March 22nd, 2013
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1881, George Parrott, a cattle rustler popularly known as Big Nose George, was lynched in Rawlins, Wyoming.
His story doesn’t end with his death, however: as his Wikipedia entry notes, Parrott was notable for “Banditry, Murder, being made into a pair of shoes.” Oh, and being pickled.
The series of events that lead to Parrott’s death began on August 19, 1878, when he and his gang tried to wreck a train near Medicine Bow, Wyoming so they could rob it. They loosened a rail and waited patiently, but an alert section foreman spotted the loose rail and notified railroad authorities, who came and fixed it before the train arrived.
Realizing the law would be after them, Parrott’s gang fled toward Elk Mountain and hid in Rattlesnake Canyon, waiting to ambush the posse they knew would be coming.
As soon as the lawmen were within their rifle sights, the bandits opened fire. Parrott killed Tip Vincent, a Union Pacific Railroad agent; one of the other fugitives, “Dutch” Charley Bates, killed Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield. The gang then fled and hid out in Montana for a span, eventually reaching Canada — and all the while continuing their criminal ways.
Parrott couldn’t keep his mouth shut about his outlaw exploits and bragged everywhere he went. Inevitably, someone who’d heard one of his stories went to Rawlins and happened to mention the hook-nosed man who’d tried to derail a train, then killed two people when their plan failed.
“Dutch” Charley Bates was arrested in Green River, Wyoming in December 1878 and put on a train bound for Rawlins to face trial. Ironically, it was the same train he’d tried to derail earlier that year.
But Bates never made it to Rawlins: when the train made a stop at Carbon City, a group of masked vigilantes overpowered Bates’s guards, hauled him off the train, forced him to confess to his crimes and then hoisted him up on a rope to slowly strangle to death.
Parrott remained at large and the reward for his capture grew to $2,000 before his big mouth got him into trouble again. He and his gang had held up several stagecoaches and pulled off a particularly lucrative job in July 1880. He bragged about it to a lady friend, who told other people, and eventually word reached the ears of the Rawlins sheriff. Within hours he was under arrest.
In a repeat of the Bates lynching, a posse forced Parrott from his Rawlins-bound train in Carbon City. R. Michael Wilson, in his book Frontier Justice in the Wild West, writes what happened next:
They escorted him onto the station platform, put a noose around his neck, yanked him up, then lowered him and asked for a full confession. When he hesitated the men pulled him up several times and then promised that if he confessed, he would be given a fair trial — but if he did not confess, he would be hung. Parrott talked, and once he began, he gave every detail of his various criminal ventures, some of which were quite a surprise to the vigilantes. The mob, true to their word, then returned the prisoner to the custody of Sheriff Rankin.
That’s touching behavior for a vigilante mob, but it sure feels like Carbon City could stand to tighten up its railroad security.
At any rate, Parrott was tried for Tip Vincent’s murder in the fall of 1880, convicted, and sentenced to death.
However, on March 20, 1881, thirteen days before he was scheduled to hang, he made a desperate escape attempt. Though Parrott managed to knock Sheriff Rankin unconscious, Mrs. Rankin foiled the breakout by locking up the cells before Parrott could get out. Extra guards were assigned to watch him after that.
As Wilson records,
Sheriff Rankin asked the townsmen to wait the short time remaining before the prisoner was to be legally hanged, but the general opinion was that the sheriff had taken enough abuse from the prisoner and that Parrott might yet escape if left to await his fate on April 2. On March 22 at 10:55 p.m., a party of thirty masked men went to the jail and removed Parrott. They marched him to the telegraph pole … A rope was placed over the crossbeam of a telegraph pole, the noose was secured around the prisoner’s neck, and Parrott was forced to stand upon a barrel. Parrott begged piteously to be shot and cried out that it was cruel to hang him, but his pleas were ignored.
They kicked the barrel out from under him, but it was too short: the rope and Parrott’s neck stretched enough so that his toes touched the ground.
The mob cut him down and went and got a ladder. Parrott climbed it and said he would jump off and break his neck, but as far as the vigilantes were concerned, that was too good for him: they pulled the ladder away instead, and he slowly strangled to death, tearing off one of his ears in the process.
Drs. Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne conducted the autopsy, examined Parrott’s brain, and could find no apparent abnormalities. Osborne then removed a large piece of skin from the dead man’s chest, kept the skullcap, and put the rest of the body in a whiskey barrel full of saline solution, effectively pickling it. The barrel was buried without ceremony, and Dr. Osborne had the skin tanned. He sent the leather to a shoemaker, who made him a pair of shoes with it.
Dr. Osborne was disappointed that Parrott’s nipples weren’t on the tips of the toes like he’d requested (!!!), but you can’t have everything you want in life.
He wore the human leather shoes on special occasions, including at his inaugural ball when he was elected governor of Wyoming in 1890. The skullcap he gave to his fifteen-year-old female assistant, Lillian Heath, who used it variously as a doorstop and an ashtray. (She would grow up to become the first female doctor in Wyoming.)
Parrott’s pickled remains were dug up at a construction site in 1950, and identified after some confusion. His skull, as well as the shoes, are now on display at the Carbon County Museum.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lynching,Murder,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft,USA,Wyoming
Tags: 1880s, 1882, george parrott, john osborne, march 22, rawlins
November 20th, 2010
On this date in 1903, Tom Horn hanged in Cheyenne — a frontier legend lost in the post-frontier world.
Tom Horn passed the months between trial and execution braiding rope. Legend obviously holds that he made the noose that hanged him.
Horn‘s forty-three colorful years traced the waning days of the Wild West: he was a cavalry scout who helped capture Apache warrior Geronimo, a Pinkerton agent, a hired gun in the murderous Wyoming cattle wars. (He made a side trip to Florida during the Spanish-American War to organize Teddy Roosevelt’s supply train before the Battle of San Juan Hill.)
He had hunted many rustlers to their deaths, though he may have swung for a killing he didn’t do; the verdict against him in the murder of 14-year-old Willie Nickell is still hotly disputed to this day. It turned on a dubious liquor-induced “confession” as recorded by the lawmen who wanted to arrest him.
Horn’s death, to the hymn of “Life’s Railway to Heaven”, is a milestone in the passing of the frontier West; too, it was a milestone in a weird experimental cul-de-sac for modern America’s fascination with technological innovation on the scaffold. A contraption called the “Julian gallows,” named for the man who designed it, used the prisoner’s weight on the trap to open a water valve that filled a barrel that knocked over a post supporting the trap, causing the prisoner to eventually drop without any hangman’s hand on a lever.
A steady,* solitary man, Horn took it all in with equanimity. Maybe it was written: not for this rugged plains gunslinger to lurk on as a relic into the age of flight, cubism, trench warfare. Already in his lifetime the frontier had disappeared into kitsch.
Tom Horn lives on in Wyoming lore, and the tale has no greater curator than Wyoming’s Chip Carlson. Carlson manages www.tom-horn.com and is the author of Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon; he was good enough to chat with Executed Today about our day’s subject.
First things first — did Tom Horn actually do the crime for which he hanged?
Tom Horn was convicted because of social pressure (the fact that he represented the cattle barons) and the political ambitions of the prosecutor and presiding judge.
So what was different in Wyoming after Horn’s execution?
The cattle barons and other big business entities (e.g., mining barons, railroad barons, etc.) had much less influence on public affairs.
He seems like an almost self-consciously inscrutable character. What drove him?
He was a faithful and reliable employee, but seemed to thrive on adrenaline.
Was he just, at the end, a man who couldn’t change as his world changed around him?
Yes, he was out of date and out of the times.
Did people of his own time also see him as a part of the frontier West that was no more?
How did you become so interested in Tom Horn? As the go-to expert on his life, what do you find draws others to him, and what sorts of lessons do people draw from his story?
He is the number one Name in Wyoming history, because of the controversies about whether he killed 14-year-old Willie Nickell (tom-horn.com page) and how his trial was conducted. (tom-horn.com page)
I had read every book published about him up till the time I started researching him, and when contrasting the various testimonies in the inquest with the trial, puzzled, how the hell could they have ever convicted him? All this is laid out in my book, Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon.
Two films about Tom Horn — Mr. Horn, starring David Carradine, and Tom Horn, starring Steve McQueen — were released within months of each other in 1979-80.
* His reported last words were coolly directed at one of his executioners who showed anxiety — “Ain’t losing your nerve, are you, Joe?”
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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mercenaries,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions,Wyoming
Tags: 1900s, 1903, cinema, david carradine, death tech, geronimo, julian gallows, november 20, pinkerton detective agency, steve mcqueen, tom horn
July 20th, 2009
On this date in 1889, Ella Watson, a homesteader with a small ranch, was demonstratively lynched by vigilantes of Wyoming’s powerful cattlemen.
In the Western frontier amidst the rapine of the Gilded Age, ranching oligopolists had Wyoming by the throat.
Ellen Watson was a late-30′s escapee of an abusive marriage in Kansas who had homesteaded her own land and set up shop as an independent proprietor.
This put her in a class of people soon to be pitted in a resource war against the big ranchers — the Johnson County War, to erupt in 1892.
Watson was a casualty of the increasingly violent run-up to open “war”, a period when the catchall “cattle rustling” charge did the dirty work of licensing arrests and property seizures (and worse) deemed convenient for Big Cattle. When the latter decided that Watson’s stock was stolen, they seized her and partner James Averell and strung them up.
Hanging from the limb of a stunted pine growing on the summit of a cliff fronting the Sweetwater River, were the bodies of James Averell and Ella Watson. Side by side they swing, their arms touching each other, their tongues protruding and their faces swollen and discolored almost beyond recognition. Common cowboy lariats had been used, and both had died by strangulation, neither fallen over two feet. Judging from signs too plain to be mistaken a desperate struggle had taken place on the cliff, and both man and woman had fought for their lives until the last.
The subsequent trial of the paramilitaries ended in acquittal when potential witnesses were bought off or intimidated into silence, leaving “Cattle Kate” a legendary figure most defined by cattlemen-controlled Cheyenne newspapers. These made her out to be not only a thief but a (literal) whore, an image sharply contested by George Hufsmith’s The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate.
Michael Cimino’s legendary cinematic Hindenburg Heaven’s Gate is about the Johnson County War, and features Isabelle Huppert as Watson, opposite Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averell. The film treats her sympathetically … but she’s also a madam who accepts payment for her cathouse’s services in the form of rustled cattle.
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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Hanged,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Pelf,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA,Women,Wyoming
Tags: 1880s, 1889, cattle, cattle kate, cinema, economics, ella watson, ellen watson, heaven's gate, isabelle huppert, james averell, jim averell, johnson county war, kris kristofferson, michael cimino