I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An outlaw in the Wild West, Big Nose George, liked to say he was “tough as boots.” What an irony then that in death some of his remains were made into a pair of shoes? Herewith, the story of a nasty crook who succumbed to frontier justice and ended up on a cobbler’s last.
Highwaymen and Horse Thieves
Big Nose George Parrott was a member of a gang of thugs who plied their trade in Wyoming in the 1870s. George came by his nickname for the obvious reason that he had a very large schnozzle. He was thought to have been born in France and it’s not known how or why he turned up in the Wild West.
He rode with a gang under the leadership of a man called Sim Wann (aka Sim Jan). Their standard crimes were holding up stagecoaches and stealing horses. They became an irritant to the respectable, god-fearing citizens of the territory who hoped for statehood. If Washington was to grant such a government upgrade ne’er-do-wells such as Sim Wann and Big Nose George had to be put out of business.
The Great (Failed) Train Robbery
Sim Wann and his fellow scoundrels got a bit above themselves; they decided to follow the lead of Frank and Jesse James and take up the train robbery trade. Taking pocket watches, cash, and jewellery off stagecoach passengers didn’t satisfy the dreams of the ambitious gangsters. The big money was in robbing trains.
Unlike the Hollywood depictions, train robbers did not ride alongside the train and leap onto it with guns drawn. They either boarded the train as regular passengers and then pulled off the robbery, or they derailed the locomotive and burst into the car carrying cash in the confusion that followed.
Big Nose George and his pals decided on the latter strategy. The plan was to derail a Union Pacific train between Medicine Bow and Hanna, Wyoming. A train in mid-August 1878 was targeted because it was believed to carry the payroll of the company.
They loosened some spikes and lay in wait for the steamer to chug into view and crash. But, the plan was foiled when a section crew came along on a routine inspection, spotted the tampered track, and made repairs. No. 3 Westbound completed its run without incident.
A Fanciful Portrayal of a Train Robbery
Tracking Down Big Nose George
It was quickly established that Sim Wann and his ruffians were responsible and a posse of two was sent off to hunt them down. It seems like an inadequate force to take on a gang of about eight; and so it proved to be.
Buckrail News reports that the gang, on the run, “came to Rattlesnake Canyon where they holed up to wait and ambush the posse.” When Union Pacific detective Henry H. “Tip” Vincent and Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield rode into the canyon they were greeted by gunfire and died.
The gang stripped the bodies of anything of value, dismembered them, and threw the remains into the brush. The members of the gang took off in different directions with a reward of $1,000 on each of them (that’s about $25,000 in today’s money).
Over the next few months, gang members were tracked down. Some were shot in the commission of a crime, others were captured and hanged, and one got a life sentence. But, Big Nose George Parrott eluded capture.
The End for Big Nose George
Despite his prominent snout, Parrott was able to lie low, venturing into robbery only when he needed cash. But, in addition to his big proboscis he had a big mouth and was inclined to boast about his exploits wherever he could find an audience.
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In August 1880, he was holding forth in a saloon in Miles City, Montana; in so doing, he drew attention to himself such that somebody recognized him from a wanted poster. A sheriff was alerted and he arrived at the saloon and arrested Parrott without incident.
As he was being taken back to Wyoming to stand trial, the train he was on was stopped by vigilantes. The sheriff was overpowered and Parrott taken from the train and hoisted up on a telegraph pole with a rope around his neck.
After struggling for breath for a while, the group lowered Big Nose George and demanded a confession to the murders of Vincent and Widdowfield. Parrott refused so up he went a few more times until he was ready to promise to tell all at his trial.
He kept his word and related his crimes in grisly detail. In December 1880, he was found guilty and sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881. However, the people of Rawlins, Wyoming were an impatient lot, especially after Parrott beat up the sheriff in an escape attempt on March 20.
On the night of March 22, a crowd burst into the jail, and, because the sheriff was in no mood to offer much in the way of resistance, they liberated Big Nose George from his cell. The vigilantes proved to have a poor understanding of execution by hanging and were successful at killing the outlaw only after two failed attempts.
The Final Indignity of Big Nose George
Two doctors, John Osborne and Thomas Maghee, took possession of the body; they wanted to examine Parrott’s brain for evidence of an abnormality that might explain his criminal behaviour. There was none.
Lillian Heath, 15, was assisting the doctors, who gave her the top half of George Parrott’s skull. Miss Heath went on to become Wyoming’s first female doctor and she used Big Nose George’s cranium as an ashtray.
Meanwhile, Osborne removed skin from the dead man’s chest and thighs and sent it off to be tanned and made into a pair of shoes. Osborne became Wyoming’s first Democratic Governor and wore the Big Nose George footwear at his inaugural ball.
- Frank Towle was the first of the Sim Wann crowd to die when he was shot by John Zimmerman while trying to rob a stagecoach. Towle’s accomplices buried him in the bush and Zimmerman later dug him up, removed his head, and set off to claim a handsome bounty of $1,000. He carted the ripening noggin to several offices but was told it was no longer fresh enough to be identifiable as Frank Towle.
- Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings was another Wild West character to carry the “Big Nose” moniker. Big Nose Kate was a prostitute and long-time partner of gunfighter Doc Holliday.
- William Corder was a philanderer and murderer in England in the late 1820s. After his execution, his skin was tanned and the leather used to cover a book about his gruesome deeds. There’s more about William Corder here.
- “How a Notorious Wyoming Outlaw Became a Pair of Shoes.” Buckrail News, June 5, 2020.
- “Big Nose George Becomes a Pair of Shoes.” Kathy Weiser, Legends of America, November 2019.
- “Big Nose George: A Grisly Frontier Tale.” Lori Van Pelt, Wyoming State Historical Society, November 15, 2014.
- “ ‘Big Nose’ George.” Margaret Matray, Casper Star Tribune, October 29, 2011.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 19, 2020:
Wow! Using a skull as an ashtray, and tanned skin for shoes, was certainly an unhappy ending for this outlaw.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 18, 2020:
John. Don't set me up for writing a stinker. I know I can do it; it's just a matter of time
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on December 18, 2020:
This was a very interesting read, Rupert. You never fail to deliver. I am off to read about William Corder next.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on December 18, 2020:
Hi Louise. Your must have been sending telepathic messages because I only included the Frank and Jesse James reference on the last run through of the article just prior to publishing
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 18, 2020:
Goodness, that was interesting to read. It's ironic I should be reading this now as I've not long finished watching a 2 hour programme about Jesse James.