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When A Murderer Becomes a Pair of Shoes: The Story of Big Nose George Parrott

A little while ago, I was strolling through social media posts when I came upon the image of a pair of shoes made in the early 1880s. While normally I would probably ignore a post about this kind of object, the text accompanying the image caught my attention.


According to the post, this particular footwear was made from the skin of a criminal named Big Nose George Parrott. Unfortunately, no other information was provided.




Caption: Shoes made from the Skin of Wild West Criminal George Parrott in the 1880s


I was immediately captivated by the post, and I wanted to learn more about how this fellow named George Parrott became a pair of shoes. It sounded like a pretty macabre story, which is perfect for retelling on the Historical Ghostbuster Blog.


So, I began to do a little digging to learn more about Big Nose George Parrott.


Born in Montbéliard, France in 1834, Big Nose George Parrott (so named because of his exceptionally large schnoz) rose to prominence after his involvement in the murder of two law enforcement officers in 1878.




Caption: Portrait of Big Nose George Parrott


After a failed train robbery along a rail track near Medicine Bow River, Wyoming, in late August of 1878, Parrott and his gang were hiding out at Rattlesnake Canyon by Elk Mountain.


Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Union Pacific detective Tip Vincent were charged with hunting down the criminals. Soon they were hot on the heels of the gang. However, the two lawmen were spotted by a lookout, which allowed the gang time to hide in advance of Widdowfield and Vincent’s arrival.




Caption: Elk Mountain, Wyoming


When the lawmen got to the gang’s campsite they were ambushed, and after a short scuffle, Widdowfield and Vincent were killed through gunfire.


Parrott and his gang quickly buried the bodies and fled the scene.


When it was eventually discovered that Widdowfield and Vincent had been murdered by Parrot and his associates, a bounty of $10,000 was offered for their arrest. As law enforcement continued to struggle in their pursuit of the gang, the reward was raised to $20,000.


Eventually, Parrot and his second-in-command Charlie Burris (nicknamed Dutch Charley) were apprehended in Miles City, Montana. They were arrested by two local deputies named Lem Wilson and Fred Schmalsle.


Parrot had gotten drunk and was boasting about the murder of two law enforcement officers in Wyoming. He was soon connected to the killings of Widdowfield and Vincent.


Both Parrott and Burris were returned to Wyoming to face criminal charges for the murders.


While on route to Wyoming, Burris was captured on the train by residents from Rawlins Wyoming. The town where Widdowfield and Vincent were from.


Burris was dragged off the train by a mob and hanged near the tracks on the crossbeam of a telegraph post. An even worse fate awaited Parrott.


Back in Rawlins, Parrott was being held in the local jail. He managed to use a small knife that was hidden on his person to remove his shackles and hide in the washroom.


When the jailer Robert Rankin returned to the site, Parrott attacked him, and even managed to fracture Rankin’s skull using the shackles that had been attached to his wrists.


Rankin managed to fight off Parrott before his wife came to his aid with a gun. They managed to get Parrott back into his cell, but news of his attempted escape spread quickly.


In early April of 1881, while awaiting his execution, a group of masked men forced their way into the jail and grabbed Parrott from his cell.


At first, Parrott thought these men were from his gang and there to rescue him. However, he soon discovered that a mob of over 200 townspeople were waiting outside. Like Burris he was hanged on a telegraph post.


After his death, two local physicians named Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne wanted to dissect Parrott’s body in order to examine his brain and learn more about the criminal mind.


His skull was sawed opened and the top part of his cranium given to Osborne’s assistant Lillian Heath. She would later use it as an ashtray, according to some accounts.




Caption: Image of Lillian Heath Holding the Cap of George Parrott’s Skull


Heath is an interesting figure in her own right. Not only did her medical career begin when she was only sixteen years old, but she was the first female physician in the state of Wyoming.


A death mask of Parrott was also produced, which was a fairly common practice in the nineteenth century.


Criminologists studying the profiles of figures like Parrott used these masks for physiognomic studies of so-called criminal features.



Caption: Death Mask of George Parrott, along with the Shoes Made from his Skin


Even more disturbing, some of Parrott’s skin was sent to a tannery in Denver, Colorado, where it was turned into shoes and a medical bag. The items were then returned to Osborne.




Caption: Portrait of John Eugene Osborne


Several years later, Osborne was elected as the third Governor of Wyoming in 1893. At his inaugural party, Osborne wore the shoes made of Parrott’s skin. It was a truly gruesome end for the notorious criminal.


Within a decade or so, the story of Big Nose George Parrott disappeared from memory, and was only rediscovered in 1950. Some construction workers found a whisky barrel containing the other half of Parrot’s skull, along with the shoes and other bones.


News of the discovery made it into the local newspaper, with an article appearing in the Beatrice Sun Daily on 14 May 1950.




Caption: Headline of the Discovery of George Parrott’s Remains from the Beatrice Sun Daily, 1950


Heath, then in her eighties, was contacted about the discovery, and she explained its contents. The top of Parrott’s skull was also used to confirm the identity of the bones.


Today, Parrott’s skull, along with the shoes made from his skin, can be found at the local museum in Rawlins. The medicine bag was lost and cannot be retraced. However, the shackles that Parrott used in his failed attempt to escape from jail are now located at another museum in Omaha, Nebraska.




Caption: The Bottom Half of George Parrott’s Skull and the Shoes Made from his Skin


Overall, it is a pretty grisly tale about one of the Wild West’s more notorious criminals.


REFERENCES


Mark E. Miller, Big Nose George: His Troublesome Trail, (Glendo, WY: High Plains Press, 2021).


Peter Netzel, Lesser Known Outlaws of Wyoming, (Scotts Valley, CA: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017).


Richard M. Patterson, Historical Atlas of the Outlaw West, (Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, 2000).


R. Michael Wilson, Outlaw Tales of Wyoming: True Stories of the Cowboy State's Most Infamous Crooks, Culprits, and Cutthroats, (Helena, MA: Two Dot, 2013)

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