RAWLINS, Wyo— Today, at the Carbon County Museum, I checked out the display of Big Nose George Parrot, the only man in American history to be turned into a pair of shoes. His name was actually George Manuse. He was lynched in 1881.
George was a rustler with a big nose, hence his name. Somewhere along the line, he met up with the James Brothers, Jesse and Frank. Along with a guy named Dutch Charley, they decided to rob a train. They probably would have robbed a bank, but back then Wyoming had more trains than banks. Today, of course, they would have robbed a mini-mart.
So, they hopped on their horses and headed off for a lonely stretch of train tracks, where Big Nose convinced the others they should mess with the tracks to derail the train. “Then it will be a breeze to stick ’em up,” he probably said, or something like that. And the other guys probably said, “Good idea, Big Nose.”
Well, as they were fidgeting around with the track, lo and behold, a Union Pacific foreman in a hand car came pumping around the bend. The outlaws hid. The eagle-eyed railroad man, however, noticed that someone had been fooling with the track.
“Suspicious” he probably mumbled, because he knew something was definitely up. So he rode ahead like crazy, where he instructed the approaching train to hit the skids. The railroad guys informed the law, who rode out to apprehend the would-be train robbers.
Bad idea, because Big Nose and his boys blew away two of the lawmen.
The James Brothers, of whom only Frank was reportedly involved in the attempted heist, decided the heck with Wyoming, and off they rode.
Dutch Charley and Big Nose split up. Charley was apprehended first, in Montana, and brought back to Wyoming where he fessed up to his deeds, figuring honesty was the best policy. Bad decision, because the locals were so mad they strung him up on a telegraph pole. Bye bye, Charley.
Big Nose George got caught next. He, too, confessed — but it didn’t do him any good either because he was sentenced to hang. In jail, however, he tried to escape, failing, but beating up a guard in the process. The local boys got wind of this and stormed the jail, hauling Big Nose over to the telegraph pole in front of Fred Wolfe’s Saloon, where they lynched him, probably getting stiff drunk while George just got stiff.
BUT THAT’S NOT THE END to George’s story. A young doctor named J.E. Osborne took possession of George’s body. The first thing he did was make a death mask of his face, which you can see in the museum. Second, he sawed open his skull to check out his brain to see if it was different than a good person’s brain. It wasn’t.
Next, he had George skinned, and sent the skin to a Denver tannery. “Make me a pair of shoes, and leave on the nipples” he instructed. Well, he got the shoes, but not the nipples. The shoes are also in the museum.
Then he took what remained of George and put him in a whiskey barrel, which he buried. In the 1950s, construction workers digging for a new building found the barrel and the bones of Big Nose George.
Dr. Osborne wore his George shoes all the time, especially to special occasions. He eventually became a state big shot and was even elected governor. Some people say he wore George to the inauguration ball.
The top of George’s skull, meanwhile, became a “brain bowl” for Dr. Lillian Nelson, Wyoming’s first female doctor. For years she used it as a doorstop.
Dr. Osborne’s shoes and George’s sawed-off skull are in the Carbon County Museum, which is in downtown Rawlins in an old Mormon church. Admission is free.
I was incredibly lucky to visit the day that photographer Craig Pindell and historian/writer Larry K. Brown were photographing George for the archives of the Wyoming State Museum. After they were done, they put the shoes and skull back in the normally closed-up glass case. When they weren’t looking, I managed to cop a feel of the shoes, which are two-toned. They’re skin color on the front and brown in back — kinda like saddle shoes. Only the soles are made of cow leather. And they are very worn, proving that the doctor wore his George shoes a lot.
I rubbed the shoes. I figured they’d be flimsy. I was shocked that they were very sturdy like they were made of cow leather. George’s skull, meanwhile, felt like bone, no surprise there.
That’s the story of Big Nose George. If you are in Rawlins, check him out. The museum is located at 904 West Walnut Street. A new location is planned (as of April, 2016) so call to be sure you’re headed to the right place (307) 328-2740.
This originally appeared in Chuck Woodbury’s “On-the-road” newspaper Out West in 1997