On March 22, 1881, convicted murderer Big Nose George Parott, having filed the rivets off his shackles with a smuggled pocketknife, tried to escape from the Carbon County Jail in Rawlins, Wyo. After striking jailer Bob Rankin over the head, however, Parott was persuaded at gunpoint by Rankin’s wife, Rosa, to return to his cell. Parott was just a couple of weeks shy of his scheduled execution for the ambush killing of Union Pacific detective Tip Vincent and Carbon County Deputy Sheriff Bob Widdowfield after a bungled 1878 train robbery. On the night of Parott’s escape attempt an impatient mob rushed the jail, dragged him from his cell and hanged him from a telegraph pole on Front Street in Rawlins.
Former Wyoming State Archaeologist Mark Miller had heard about Parott’s misdeeds, trial and lynching from the time he was a boy, for the county sheriff at the time of the outlaw’s trial and lynching had been Miller’s great-grandfather, Isaac “Ike” Miller. The younger Miller and other archaeologists later studied the relevant crime scenes, as well as Parott’s skull, for in the wake of the outlaw’s death doctors had sawn off his skullcap to inspect his “criminal brain.” Doctor John Osborne went a step further, having strips of Parott’s skin made into a pair of shoes. The bad doctor even wore the shoes to his Jan. 2, 1893, inaugural as governor of Wyoming.
Miller recently spoke with Wild West about his recent biography Big Nose George: His Troublesome Trail, in which the author relates the macabre details and seeks to get at the truth about the outlaw’s life, criminal career, trial and death.
How did you document the killing of Tip Vincent and Robert Widdowfield?
Several lines of evidence followed the brutal murders. The outlaws began talking with their brethren about the deed, and those admissions eventually made it to law enforcement. The Laramie Daily Sentinel picked up the story and followed it assiduously. Rawlins did not yet have a newspaper. Then Carbon County authorities prepared murder indictments for the perpetrators who killed Vincent and Widdowfield. Those indictments are still on file in Carbon County. Court proceedings thoroughly covered the murder of Vincent at Parott’s trial.
What is the significance of their killing in the annals of Wyoming Law Enforcement?
Widdowfield was the second and Vincent the third law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Wyoming Territory. Deputy Sheriff Adolph Cuny, of Laramie County, was the first, shot in 1877. Vincent and Widdowfield were the first double homicide of lawmen in the territory. Significantly, five of the eight murderers went unpunished by the legal system.
How did you establish who killed Vincent and Widdowfield?
The identity of the outlaws who killed Vincent and Widdowfield comes to us from a couple sources. They were first identified by their partners in crime to other outlaws and eventually to authorities under threat of lynching. The murder indictments in the Carbon County Clerk of Court records list eight murderers on each formal accusation, written down after a grand jury and sworn to by authorities. Their names came from outlaw “confessions,” and Big Nose George confirmed them during his court proceedings.
Who were the murderers?
Big Nose George Parott, Dutch Charley [Burris], Jack Campbell, Frank James, Joe (or John) Minuse, Tom Reed, Frank Tole, Sim Wan and John Wells.
What evidence did you gather that shows Frank James was actually in Wyoming around the same time as Parott was involved in his criminal activities?
Good question! Where was Frank James between 1876, after Northfield, and 1879, when he was back in Missouri? I advance the theory offered by Carl Breihan in his 1974 book The Escapades of Frank and Jesse James. He argues for Frank’s role in the Powder River Gang. There also are at least three contemporary written sources from the Big Horn country that mention seeing where James was staying on Little Goose Creek in the late 1870s; one of these residents knew Frank back east during the Civil War. Furthermore, Parott named James as an accomplice during his parlor statement, which was treated by the judge as sworn testimony. James is listed on every formal accusation ever prepared for the murders of Vincent and Widdowfield. Although this may be circumstantial evidence, I have not found reference to any other Frank James who was an outlaw in Wyoming Territory at the time.
Why was James indicted but never arrested for his role in this case?
I think the trial of Parott proved more expensive to the county than anticipated. [The local judge] was known to require certain expenditures, and the prosecution team would have been costly as well, not to mention the costs incurred by several prosecution witnesses. The county also was responsible to pay half of the $2,000 reward for any of the accused arrested and convicted for the crime.
Why did Carbon County not bring James back for trial?
Expenses once again were a factor. There were five accused murderers still at large, and that had to weigh heavily on the minds of county officials. James also had a powerful defense team, which would have been formidable if they could have played a role in any trial. Missouri authorities were partial to James and may have been an obstacle to any extradition. In 1883 legal authorities acquitted Frank in Missouri of an unrelated murder, and some years later he traveled with Cole Younger on the lecture circuit. Also, the clumsy vigilante lynching of Parott may have soured the community on the whole affair.
How was your great-grandfather involved?
Citizens of Carbon County elected my great-grandfather, Isaac C. Miller, as sheriff in November 1880 while George Parott sat in jail awaiting trial for murder. Once elected, Ike would be responsible to conduct the sentence of hanging Parott in April 1881.… Vigilantes hanged him in town while Ike was away on business in Sand Creek. According to an interview with Ike’s youngest daughter, Kit, citizens gave Ike the bag that had covered the outlaw’s head during the lynching.
Is there any truth to a rumor the lynching was planned before Parott’s escape attempt?
I have thought of that often but find no evidence at all. Sheriff Miller was out of town, which has caused some to speculate, but sheriffs still collected taxes back then. I found no mention of any of the other outlaws present. A conspiracy ahead of time by irate citizens makes no sense, since an escape attempt would endanger the jail employees. In fact, Bob Rankin was nearly killed by Parott. We don’t know who gave Parott the knife and a sandstone for sharpening, and whoever did may have been an accomplice. At least one other inmate was James Averell (who was later hanged on the Sweetwater in 1889). He was acquainted with the Rankins, who worked in the jail, so he is not a good candidate to help Parott. I reject the theory that the escape was premeditated by anyone other than Parott himself. The lynching did result from the jailbreak attempt, because the anger over the two murders and injury to Rankin boiled over in the minds of everyday citizens. It is not the only time vigilante justice prevailed.
Why did Big Nose George return to the headlines in the 20th century?
The most significant event was the 1950 discovery of a whiskey barrel buried near Front Street in Rawlins that contained the skeletal remains of an adult male missing the skullcap on his cranium. Lillian Heath had been a medical assistant to Dr. Thomas Maghee and Dr. John Osborne in the early 1880s, and Dr. Osborne gave her Parott’s skullcap when they studied the outlaw’s brain. She was still alive in 1950 and sent the skullcap to the barrel discovery site, where the two pieces of cranium were refit perfectly. This solid chain of custody proved the identity of the skeleton in the barrel. This discovery rekindled stories of the outlaw legend and influenced the perspective citizens hold today about the desperado.
Describe the related DNA work you engaged in as state archaeologist.
A research team consisting of myself, Dr. George Gill, graduate student Kristi McMahan and research scientist Rick Weathermon were able to assemble all the physical evidence remaining from the Big Nose George story in 1995. The Union Pacific Museum gave permission to Dr. Gill to remove a small piece of hide from Parott’s skullcap for DNA. The sample has not been run and is still in storage in case a future DNA study is called for. In addition, we measured the skull, analyzed the dental pattern, estimated age, race and sex. Weathermon studied superpositions of photographs taken of the skull, death mask and only known photo of the outlaw, showing they all were likely from the same individual. A stature estimate was impossible, because the postcranial bones had disappeared. The Wyoming State Crime Lab indicated the lighter components of a pair of Dr. John Osborne’s shoes in the Parott collection were consistent with human flesh.
Candy Moulton is the author of Roadside History of Wyoming and as a journalist has visited the sites of Vincent and Widdowfield’s deaths and the ghost town of Carbon, and she has more than once written about the shoes made from Parott’s skin.