Shoes Made From Big Nose George
The Carbon County Museum in Rawlins has some worthy artifacts. There's a concrete road marker from the old Lincoln Highway. There's an exhibit labeled "Probably The First Bathtub In Rawlins," carved from a block of sandstone for a man who couldn't wait to take a bath. And there's an entire room devoted to the vacation that Thomas Edison took in Rawlins, the one in which he invented the light bulb.
These are all good exhibits -- but they pale in comparison to the museum's star attraction: a pair of shoes made from the skin of Big Nose George.
George Francis Warden, a.k.a. George Parrot, a.k.a. "Big Nose George," was a horse thief and a train robber. In 1878, after a botched hold-up, he and his gang killed a couple of lawmen and fled to Montana. "If he'd kept his big mouth shut he wouldn't of got caught," said Ilene Hanson, an assistant at the museum. "But he got to bragging."
George was hauled back to Rawlins, sentenced to hang for his crimes, and then lynched by an impatient mob. He reportedly clung to the telegraph pole to save his neck, but gravity dragged him down. He choked to death, and in his struggles the noose rubbed off his ears.
And then there was his nose. According to The Legend of Big Nose George, available at the museum gift shop, "The nose of the dead man was so large that it interfered with the lid of the coffin and excess pressure had to be exerted to close it and nail it down."
It wasn't nailed down for long. A couple of local doctors, Thomas Maghee and John Osborne, stole George's body and hid it in a whiskey barrel. "Dr. Maghee wanted to study the criminal brain," explained Ilene, "because his wife was criminally insane from a couple of horseback riding accidents. He was hoping he could help his wife."
Dr. Osborne had personal reasons as well. "From what I understand," Ilene said, "he was on a train and Big Nose George delayed the train and he missed a party. And so he did not like Big Nose George."
Dr. Osborne's payback was special. He peeled the skin off of George's chest and thighs and had it made into a doctor's bag, a coin purse, and a pair of shoes. Or, rather, half a pair of shoes. The rest of the leather -- the darker portion -- was cut from the shoes that George was wearing when he choked to death. These are on display in the museum as well.
The vengeful doctor knew how to make an impression (You don't mess with a guy wearing human skin shoes). He went on to become a bank chairman, the largest sheep owner in the territory, and the first Democratic governor of the state of Wyoming. "He wore those shoes to his inauguration," said Ilene. "He was mighty proud of them. If you look at the soles, they are quite well worn."
The two doctors kept George in the barrel for a year while they continued their experiments, which eventually led to more exhibits for the museum, including Dr. Osborne's death mask of George (without ears), and Big Nose George's skull, with the top removed from where Dr. Maghee pulled out George's criminal brain.
The missing skullcap is still a source of discomfort in Rawlins. It was given by the doctors to their assistant, teenaged Lillian Heath (who went on to become a doctor herself). She settled in Rawlins, and her husband eventually used the skullcap as an ashtray. But according to Ilene, the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, sweet-talked Lillian out of the skullcap when she was in her nineties, and now won't give it back! "We're not happy about that at all," said Ilene.
Rawlins is a small town, and the shoes, although locally famous, aren't widely publicized. We asked Ilene: Do people actually come to Rawlins to see the shoes made from Big Nose George? "People come from all over the world," she answered, proudly, "but they act as if these shoes were gonna bite 'em or something."