The Strange Fate of Big Nose George

The following is an article from Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader. The subject matter may be disturbing for some readers.

"Big Nose" George Parrot got his nickname for the fact that he had a very large proboscis, but his real claim to fame comes from something much stranger than a prodigious schnoz.


In the late 1870s, a band of Wyoming outlaws called the Sim Jan gang decided to try their hand at robbing Union Pacific trains. Most banking was done by cash in the 19th century, and much of the cash moved by rail. This made trains very tempting targets for criminals looking for big scores.

Some gangs, the James-Younger and Hole-in-the-Wall gangs among them, became quite adept at train robbery. Sim Jan and his gang never did: When, for example, they tried to derail a train out of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, by loosening a length of rail, a railroad crew on a handcart came by and discovered the damage to the track. After repairing the track, the crew sped off to report the incident to the sheriff, all in plain sight of the gang, who were hiding in the bushes nearby. The next day the gang shot it out with the two lawmen sent to find them, Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and railroad detective Henry Vincent, killing them both. They were the first Wyoming lawmen killed in the line of duty.


Frank Tole was the first member of the gang to pay for his crime; he was killed a few weeks later while trying to rob a stagecoach. Then came "Dutch"  Charlie Buress, who was arrested for the murders and put on a train bound for Rawlins, Wyoming, where he would have gone on trial had he lived long enough to see a trial. He didn't: when his train made a stop in the town of Carbon, which was deputy Widdowfield's hometown, an angry mob pulled him from the train and hanged him from a telegraph pole.

"Big Nose" George Parrot

Next up for justice: "Big Nose" George Parrot. His turn might never have come at all, had he not gotten drunk in Montana two years after the killings and been overheard boasting of his involvement in the crimes. He, too, was arrested and put on a train bound for Rawlins; when the train pulled into Carbon, history seemed about to repeat itself, because once again a lynch mob was waiting. But Big Nose managed to talk the mob out of the hanging by admitting his guilt and promising to tell all if they let him live long enough to face trial. Had he known what fate awaited him, he probably would have preferred being lynched.


Big Nose George lived long enough to be sentenced to death by hanging, to be carried out in 3 and 1/2 month's time. But he didn't live long enough to see the sentence carried out, because when he nearly killed a guard trying to escape from jail, the lynch mob decided that a speedier, unofficial hanging would do just fine. On March 22nd, 1881, a crowd of about 200 people dragged Big Nose George from the jail and hanged him from the crossarm of a telegraph pole.


The mob had to hang him twice because the first rope broke. After a sturdier rope was found, Big Nose George, still very much alive, was hanged again. By now, however, George had managed to untie his hands from behind his back without anyone noticing. Then, when he was strung up the second time, he swung himself -by the noose around his neck- over to the telegraph pole, wrapped his flailing arms around it, and held on for dear life.

Big Nose George had no sympathizers in the crowd. The mob was happy to wait for gravity and muscle fatigue to finish the job. Over the next several minutes, he slowly lost his grip and died what must surely have been a slow and painful death.

(According to legend, George's namesake beak was so big that when he was finally cut down hours later and laid out in a coffin, the undertaker had trouble nailing down the lid because the dead man's nose was pressing up against it.)


When no next of kin arrived to claim the body, two local doctors, Dr. Thomas Maghee and Dr. John Osborne, claimed it in the name of medical science. Dr. Maghee had a personal interest in the case: His wife was criminally insane, the victim, it was thought, of head injuries sustained from falling from a horse.

Maghee wanted to examine Big Nose George's brain for any signs of abnormality that might explain his criminal behavior, then use what he learned to try to help his wife. With the assistance of Lillian Heath, his 15-year-old apprentice, he sawed off the top of the skull, removed the brain, and studied it, but found nothing unusual. Perhaps in a macabre gesture of thanks, he let Lillian keep the top of the skull as a souvenir.


(Image from the Carbon County Museum)

Dr. Maghee would probably have been better off examining Dr. Osborne's brain for signs of abnormality. Osborne's interest in Big Nose George was anything but scientific (he may have been motivated by revenge; according to one account, he was on one of the trains robbed by the Sim Jan gang and the delay caused him to miss a party). After making a plaster death mask of the deceased, a common practice at the time, Maghee removed the skin from Big Nose George's chest and thighs (but not his nose), and mailed the human flesh to a tannery in Denver, Colorado, where it was made into human "leather" -definitely not a common practice at the time. Osborne then had the leather made into a coin purse, a doctor's bag, and a pair of shoes.

[caption id="attachment_43832" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="Dr. John Osborne"][/caption]

Well, not the entire shoes. They were made from  combination of 1) leather taken from the shoes Big Nose George was wearing the day he died and 2) Big Nose George's own skin. If you're ever in the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, where the shoes are on display to this day, you'll see that it's easy to tell where the ordinary cowhide ends and Big Nose George begins: Most of the shoes' leather is an ordinary dark brown, but the leather on the front of the shoes over the toes is much paler -the color of Big Nose George's own Caucasian hide.

Dr. Osborne loved to wear his Big Nose George shoes. He wore them while practicing as a country doctor, and when he diversified into ranching, banking, and politics in later years, he kept wearing them. When he was elected the first Democratic governor of Wyoming in 1892, in what some claimed was a stolen election, he wore the shoes to his inauguration -which must surely make him the only elected official in U.S. history to be sworn into office while wearing another man's skin.

Let's hope so, anyway.


The remainder of Big Nose George's remains did not fare much better: Drs. Maghee and Osborne kept him in a whiskey barrel filled with salt water for about a year; then, when Dr. Maghee decided he's learned everything he could (or Osborne decided one pair of shoes was enough), Maghee buried the barrel, with Big Nose George still in it, in the yard outside his medical office.

(Image from the Carbon County Museum)

The remains, long since forgotten, were still there in 1950 when Dr. Maghee's office building was torn down and the site cleared for new construction. It was then that workmen found the whiskey barrel containing a human skeleton -a human skeleton with the top of its skull sawed off.

Dr. Lillian Heath

Luckily for the medical examiners called in to investigate, someone remembered that many years earlier a young woman named Lillian Heath had been presented the top of the skull of an outlaw named Big Nose George as a gift. She had gone on to become the first female doctor in the state; now in her eighties, she was still very much alive. She still had the top of the skull, too. Over the years she had used it as a pen holder and a doorstop; her husband had used it for an ashtray. When the skull top was brought to where the barrel had been found, it fit the rest of the skull perfectly. A DNA test later confirmed the match.


Today, the lower portion of Big Nose George's skull is on display in the Carbon County Museum alongside "his" shoes, his death mask, and other related artifacts. But if you want to see the top of the skull, you have to go to Iowa -Dr. Heath held onto it for another decade or so, then donated it to the Union Pacific Museum in the city of Council Bluffs.

That leaves the coin purse and the doctor's bag, also made from Big Nose George's hide. They haven't been seen in ages. Who knows? Maybe they are still out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered, perhaps in a future episode of Antiques Roadshow. How about you -do you have an old, pale leather coin purse or doctor's bag collecting dust in your attic?

They may tell a stranger tale than you realize.


The article above was reprinted with permission from the Bathroom Institute's newest book, Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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