George Parrot, also known as George Francis Warden, George Manuse, and Big Nose George, is infamous for being hanged as an outlaw and for being the only man in American history who became a pair of shoes after his death.
The outlaw, known for his large nose and most often called “Big Nose George,” was a member of a gang of road agents and horse thieves.
Led by a man named Sim Jan, the outlaws were active in the Powder River country of Wyoming, robbing pay wagons and stagecoaches of cash shipments and relieving passengers of their money and jewelry. The gang was also comprised of Frank McKinney, Joe Manuse, Jack Campbell, John Wells, Tom Reed, Frank Tole, and Dutch “Charley” Burress.
On August 16, 1878, the road agents planned to rob a Union Pacific train near Medicine Bow by manipulating the tracks to derail the train. However, as seven of the outlaw members hid in the brush waiting for the train to arrive, a section crew came along and discovered the tampered rail.
Reportedly, Frank McKinney wanted to shoot them, but Big Nose George and Frank Tole objected, saying they hadn’t come to kill section men. Meanwhile, as the crewman repaired the track, a railroad foreman rode ahead to stop the approaching train and informed the law that the rails had been tampered with. Their plan thwarted; the outlaws could do nothing but silently watch as the track was repaired, then after the workers left, rode off.
In no time, a posse was sent to apprehend the would-be train robbers. Two lawmen soon tracked the gang to Rattlesnake Canyon at Elk Mountain, where the outlaws shot and killed them. Afterward, the gang split up, heading in various directions. After discovering the two dead lawmen, the Union Pacific Railroad doubled their efforts in tracking the murderers, and county authorities offered a $10,000 reward for their capture.
Frank Tole was killed the next month while trying to rob the Black Hills Stage Line.
Dutch Charlie was the first to be apprehended in 1879, but when the westbound train was bringing the outlaw to Rawlins for trial, it was stopped by a mob in Carbon. Dutch Charlie was then forcibly taken from the train and hanged from a telegraph pole.
Later, when Big Nose George was in Miles City, Montana, he got drunk and boasted of the attempted train robbery and murders in Wyoming. In no time, a telegraph was sent to Rawlins, and in July 1880, Sheriff Rankin of Carbon County went to Montana to take George back to Wyoming. Again, as the train made its journey, it was stopped in Carbon by the same mob that had lynched Dutch Charlie. Big Nose was hauled off the train and was prepared for lynching. However, when the outlaw began to plead for his life and confessed, promising to tell all he knew about the murders if they would let him live, the vigilantes cut him down. Big Nose was then allowed to continue the journey to Rawlins to stand trial.
While Parrot was in jail, he said that Frank McKinney claimed to be Frank James, which led to the speculation that Frank McKinney and the gang’s leader, Sim Jan, were none other than Frank and Jesse James. McKinney, Jan, and the rest of the gang disappeared and were not apprehended.
At George’s trial, he was found guilty on December 15, 1880, and was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881. However, George didn’t plan to go so easily, and he attempted to escape on March 22 of the following year. When he attacked Jailer Robert Rankin, he fractured his skull and cut his scalp in the process. However, the day was saved when Mrs. Rankin appeared with a pistol in her hand, and Big Nose George was forced back to his cell.
When the news of the attempted escape spread throughout the city, a masked mob soon formed and stormed the jail.
With lynching on their minds, they dragged Parrot from the jail to a telegraph pole on Front Street. As a crowd of about 200 people gathered, the vigilantes severely botched the first two hanging attempts, but Big Nose George died at the end of a rope on the third try.
The body was left hanging for several hours until the undertaker removed it. Having no family to claim the corpse, Doctors Thomas Maghee and John Osborne took possession of it to study the outlaw’s brain to determine if there might be a reason for his criminal behavior. Also on hand was a 15-year-old Lillian Heath, who was working as an assistant to Dr. Maghee.
After the skull cap was crudely sawed off, the doctors examined it and found no marked differences between Parrot’s brain and a “normal” one. Though Dr. Maghee and assistant, Heath, acted within the medical ethics of the time, Dr. Osborne’s activities soon became very bizarre.
Osborn first molded a death mask of George’s face using plaster of paris. The mask was without ears because while George struggled at the end of the rope, his ears wore torn off.
Next, Osborn removed the skin from the dead man’s thighs and chest, which the doctor sent to a tannery in Denver with a set of very strange instructions. The tannery was to use the skin, including the dead man’s nipples, to make him a pair of shoes and a medicine bag. When Dr. Osborn received the shoes, he was disappointed to find they didn’t include the nipples but proudly began to wear them anyway.
The rest of George’s dismembered body was kept in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt solution for about a year. Osborn continued his dissection and experiments for a time when finally, the whiskey barrel and the outlaw’s remains were buried in the yard behind Dr. Maghee’s office.
Despite the doctor’s odd behavior in the desecration of George Parrot’s body, he soon became prominent in local politics. In 1892, the doctor was elected as the first Democratic Governor of Wyoming and was said to have worn the shoes at his inaugural ball in 1893. Later Osborn would become the Assistant Secretary of State under President Wilson.
Somewhere along the line, the skull cap was given to the young Miss Health, who would later become the first female doctor in the State of Wyoming. Over the years, the skull cap was said to have serviced as an ashtray and a doorstop in her office.
The incident was all but forgotten until May 11, 1950, when construction workers excavating for a new building on Cedar Street unearthed a whiskey barrel filled with bones. The location was behind the building that had served as Dr. Maghee’s office years before. Inside the barrel were numerous human bones, including a skull with the top sawed off.
In no time, as a crowd gathered to look at the grisly remains, someone remembered that Dr. Lillian Heath had kept the skull cap. While well into her eighties, Heath was still alive, and she was immediately contacted. When her husband brought the skull cap to the scene, it fit perfectly with the skull found in the barrel. Though locals were convinced these were the remains of Big Nose George, subsequent DNA testing verified the results.
Today, the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming, proudly displays Big George’s death mask, his skull, and the infamous shoes made of the outlaw’s skin. Also on display is a watch given by the County Commissioners to Rosa Rankin for having stopped Big Nose George from escaping from jail in 1881. The museum is one of the biggest attractions in the city.
The shackles used on Big Nose during his hanging and the skull cap are on display at the Union Pacific Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
The rest of Parrot’s remains were allegedly secretly buried years ago in an unknown location. The medicine bag made of his tanned skin has never been found.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.
Lynchings & Hangings of America