By the Skin of his Body: The Death of Big Nose George

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George Parrott PortraitAugust 1878, United States of America; a Union Pacific train was screaming through large, and largely empty, rural Wyoming. The day was warm and the steam train chugged along streaming billowing water vapour lazily through the air. George Parrott or Big Nose George as he was also known, was waiting by the tracks in Carbon County. His outlaw gang and he were ready to move from small pickings and into the big leagues. A simple plan; derail train; rob train; leave train.

As a group they had loosened a few sections of track the day before, moving them enough to destabilise the train, then they lay in wait. Unfortunately for the fellows some section hands had wandered across the damage and immediately repaired it. The train was safe. The train moved past them and wasn’t derailed and so they aborted the robbery, but they weren’t clear.

The section hands immediately reported the tampering to the authorities. Two men set out to investigate, Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Special Railroad Detective Harry ‘Tip’ Vincent. The gang fled to a temporary camp in the nearby ‘Rattlesnake Canyon’ but the investigators were hot on their tracks and discovered them within days. Upon entering the camp they found a pile of embers. When blown upon they glowed, they were still hot.

The gang was lying in wait, then they leaped out. Anything up to twenty shots rang out through the canyon and the two investigators lay dead. Shot by Parrott’s cruel collective.

The group partially buried the bodies and then split, but while they fought the law, the law won. Surveyors near the canyon reported hearing the sounds of gunshots rebounding off the rock faces and 20 men were assembled to handle the incident when they realised the two men weren’t coming back. So off they went, to find the bandits and bring about justice.

Riding and tracking they eventually found the now abandoned encampment, along with the bodies of two men, the parts that hadn’t been shot to pieces at least. Widdowfield’s corpse had 7 bullet holes in the skull alone. The two rapidly decomposing bodies had been loosely covered in dust and gravel the week before, so with 7 days of catching up the hunt for the gang began. A prize of $10,000 was offered for their capture of the group. Almost immediately afterwards Union Pacific doubled that offer.

The first of the group to die was ‘Dutch Charlie.’ Once caught he was put on a westbound train to Rawlins where he would stand trial, if he had ever arrive. When the train passed through Carbon County a lynch mob was waiting. They crowded the rails and stopped the train before boarding it. Dutch Charlie was hauled out and dragged to a nearby telegraph pole.

Upon arrival a tough rope noose was place around his neck while the rest of the rope was tossed over the cross arm of the telegraph pole. He was stood upon a barrel and the rope was secured. Then, according to the reports, Mrs Elizabeth Widdowfield kicked away the barrel, shouting:

“This will teach you to kill my brother in-law!”

In 1880, Big Nose George was found, drunk and boasting about an attempted train robbery back in Wyoming. He was captured in July of that same year and was sent by train to Rawlins for trial. He arrived and was told that he would be sentenced to death if found guilty. Three days into the trial he pleaded guilty in a bid for his life, describing the murders and the other gang members in detail. His plea was accepted and his life was spared.

Imprisoned George was a restrained George and he needed to break free, so he did just that. March 22nd 1881 he made a break for freedom, assaulting a warden who held the keys. He was only stopped by a combination of the warden’s wife and the loaded pistol she brandished about.

That night George was back in his cell and under the careful eye of Deputy Jailer Simms. Then near the midnight dreary as Mr Simms was nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of some one gently rapping, rapping at the Jailer’s door. Just some visitor, he thought, tapping at the prison door, only that and nothing more.

“Who’s there?” Simms asked. “Friends,” came the reply. Simms politely told these ‘friends’ that they could not enter. They then proved him wrong.

The gang of vigilantes broke through and pointed guns at Simms, helplessly he watched as Big Nose George was wrenched out of his cells and dragged into the night. So the same events transpired, the same lynch mob, 200 strong, gathered for the ending of Big Nose George. The same method was employed, barrel, noose and a telegraph pole adjacent to the rail-road track. Noose tight around his neck the barrel was kicked out from under George and he fell.

The first rope broke and George collapsed to the ground, begging to be shot while fervently trying to loosen the knots tying his hands together. A thicker rope was selected and tied around his neck. He was then forced to climb a 12 foot ladder and stand atop the barrel.

He was verbally abused, spat at, and hanged. As the barrel was kicked out beneath him he freed his hands from their knots and pushed them into the noose. Desperately he held on, pulling up and supporting his neck, screaming while the rest of his body writhed and squirmed. As time and gravity bore upon him his strength waned and he collapsed, now slowly choked to death by the rope. So he was left, head, and the rest of his body, hanging in shame.

Human leather shoes made from the skin of bandit George Parrott.By no means was that the end. When his body was later cut down it was also cut up. Local Physician T.G. Magee took his head and performed a crude autopsy to gain an insight into the workings of the criminal brain. Then came Dr John Osborne with his slightly less scientific hopes. Here George Parrott added to his list of notable achievements. Banditry, murder and being made into a pair of shoes.

Dr John Osborne had George Parrott’s skin removed, tanned and made into a special pair of shoes just for him. He was never punished for this, and in fact was even elected as territorial governor for Carbon County in 1893. At his inauguration he wore a fine suit and those very shoes made from the tanned skin of Big Nose George.

Further Reading:

Elk Mountain Hotel Article

Robert Widdowfield Profile

Carbon Country Museum Article

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