Just a head’s up: This episode contains mature content. Mayyybe don’t let your kids listen to this one.
There’s something weird about the legends of the Wild West– and it’s not just that the moniker “wild” describes it well. Wyoming in the pioneer days was a wild place. Murders, angry mobs, sheriffs keeping the peace and citizens doing their best to build homesteads and keep from being attacked by local indigenous tribes. Unfortunately, Wyoming has a long history of breaking treaties with native Americans, but let’s not dwell on that just yet.
While the identity of the future Cowboy State was still being forged, many names you may have heard about came through the prison system for one reason or another. The famous Butch Cassidy was imprisoned in Laramie’s Territorial Prison, no word if the sundance kid was with him.
You’ve got the Earp brothers, coming into the state as they tried to find their fortune in the Black Hills. Just a few miles away, famous Seth Bullock and Wild Bill Hickock made their trip through the Wyoming territory to the end of the line in Deadwood, south dakota.
You may not have heard of the subject of today’s episode, and if you do– you know where this is going and it’s not a proud moment for the state. Let me tell you the story of why a Wyoming Governor wore shoes made from human skin to his inauguration.
Today’s tale begins with a man named George Perrot- otherwise known as Big Nose George. George was born in 1834 in his home country of France but he made his way to the territories of the west in the late 1850s. George was known in the state of Wyoming as a notorious highwayman– basically stealing what they could from those crossing the treacherous roads through the Wyoming territory.
In 1872, word spread about the highwayman’s’ attempt to rob a train in the isolated part of track near the Medicine Bow river. After the failure of the robbery, they fled to Elk Mountain near Rawlins and hid out. Lawmen had tracked the gang’s location and they quickly stamped out their campfire to take the men by surprise. The gang used the lawmen’s own weapons to murder the two men who had found them.
After the incident (in which they also stole a horse) a heavy bounty was levied on the entire group- $10,000 for the apprehension of the men, which was later doubled to $20,000 to incentivize their capture.
In 1872, Big Nose George and his posse were in Miles City, Montana, where they decided to rob a local businessman of money he was planning to send back east for various investments. George and his cohort were arrested following the robbery, when the acts they’d committed in the Cowboy State were revealed. Lawmen sent him to Wyoming to face murder charges in the summer of 1880. After a trial in 1881, Big Nose George was sentenced to die by hanging at the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Rawlins.
An escape attempt left a guard with a fractured skull when George hit him over the head with his own shackles. The guard’s wife, Rosa, was able to convince the outlaw to get back into his cell with some persuasion from a pistol in her hand.
However, the escape attempt spread through the small town of Rawlins like wildfire. Masked men broke into the prison, originally expected to be trying to free a prisoner. They held up the injured guard for his keys and used their revolvers to apprehend Big Nose George in his cell. When the posse of men lead the outlaw outside, they were greeted by a lynch mob of nearly 200 people.
The anger from the escape attempt and murder of lawmen bubbled over and the mob strung Big Nose George up by a telegraph pole in the city of Rawlins. Big Nose George met his end in a way that wasn’t all that uncommon in the wild west days of Wyoming, but the reason we know his name today is because of things that happened after he was already killed at the hands of the town.
Doctors Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne were given the outlaw’s body, allegedly to study the effects of criminality on one’s brain.
To this end, the top of the outlaw’s skull was sawed off to reveal his brain. This scull cap would be presented to a then 16 year old girl, Lillian Heath. Heath would go on to be the first woman to be a medical doctor in the state. Osborne and Maghee weren’t done with the criminal’s body, however.
A tannery in Denver received a unique delivery– the skin of Big Nose George’s thighs and chest– including the nipples, and were instructed to make a pair of shoes and a medical bag. Both of these grisly items were in the possession of Osbourne. While the medical bag has been lost to history, the shoes were considered prized possessions of the doctor, who would later be elected as the third Governor of Wyoming in 1892.
What perfect shoes to wear to such an event, right?
John Eugene Osbourne wore those very skin shoes to his own Inaugural ball. He would also go on to be elected as a representative to the 55th congress in Washington. No word on whether he broke out the skin shoes for such an occasion.
In 1950, another macabre discovery came in the form of a whiskey barrel that had been buried with a body inside (missing the top of his skull) and the infamous shoes said to be made of skin from his thigh. The doctor, Lillian Heath, was contacted and sent the skull cap to the scene to verify that the body was that of the long-dead outlaw. (It’s worth noting that Dr. Heath has used the skull cap as an ashtray or doorstop for a good portion of her ownership.)
The remains were verified as George’s with DNA testing, though the fact that the skull-ashtray fit perfectly was enough of a verification for the police department in Rawlins.
Nowadays, the gruesome relics are on display in several museums. The Rawlins Museum contains Big Nose’s George’s death mask, the bottom of his jaw, and the infamous skin shoes. In nebraska, the skull cap and the shackles from his attempted escape are on display.
A horrible end, and horrible afterlife for the man known as George Parrot seem to have come to an end, with the remainder of his remains remitted to the ground at the territorial prison’s cemetery, with many other outlaws that had been executed in more regular circumstances.
Big Nose George claimed once that he was part of the Wild Bunch gang with Butch Cassidy, but his alleged involvement with the infamous gang was disputed, as Cassidy would have only been 14 when George claimed he was part of the group.
Today, the end of the outlaw is seen as a troublesome chapter in the history of the territory of Wyoming, and those shoes are on display in Rawlins – hopefully deterring any doctors from using an outlaw’s skull cap as an ashtray.
Oof, that was a rough one this week. I hope you’re still with me.
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