The ballad of Big Nose

When a sheriff from County Durham was shot dead in America's Wild West, his outlaw killer was shown no mercy. Sarah Stoner looks at the fascinating story of Big Nose George.

Big Nose George Parrot fashioned himself as a "tough as old boots" outlaw, terrorising the Wild West in the 19th century.

But, when his gang gunned down a County Durham lawman after a botched train robbery, that is exactly what he became – a pair of boots.

Hunted down by a lynch mob after trying to escape jail, Parrot was hung for the murder of Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield. Part of his skull was made into an ashtray following his death, while his skin was used to make a sturdy pair of shoes.

"It is an incredible story," said Christine Henderson, nee Widdowfield, of Houghton, a descendent of Sheriff Widdowfield's family. "I only heard it for the first time last August, while we were preparing for my dad's funeral, when an uncle talked about it."

Robert Widdowfield is believed to have been born in a mining village near Durham in 1846 and, by the age of 15, was a pitman. The son of miner Robert Widdowfield and Sarah Craggs, he was brought up by his stepmother, Ann Maugham, from a young age.

It was his step-mother, according to several genealogy websites, who decided to whisk the family off to America in 1869-70. Robert, his three brothers and a sister all embarked on the adventure with Ann, but there is no mention of Robert senior.

"I don't know what happened to her husband," said Christine. "But I think she must have been so brave to go over there and start a new life on her own."

The family finally settled in Wyoming, in the heart of the Wild West. Young Robert went on to become a deputy sheriff in Carbon County.

But on August 19, 1878, he gained the dubious distinction of becoming Wyoming's first officer to be killed in the line of duty.

Tasked with pursuing a gang of bungling train robbers, Robert and his partner, Union Pacific detective Tip Vincent, traced the outlaws to a camp at Rattlesnake Canyon, near Elk Mountain.

"One of the gang stood guard near the mouth of the canyon, so they would not be surprised by anyone who would attempt to follow them," a spokesman for Carbon County Museum said. "The day after they set up camp, the guard saw what he thought were two head of cattle. On closer observation, he realised that what he was seeing were two men on horseback."

The gang put out the fire and hid in a bush – agreeing to let the men pass if they were herders.

But, when the lawmen arrived, Robert realised that the fire ashes were still hot and remarked to Tip that "the gang must be close". Seconds later, the outlaws opened fire and Robert was shot in the face. He fell into the ashes, dead. Tip tried to ride out of the canyon and escape, but was shot before he made it to safety.

"Having stolen both men's weapons, and one of their horses, the gang covered the bodies and fled Elk Mountain," added the museum spokesman.

Following the discovery of the bodies of Robert and Tip, a huge police hunt was launched and a $10,000 reward, later doubled to $20,000, was offered for the "apprehension of their murderers".

The first to be captured was Dutch Charlie. He never made it to trial, however, as he was dragged from a train by an angry mob in Carbon and strung up from a nearby telegraph pole. Legend has it that Elizabeth Widdowfield kicked the barrel from beneath his legs, shouting: "This will teach you to kill my brother-in-law," but this has never been proven.

Another of the gang, Frank Tole, was killed within a month of Robert, while trying to rob the Black Hills Stage Line, but Big Nose George managed to escape to Montana and freedom.

"He was enjoying life when he was arrested after getting drunk and boasting of the attempted train robbery and the murders in Wyoming," said the museum spokesman. "A telegraph was sent to Sheriff Rankin, of Carbon County, and he went to Montana to bring Big Nose back in July 1880."

News of George's capture quickly reached Carbon and, when his train passed through by on its way to nearby Rawlins, the Dutch Charlie lynch mob did the same thing all over again.

Big Nose pleaded with the angry townsfolk and, after confessing to the murders and promising to tell all he knew, the crowd cut him down and allowed him to live.

Following a trial in which he switched his guilty plea to not guilty, and then back again, he was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881.

But the thief still had a trick or two up his sleeve.

"While in jail awaiting execution, he was able to wedge and file the rivets of the heavy shackles on his ankles, using a pocket knife and a piece of sandstone," said the museum spokesman. "Having removed his shackles, he hid in the water closet until jailer Robert Rankin entered the area. Using the shackles, George struck Rankin over the head, fracturing his skull."

Rankin managed to fight back, calling out to his wife, Rosa, for help at the same time. Grabbing a pistol, she managed to persuade George to return to his cell.

News of the escape attempt spread through Rawlins like wildfire and, as the clock struck 10pm, so groups of people started making their way to the local prison.

While Rankin lay recovering, so masked men with pistols burst into the jail. Holding Rankin at gunpoint, they took his keys, then dragged George from his cell.

A crowd of 200 people gathered as Big Nose was placed on an empty kerosene barrel, with a rope tied round his neck, and strung up from a telegraph pole.

The rope broke when the barrel was kicked from under him and he fell to the ground. Here he begged to be shot, while sneakily managing to untie his hands.

A second escape was not to be. He was swung by his neck into the pole and, unable to climb or cling to it, gravity pulled him downwards – choking him to death.

"It is related that the nose of the dead man was so large, it interfered with the coffin and excess pressure had to be exerted to close it and nail it down," revealed the museum spokesman.

Even in death Big Nose George was not destined to rest in peace. Local doctors ordered that the coffin be re-opened, and his body was subjected to medical tests.

The top of his skull was sawn off, to allow them to examine his "criminal brain," and the skull cap was given to a medical assistant, Lillian Heath, who later used it as an ashtray and door stop.

A plaster of Paris death mask was also created of his face. The casting was without ears, as these had been "worn off" by the rope while he was struggling.

Finally, the skin from his thighs and chest was removed. This was tanned and made into a pair of shoes for Dr John Osborne, who had treated the jailor, Robert Rankin, for his wounds.

These, it is said, he wore with pride in 1893, when attending his inaugural ball after being elected as the first Democratic Governor of the State of Wyoming.

George's body was kept in an old whisky barrel filled with a salt solution for a year until the experiments were completed, and he was finally buried in the backyard of a doctor's office. It was discovered by workmen excavating for a new building in May 1950.

Lillian Heath was still alive at the time and the skull cap was used to identify the bones as George's.

Robert Widdowfield's memory lives on through the town of Widdowfield, Wyoming, named in his honour.

"It really is an amazing story," said Christine. "I'd like to visit Widdowfield one day, I'm sure that would be very, very interesting."

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