Author discusses the legend of “Big Nose” George


TORRINGTON – Community members filled the Platte Valley Bank Community Room on Tuesday night to hear the truth behind the strange tale of “Big Nose” George Parrott. 

Archaeologist and author Mark Miller was featured as the Goshen County Historical Society’s last presentation until the fall. Miller, a former state archaeologist for 30 years, has had a particular interest in the infamous story of the outlaw from Rawlins, especially since his great-grandfather was the sheriff at the time and was tasked with conducting the legal hanging of Big Nose in 1880. 

In Miller’s book, “Big Nose George: His Troublesome Trail” he sought to tell the real story of what happened to Parrott and change the perspective of the old legend. 

As the story goes, Parrott attempted to escape from jail and bashed the jailor over the head before eventually being caught. The outlaw was lynched shortly after by angry townsfolk before he was scheduled to be hanged. 

It was common practice at the time to study outlaws’ brains which is what Dr. John Osborne, who went on to be the Governor of Wyoming, did. What he did next was not quite common and certainly unethical. 

Osborne used Parrott’s skin for shoes which are now on display in the Carbon County Historical Museum. Miller said the shoes were analyzed and confirmed to be made out of human skin based on the particular patterns. No further analysis was done to confirm if it is in fact the remains of Parrott as it would result in permanent damage to the artifact. It is still widely regarded to be Parrott without using destructive analysis. 

Miller added Osborne had just moved to Wyoming from Virginia, so it was unlikely for him to have as much hatred toward the outlaw as the locals who killed him. 

“I think Osborne was way out there,” Miller said. “It makes no sense to me.” 

While there has never been a mystery as to the whereabouts of the shoes, the location of Parrott’s body was unknown for decades until it was found in a whiskey barrel at a construction site in 1950. 

“The unique thing about the skeleton is he was all there except for the top of his skull,” Miller said. 

One individual heard Lillian Heath, the first female doctor in Wyoming and the assistant of Osbourne in 1880, had the top of the skull and was still alive. Miller said they were able to confirm the remains as Parrott because the skull cap matched the hole in the skeleton. 

Miller read a few pages from his book which provided context leading up to Parrott’s death. The outlaw was associated in the deaths of Carbon County Deputy Sheriff Bob Widdowfield and Union Pacific Special Agent Tip Vincent. 

Parrott recruited a group of outlaws known as the Powder River Gang which in included Jesse James’ brother, Frank, for his plan in Carbon County to rob a train.

Miller said he believed the gang picked the specific train because an article in the Laramie Daily Sentinel stated the eastbound Union Pacific train is the treasure train. The robbery attempt ultimately failed and Undersheriff James Rankin was initially tasked to find out what happened.  

The next day, Deputy Widdowfield and Agent Vincent took over the investigation. 

“They knew they were outnumbered so they had to be very cautious with how they acted,” Miller said. 

Widdowfield noticed a campsite on the trail and the coals from the fire were still warm meaning the outlaws couldn’t be too far. The deputy was right as the gang was hiding in the bushes and shot him and Vincent. 

Law enforcement quickly gathered a list of all those involved, and Miller said the indictments can still be found at the Carbon County Courthouse today. 

Parrott was eventually arrested and brought to Rawlins for his trial which led to his demise. Parrott initially pled guilty to the crime and confessed to everything but was later convinced by his lawyers to change his plea. During the trial, however, his confession was used against him which included him confirming Frank James was part of the gang. 

For Frank, he was eventually exonerated of another murder and his entire slate was wiped clean as he went on to speak to the public about “the evils of crime.” 

“I sometimes think it doesn’t always matter what you do so much as where you did it.” 

While there is speculation today on if Frank was actually part of the gang or was in Wyoming at all, Miller said it is important to remember the people of the time believed so. 

Miller also said statues of Widdowfield and Vincent should be made to honor them and the legend of Big Nose George should be laid to rest. 

In order to learn more about truth behind the legend, Miller said, “you got to buy the book.”

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