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Ridiculous History: A Wild West Governor Wore Shoes of Human Skin


A detail of the Charles M. Russell painting "Big Nose George and the Road Agents." Jonathan Blair/Corbis/Getty Images
A detail of the Charles M. Russell painting "Big Nose George and the Road Agents." Jonathan Blair/Corbis/Getty Images

Politicians are under a lot of scrutiny in the 21st century: a public servant can hardly attempt to sell a senate seat, or post illicit pictures of themselves on the internet, or even accept millions of dollars in bribes without getting trouble. But during this election season, when making America great again is topping the national to-do list, let's reflect back on a time in American history when a new governor could show up to his inauguration proudly sporting shoes made from a hanged felon whose corpse he skinned himself.

Times sure have changed.

Back in 1881, an outlaw named George Parrott, also known by the nickname "Big Nose George," was hanged in Rawlins, Wyoming, for trying (and failing) to rob a train and subsequently killing the two lawmen who came after him. Before this incident, Big Nose George — whose nose really was remarkably large — was just a small-time horse thief. But after fleeing to Montana following the murders and botched robbery, he robbed the military convoy of a local merchant who was travelling back east with a bunch of cash.

An undated portrait of "Big Nose" George Parrott.
An undated portrait of "Big Nose" George Parrott.
Wikimedia Commons

This successful haul saw Parrot get cocky. He returned to the town where the merchant was from, went into a saloon, and started bragging about the robbery and the murders back in Wyoming. This boasting resulted in his capture and return to Wyoming. There he unsuccessfully tried to escape from prison using his pocket knife — apparently you could keep your pocket knife on you while you were in jail in the Wild West — but failed, and was lynched and hanged on a telegraph pole by an angry mob of more than 200 people.

After Parrott's 1881 death, nobody showed up to claim the body, so John Osborne, the doctor who pronounced him dead took his body home for "medical study." He extracted Parrott's brain and gave it to his friend, the surgeon Thomas Maghee, who wanted to study Parrott's "criminal brain." Osborne also sawed off the top portion of Big Nose George's skull and gave it to Lillian Heath, a 15-year-old girl who went on to become Wyoming's first female physician (she reportedly kept it her entire life, using it as an ashtray and a door stop). The bottom portion of Parrott's skull, Osborne put in a barrel with the rest of the bones.

Not one to waste any part of the outlaw's corpse, Osborne then skinned Parrott's body and had a pair of shoes and medical bag made out of the human skin. The bag has never been found. Years later Osborne entered politics and was elected governor of Wyoming. To his 1893 inauguration he wore the shoes that a dozen years earlier had been a man.

Talk about a political statement.

That very footwear is now on display, along with the death mask Osborne cast after Parrott's death — his nose was really big — in the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.