Outlaws and the Old West go hand in hand. One such outlaw could be found in the Wyoming territory and he went by the name Big Nose George Parrett. Big Nose George was an outlaw, a member of a gang of thieves who robbed wagons and stole horses in the Powder River country of Wyoming.
On August 16, 1878, Parrott and his gang murdered two law enforcement officers — Wyoming deputy sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Union Pacific detective Tip Vincent — after a bungled train robbery.
The murder of the two lawmen was quickly discovered. A reward of $10,000 was offered for the “apprehension of their murderers”, this was later doubled to $20,000.
In February 1879, “Big Nose” George and his companions were in Milestown (now Miles City, Montana). It was known around Milestown that a prosperous local merchant, Morris Cahn, would be taking money back east to buy stocks of merchandise. George, Charlie Burris and two others carried out a daring daylight robbery, despite Morris Cahn traveling with a military convoy containing 15 soldiers, two officers, an ambulance, and a wagon from Fort Keogh, which was tasked to collect the army payroll. At a site approximately 10 miles beyond the Powder River Crossing, near present-day Terry, Montana, there is a steep coulee (known ever since as “Cahn’s Coulee”). Approaching the coulee over a five-mile plateau, the soldiers, ambulance and the wagon became “strung out”, creating large gaps between party members. The gang donned masks and stationed themselves at the bottom of the coulee, at a turn in the trail. The gang first surprised and then captured the lead element of soldiers, as well as the ambulance with Cahn and the officers. They waited and likewise captured the rear element of soldiers with the wagon. Cahn was robbed of an amount between $3,600 and $14,000, depending on who was doing the reporting.
Big Nose George was finally apprehended in Miles City, Montana in July 1880 after drunkenly boasting of the attempted train robbery. George and Charlie Burris were arrested by two local deputies, Lem Wilson and Fred Schmalsle, after identifying themselves as men with a price on their head. Parrott was returned to Wyoming to face charges of murder.
Parrott was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881, following a trial, but he attempted to escape while being held at a Rawlins, Wyoming jail. When news of the attempted escape reached the people of Rawlins, a 200-strong lynch mob snatched George from the prison at gunpoint and strung him up from a telegraph pole. After two botched attempts, the lynch mob successfully killed him at the end of the rope.
Doctors Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne took possession of Parrott’s body after his death, in order to study the outlaw’s brain for signs of criminality.
During these procedures, the top of Parrott’s skull was crudely sawn off and the cap was presented to a 15-year-old girl named Lilian Heath. Heath would go on to become the first female doctor in Wyoming, and is noted to have used Parrott’s skull as an ashtray, pen holder and doorstop.
Skin from George’s thighs, chest and face were removed. The skin, including the dead man’s nipples, was sent to a tannery in Denver, where it was made into a pair of shoes and a medical bag. The shoes were kept by John Eugene Osborne, who wore them at his inaugural ball after being elected as the first Democratic Governor of the State of Wyoming.
Parrott’s dismembered body was stored in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt solution for about a year while the experiments continued. The death of Big Nose George faded into history until May 11, 1950, when his body has been discovered by construction workers.
Big Nose George’s death mask, skull and shoes made of his skin are now the star attraction at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming, along with the shoes he wore to his lynching and other artifacts. The museum is one of the biggest attractions in the city.