Big Nose George: The Bandit Who Became a Pair of Shoes in 1881
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
The rest of George’s remains remained hidden in a whisky barrel filled with a saline solution, and eventually, they were buried.
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.
For a brief period, the two halves of Big Nose George’s skull were reunited.
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.