May 18, 2016By

Discover the Legend of

“Big Nose” George Parrott

History lives on at Carbon County Museum

big nose george

A local newspaper article proclaims the discovery of “Big Nose” George Parrott’s remains in 1950 in Rawlins.

“I found something!” shouted the construction worker excitedly. It was 1950. His crew came running over. Together, they peered into the hole in the ground of downtown Rawlins and stared at what appeared to be a very old whiskey barrel. “That’s it?” asked one worker disappointedly. “I thought you had found a dead body or something.”

They had.

Carbon County, 1878

The only known photograph of "Big Nose" George Parrott

The only known photograph of “Big Nose” George Parrott

Seventy-two years earlier, a gang of outlaws’ plan to derail a train got derailed, ironically. A foreman for the Union Pacific Railroad happened upon the booby-trapped rail in time to warn the oncoming train. George Parrott, nicknamed “Big Nose” for his most prominent feature, and the other six bandits had to act fast. Their plans to rob the train were thwarted and they knew lawmen would be hot on their boot heels.

Hiding out in the nearby Rattlesnake Canyon was a good idea—for all of two days. That’s how long it took Carbon County Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and a Union Pacific Railroad police officer, Henry “Tip” Vincent, to trace the gang to this secluded gulch at the north side of Elk Mountain. Unfortunately for them, the gang saw them coming. By the time the bullet-ridden bodies of Widdowfield and Vincent were discovered, the dust had settled and the bandits were nowhere to be found.

Carbon, 1880

A sea of angry hands grabbed at George and tore him off the train. George, who had been on the lam for two years—was arrested in Montana and was en route to Rawlins to stand trail for the murders of Widdowfield and Vincent. But the vengeful residents were ready to lynch him themselves. Miraculously, he talked them out of it and made it to his prison cell in one piece.

Still, his fate was dismal. Sentenced to death, George made a desperate attempt to escape just days before his scheduled hanging. He managed to break free of his shackles, which he used to render Deputy Sheriff Robert Rankin unconscious. Unfortunately for George, Rankin’s wife was in the building and she heard the commotion. Pointing a pistol at him, she coaxed him back into his cell.

Later that night, with the help of a vigilante mob, a noose and gravity, George met his maker. Legend has it he didn’t go quietly.

“Shoot me, please someone, just shoot me!” he pleaded from his deadly pedestal.  

Port-mortem procedures

dr-osborne

Young Dr. Osborne on a hunting trip.

Dr. Osborne’s office was just like any other doctor’s office. Except it had a whiskey barrel in one corner. And it wasn’t full of whiskey.

It contained a saltwater solution—the kind of preservative you need to keep a human body from rotting. Dr. Osborne and his partner, Dr. Maghee, had George Parrott’s body in that barrel for more than a year. With help from their 15-year-old female apprentice, Lillian Heath, they conducted an ongoing autopsy of the deceased outlaw. The doctors’ findings weren’t unusual, but their actions were. They took souvenirs.

Dr. Osborne had a skin tanner fashion a pair of shoes, a medical bag and a coin purse out of George’s skin. Drs. Maghee and Osborne offered Lillian a trophy and she chose the skull cap—already removed as the doctors had wanted to examine George’s brain.

When they were finally finished with George, they disposed of his body. Rather than taking him to a cemetery, they opted to bury him—barrel and all—in their backyard in downtown Rawlins.  

An epilogue of achievements

Dr. Lillian Heath, Wyoming's first female physician

Dr. Lillian Heath, Wyoming’s first female physician

If there were ever a “Who’s Who of Wyoming”—the unconventional trio who worked on Big Nose George’s body would be included, but not only for their deeds in 1881. Dr. Osborne went on to become the third governor of Wyoming. Some said he even wore his “skin” shoes to his gubernatorial inaugural ball and even took them with him to Washington, D.C., where he served as Assistant Secretary of State under President Wilson.

Dr. Maghee started several progressive medical organizations in Wyoming, and with the help of Lillian Heath, pioneered plastic surgery in the West. Not to be outdone by her male mentors, Lillian went on to become Wyoming’s first accredited female physician.

Downtown Rawlins, 1950

“If the skull fits,” joked one of the officers—trying to interject some humor into the sinister situation. The skeleton the construction workers found in the whiskey barrel was missing the top half of its skull.

As fate would have it, Lillian Heath was still alive and living in Rawlins. Hearing about the body discovered downtown, her husband brought her prized 80-year-old skullcap down to help identify the body. It was a match. And just like that, “Big Nose” George Parrott was in the headlines once again.  

Today

bng exhibit

Carbon County Museum’s redesigned exhibits about “Big Nose” George Parrott and the frontier doctors of Carbon County are slated to open in Summer 2016.

There is no doubt about it. Carbon County has been home to some pretty colorful characters. So colorful, in fact, that some of them have made it onto reality TV. Many are long gone but fortunately their legends live on—carefully curated and artfully presented at Carbon County Museum. Within its walls, the museum contains fascinating exhibits ranging from hands-on kids’ activities in the Discovery Zone to The Wild West in Carbon County: “Big Nose” George Parrott (Dr. Osborne’s shoes are even on display), to Adaptations: Exploring Native American Ways and Union Pacific Railroad: Transforming Carbon County.

One can argue that preserving history is just as admirable as making history. As the museum prepares to move into a much larger facility in a restored historic building, patrons have a unique opportunity to help. For a gift of $50—which will go toward helping defray the costs of the museum’s $8 million renovation—donors can have their name, or the name of a loved one, displayed on a dedication wall in the new facility at the Hugus-Ferguson Building.

By putting your name on the wall, you’re ensuring that past names—even those as funny as “Big Nose” George—are not forgotten and their deeds (whether good or bad) continue to captivate and inspire future generations.

You can also aid the museum’s preservation of such unique history by purchasing an autographed copy of C.J. Box’s newest novel, Off the Grid, or his other popular titles that are also autographed, directly from the museum.

 

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