When I was growing up, western movies were just starting to pass out of popularity. After decades as one of the most popular genres, cowboys just weren’t as cool as they used to be.
Thankfully, I got quite the education in the genre from my family, especially my grandfather. We would watch everyone from John Wayne and Gary Cooper to Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot play hard-bitten men who took a no-nonsense approach to life.
Of course, every great hero needs an appropriately evil villain.
Even after the anti-hero gunslingers portrayed by Clint Eastwood had started to climb into the limelight, there needed to be someone that the audience loved to hate. They had to be willing to do anything and everything that the hero was not. In addition, they needed to be just as fast and deadly, because what kind of villain doesn’t pose some kind of threat?
For years, the villain was always portrayed by a sinister-looking man wearing a black hat. That black hat became synonymous with being a bad guy. By contrast, the hero always wore the white hat, meaning that they were the good guy and the one the audience should be rooting for.
While it was so obviously clear-cut in the movies, in reality the line between good guys and bad guys could get a little blurry.
Historical events, such as the infamous shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, were often overdramatized in the movies, portraying a thin portrayal of what actually took place.
However, no matter how skewed the depictions became, Hollywood and real life usually agreed that the bad guy had to be brought to justice.
While there were some individuals that seemed to survive their outlaw days mostly unscathed, most did not. There were many who went to prison, were shot dead by either a posse or one of their criminal contemporaries, or hung by a rope.
On the western frontier of the 19th Century, there was a high-price to be paid for breaking the law.
Of course, there always has to be a few standout individuals, those people whose story goes above and beyond anything else. These stories become legend, and are made all the stranger for being completely true.
In 1878, one of these stories was forged on the Wyoming frontier, ready and willing to take its place among one of the most gruesome and bizarre stories to ever come out of the American West.
George Parrott stood near the rail line just east of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, watching the men work under the hot August sun.
He glanced down the rail line, seeing it stretching into the far distance. It was a good plan, George told himself. He was confident that it would work.
George had been an outlaw for a while now, and had built quite the reputation for himself by stealing horses and robbing stagecoaches.
Well, if he was being honest, he robbed the passengers. George wasn’t picky. He took cash, jewelry, and whatever else they had to offer. Sometimes he would get an especially rich haul when there was someone heading to the frontier to get a fresh start. These people would carry their entire savings with them, and always made for a good catch.
While stagecoaches were a lucrative target, even an outlaw needs to diversify. Taking the knowledge that he had learned from stealing stagecoaches, George moved into robbing trains.
His infamy grew, and he became known among the outlaw ranks by a name that reflected his most notable facial feature: Big Nose.
That day, Big Nose and the rest of the gang that he rode with were after the pay car on a Union Pacific train. It carried a significant amount of cash that UP’s workers had earned while doing various jobs for the company. Big Nose George and the other outlaws were determined to take that money for themselves.
In order to perform a successful robbery, they would need to get on the payroll car. That meant that the robbers would either have to board the train while it was still moving or make the train stop. Big Nose the other six robbers decided that the best and easiest way to get what they wanted was to derail the train.
One of the men digging out the spike gave out a small cry of victory as it popped loose from where it had been driven.
The rails were held in place by large spikes driven into timbers laid underneath them. If one of these spikes were taken out in just the right place, then the rail would pop up. The deformation of the track would be enough to derail the train and leave it vulnerable.
The rail came up a little from where the gang had removed the spike, just like they had wanted. It wasn’t much, George thought, but it wouldn’t take much. After a few more moments of looking, he decided that it would work just fine.
George and the others nodded their approval.
Removing some telegraph wire, the outlaws started on the second part of the plan. One of them started to wrap the wire around the spike, making sure to secure it tightly when he had put enough on. He then walked over to the hole and pushed the spike back in far enough that the rail returned to its normal position.
The man started to walk back toward some sagebrush, unspooling the wire as he went.
The plan was simple: when the train was close enough, they would pull the wire and yank the spike out of place. The rail would then pop up and derail the train. If they just left the track the way it was, then the train engineer might be able to see that there was something wrong with the track and be able to stop the train before it hit their trap.
By doing it this way, they could pull the spike loose and deform the rail before the train crew could react in time to stop. It was a good plan – in theory. So far, everything was going well, but there was one last thing to do.
George yelled at the man with the wire, telling him to give the spike a good, hard pull. All of this work and trouble would be for nothing if the spike didn’t pop loose.
For a tense second, they all watched the rail as the outlaw gave a hard yank on the line. To their immense relief, the spike popped loose of the hole and the rail came up, just as they had hoped it would. Smiling, the gang reset their trap, then hid themselves as best they could nearby.
After what must have seemed like hours, the gang finally heard the distinct rumble of the train as it made its way tirelessly toward its destination.
It was time. In just a few more moments, the train would be there.
The man manning the wire knew this, too. With a sharp yank, he pulled the spike free. Just as it had before, the rail popped up. Everything was set.
A few more moments passed, and the train still hadn’t come into view. Something was wrong.
Before too long, a group of railroad workers came into view. They were a section crew, whose job it was to repair bad places in the track.
What was this? They were waiting for a train, not a section crew. What was worse is that they had seen the section of track that the outlaws had dislodged, and had begun to repair it.
One of the railroad men, apparently the foreman, told the others to keep working. He told them that he would ride back and tell the train that there was a section of bad track. With that, he rode away at a slow gallop.
Inwardly, the outlaws all cringed. They knew that their plan had failed.
One of them, Frank McKinney, wasn’t about to be deterred. He was here for a big payday, and was going to get it, one way or the other. Quietly, he reached to draw his revolver.
Big Nose George and another of the outlaws, Frank Tole, stopped him. George told him in no uncertain terms that he had come there to rob a train, not to kill a bunch of section crew men just doing their job.
McKinney stared at George for a tense moment, then took his hand off his gun.
The robbers watched silently as the railroad workers repaired the track, then went away. Shortly after, the train rolled past, gliding easily down the newly repaired track, taking their payday with them.
After making sure that all the repair men and the train were long gone, the outlaws left.
Somehow, word reached the local sheriff that Big Nose George and his compatriots were in the area, and had planned to derail the train that day.
A Carbon County Sheriff’s Deputy named Robert Widdowfield, along with Henry Vincent, a Union Pacific Railroad detective, went to where the track was repaired and found a clear trail made by the would-be robbers.
The two law enforcement officials tracked the robbers nearly 25 miles southwest to a place called Rattlesnake Canyon, where they had set up camp. The outlaws saw Widdowfield and Vincent coming, and, taking no chances, murdered them.
Now Big Nose and his fellows were wanted not only for robbery, but also for the murder of two lawmen. Knowing that they couldn’t stay in the area, the men split up, going their own way.
When the bodies of Widdowfield and Vincent were discovered a short time later, both the local populace and county authorities were furious. A $10,000 reward for their murderers was posted almost immediately.
The following January, one of the outlaws, Dutch “Charley” Burris, was arrested in Laramie, Wyoming. Taken into custody, authorities escorted him by train back to Carbon County in order to stand trail. He never would.
While at a train stop in the town of Carbon, a lynch mob forced Burris from the train and hanged him from a telegraph pole. After, the mob cut him down and buried him in an unmarked grave.
It was grim foreshadowing of events to come.
In July 1880, a telegram was sent to James Rankin, the sheriff of Carbon County. It stated that a man in a Montana bar was heard bragging about killing Robert Widdowfield and Henry Vincent after a failed train heist. It might have seemed like a sketchy lead, but at the time it was all he had. Rankin left soon after to investigate the claim.
It turned out that the braggart was none other than Big Nose George himself. Rankin arrested George and together, they boarded a train back to Wyoming. This train made the same scheduled stop in Carbon, just like the one carrying Dutch Burris had.
Once again, the mob was waiting.
Boarding the train, they carried George off to a telegraph pole, where a noose was put around his neck.
George pled for his life, promising to make a full confession if they’d only cut him down and let him go the rest of the way to Carbon County. Surprisingly, the mob had mercy and returned the terrified outlaw to Sheriff Rawlins.
The legal proceedings against George began on September 13, 1880. Initially pleading Guilty to the charges against him, he then changed his mind and pled Not Guilty.
By mid-November, he had flipped one last time, once again pleading guilty. Big Nose George was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881.
In March, Big Nose apparently decided that he didn’t want to die after all. Using a pocket knife, George was able to cut through the rivets that held his leg shackles together and get free. He then used them to hit his jailer in the head and ran for the door.
Big Nose’s luck had finally run out.
The jailer’s wife realized what was happening and slammed the outside door to the jail shut before George could reach freedom. She then fired a revolver into the air to alert others that there was trouble at the jail.
Several local men came running, re-capturing George and tying him up. The group of men decided that justice had waited long enough, and it was time for Big Nose George to die.
Taking him to a telegraph pole, they stood him on an empty kerosene barrel with a noose around his neck. Nearly two-hundred people watched as they kicked the barrel out from underneath him, causing George to drop sharply toward the ground.
As he did, the rope snapped. The outlaw was alive, but hurt badly. Pain seared through his neck and body, and George begged the mob to shoot him.
His cry fell on deaf ears. Big Nose George was a convicted murderer sentenced to hang, and they were going to make sure that it happened.
Unfortunately for Big Nose, no one in the mob was a skilled hangman. Like many people, they probably thought that it was fairly straightforward to kill a man by hanging. They didn’t know that there was actually a lot of thought and hard science that went into an official hanging that ensured that death came swiftly and relatively painlessly for the victim.
It took two more attempts to actually hang George, one of which actually tore his ears off. On the final try, the rope didn’t break George’s neck, and the outlaw spent his last moments of life slowly strangling to death while the crowd watched.
George’s body was left hanging for the next several hours until the local undertaker finally cut him down.
When no one came forward to claim George’s body, a local doctor named John Osborne, along with Thomas Maghee, a physician for the Union Pacific Railroad, stepped forward and claimed him.
They told authorities that they wanted to use it for medical study, checking George’s brain for any abnormalities that may have caused his criminal behaviors. Officials saw nothing wrong with this, and gladly remanded George’s remains to their custody.
Together, the two doctors set about performing a crude autopsy of George’s corpse. Assisting them was a 15-year-old named Lilian Heath, a protegee’ of Dr. Maghee who had an avid interest in both science and medicine.
The doctors carefully sawed the top of George’s skull off, taking care not to damage the brain. Once the skull cap had been removed, the brain was taken out and carefully examined.
To their disappointment, Osborne and Maghee saw no abnormalities, the brain tissue looking just like everyone else’s.
To commemorate their endeavors, Maghee gave the skull cap to Heath as a kind of grisly souvenir.
At that point, Maghee’s and Heath’s interest seems to have ended. Osborne’s plans, however, were just beginning.
Using plaster of paris, Dr. Osborne carefully took a death mask of the notorious outlaw. Once that was finished, he carefully cut all the skin from George’s thighs and chest. Packing the skin carefully, he sent it off to a tannery in Denver, Colorado.
In a letter, Dr. Osborne instructed the tanner to use the skin to make him a medicine bag and a pair of shoes. The tanner complied, and a short time later, the doctor received a pair of dress shoes and his medicine bag, both clad at least partially in human skin.
The rest of George’s body and bones were buried in a whiskey barrel and forgotten.
Osborne would soon take an interest in politics, and eventually became the governor of Wyoming. At his inauguration on January 2, 1893, he made sure to wear his prized shoes made from the skin of Big Nose George.
The shoes and George’s death mask were eventually put on display in a glass case at the Rawlins National Bank in Rawlins, Wyoming.
In 1950, workers doing some excavating discovered a buried whiskey barrel. Looking inside, they found human remains, including a skull with the top removed. Suffice it to say, the gruesome discovery drew quite the crowd.
As authorities worked to identify the remains, someone remembered the story of Big Nose George. Could it be his long-lost and forgotten remains? It was theorized that, if someone knew where the skull cap was, than perhaps it would fit on the topless skull.
The last known person to have the skull cap was Lillian Heath, and authorities immediately looked her up. As it turned out, Heath was still alive and well in her eighties. She had gone on to become Dr. Lillian Heath, the first female doctor in Wyoming history.
She had kept the skull cap all that time, given to her by Dr. Mahgee and Dr. Osborne as a kind of grisly souvenir. She had put it to practical use, utilizing it as both a door stop and an ashtray at different times. When asked, Heath was glad to lend it to authorities.
Heath’s husband went to Rawlins with the skull cap, and it was placed on top of the skull. The two pieces fit perfectly. The remains definitely belonged to Big Nose George.
Today, the skull cap is kept at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The other half of the skull, along with the death mask and shoes, are on display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.
And the medicine bag that John Osborne had made? No one knows.
There’s a good chance that it’s still out there in the world somewhere. Maybe it’s gathering dust in someone’s attic, or on a shelf in the storage collection of a museum.
Or, perhaps its been traveling around all this time. Perhaps one person used it as a luggage bag for short trips where they didn’t need to pack much. Maybe another person gave it to their kids to put their toys in, or play dress up, completely ignorant of it’s gruesome past.
So next time you’re at a yard sale or a resale shop, keep an extra close eye on what you’re buying. If you’re not careful, you might just be purchasing a literal piece of Old West history.
Weiser, Kathy. Big Nose Becomes A Pair of Shoes. http://www.legendsofamerica.com
Van Pelt, Lori. Big Nose George: A Grisly Frontier Tale. Wyoming History, www.wyohistory.org, 11/15/2014