrot and made shoes out of his skin
John Osborne, the doctor who experimented with the remains of George Parrot and made shoes out of his skin

The rest of George’s remains remained hidden in a whisky barrel filled with a saline solution, and eventually, they were buried.

80 years old Lillian Heath still in posession of George Parrot's skull
80 years old Lillian Heath still in possession of George Parrot’s skull

Rediscovering the Remains of Big Nose George

George’s tale faded into the black hole of history until his remains were re-discovered in 1950.

skeletal remains of big nose george found in a barrel
skeletal remains of big nose George found in a barrel

For a brief period, the two halves of Big Nose George’s skull were reunited.  

The two halves of Big Nose George Parrott's skull were briefly reunited in 1950. Lou Nelson, right, 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 left is Ben Sturgis, Carbon County coroner. Carbon County Museum. Renowned forensic anthropologist George Gill and Wyoming State Archeologist Mark Miller reunited the halves of Big Nose George’s skull in 1995 when they worked on a study of frontier violence with University of Wyoming graduate student Kristi McMahan. The study confirmed that the skin on Osborne’s shoes was indeed human, but neither the shoes nor a small piece of skin on the skullcap were tested biochemically because such testing would have destroyed them. Gill hoped to match the skin on the shoes to the skin on the skull and to prove that the skin did indeed belong to the man known as Big Nose George.  Throughout the years, several people from throughout the United States and Canada who believe they might be relatives of the outlaw have contacted Miller and historians at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins. Miller, who recently retired as state archeologist, also has family connection to the story. Miller’s great-grandfather, I.C. Miller, served as Carbon County sheriff at the time of Big Nose
The two halves of Big Nose George Parrott’s skull were briefly reunited in 1950. Lou Nelson, right, 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.
A local newspaper article reports the discovery of Big Nose George Parrotts remains in 1950 in Rawlins. Photo credit Carbon County Museum
A local newspaper article reports the discovery of Big Nose George Parrotts remains in 1950 in Rawlins. Photo credit Carbon County MuseumOther Source

Currently, Big Nose George Parrot’s skull, mask and shoes can be seen in the Carbon County Museum in Wyoming. The rest of George’s remains were buried at an undisclosed location.

Rawlins, Wyoming 1891
Rawlins, Wyoming 1891

6 thoughts on “Big Nose George: The Bandit Who Became a Pair of Shoes in 1881

  1. I couldn’t help but think of Big Nose Kate also. But I also thought of the outlaw Flatnose George Curry that rode with Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch. I recently visited the more famous ” big nose” as in Kate’s grave,,her final resting place is on a hill over looking a Wallmart in Prescott Arizona.

    1. A lot of people tried to link George to the Wild Bunch. But the age difference just makes it an impossibility.
      However, the ‘Wild West’ was such a unique period in history. I am always amazed by it.

  2. Very really surprise that a person can actually use a human skin to make shoe and was even kept as a souvenir. Quite surprising. Even inspite of his bone disappearance it still came into existence in the 50’s. I would say a divine power is attached to it.

  3. It is incredibly. I didn’t think people could ever do that. Although he was a criminal, he was a human being. It’s disgusting to me. No one deserved this. Thanks for the interesting article.

  4. This information is top notch super exciting to hear it. I didn’t know why people could ever do that. Although he was a criminal, he was a human being deserving more. So I find it disgusting . Nobody deserved this. Thanks for the interesting article.

  5. It’s absolutely exciting to receive this information. I couldn’t see how somebody could possibly do that. Even though he was a criminal, he was still a person and deserved more. Therefore, I find it repulsive. None of them merited this. I appreciate the informative information.

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