Updated: Mar 23
On May 11th, 1950, a work crew in Rawlins, Wyoming, excavated a lot to lay the foundations for the new Rawlins National Bank on the corner of 5th & West Cedar Streets. In the afternoon, the foreman noticed that his workers had stopped working and were standing in a rough circle, staring down at the ground. He walked over and saw what they were looking at. A whiskey barrel had been buried, and in their work, the barrel had been uncovered, and its macabre contents revealed: the bones of a man, his skull missing its top portion. News quickly spread through the town, with citizens whispering to each other about the man in the whiskey barrel coffin. The news brought first members of the Chamber of Commerce, which had previously been located at the site, and then 85-year-old Lillian Heath, Wyoming's first female doctor. She confirmed what the Chamber of Commerce men suspected—she knew the man in the barrel.
Seventy-two years earlier, as the scientific world converged on Rawlins in preparation for the solar eclipse, Texas Jack and his guests Doctor Amandus Ferber and Count Otto Franc von Lichtenstein complained that the hotel rooms they had reserved by telegraph weeks earlier were double and even triple booked, forcing the three to share a single room. "After many introductions to reporters and Jack's numerous friends at almost every station," wrote the Doctor in a letter to Forest & Stream magazine, "we found ourselves at the Railroad Hotel, which was so crowded on account of the eclipse that, although we telegraphed for rooms, we three were put up in one little room like herrings." Restless in the small room, Jack headed to the saloon for refreshment, where he learned that a famous inventor was also sharing one of the rooms in the hotel.
" After we retired and were asleep a thundering knock on the door awakened us," wrote Thomas Edison in his journal, "Upon opening the door a tall, handsome man with flowing hair dressed in western style entered the room. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was somewhat inebriated. He introduced himself as `Texas Jack’—Omohundro and said he wanted to see Edison, as he had read about me in the newspapers." Both Edison and the man sharing his room had been warned of bad men near Rawlins, and were afraid that this was one of them.
The sound of Jack's voice had roused other occupants of the packed hotel. "The landlord requested him not to make so much noise and was thrown out into the hall. Jack explained that he had just come in with a party that had been hunting and that he felt fine. He explained, also, that he was the boss pistol-shot of the West; that it was he who taught the celebrated Doctor Carver how to shoot. Then suddenly pointing to a weather vane on the freight depot, he pulled out a Colt revolver and fired through the window, hitting the vane." The show of marksmanship did little to calm the fears of the inventor. " It was only after I told him I was tired," Edison wrote, "and would see him in the morning that he left. Both Fox and I were so nervous we didn’t sleep any that night. We were told in the morning that Jack was a pretty good fellow, and was not one of the `bad men,’ of whom they had a good supply."
Dr. Lillian Heath arrived at the construction site in Rawlins in 1950 and confirmed what some of the locals already believed. The bones and partial skull in the whiskey barrel uncovered by the construction crew belonged to one of these bad men. This particular bad man was an outlaw known as Big Nose George. Some said his real name might have been George Warden, or George Manuse, but it turned out to be George Parrot.
He had been lynched by an angry mob of two-hundred or more Rawlins locals in 1881, his body dissected, and his brain studied for clues that might explain his various criminal misdeeds. Heath was just 15 years old in 1881. Her father got her a job as the medical assistant to two doctors, Thomas Maghee and John Eugene Osborne, and those men had claimed Big Nose George's body and carried out the dissection. When they had removed the top of the outlaw's skull to examine his brain, she remembered, the removed portion of the cranium had been handed to her. She kept it as a memento, using it as a doorstop for many years. Her husband had repurposed it as an ashtray. She handed it to the county coroner, who brought it together with the lower part of the skull from the whiskey barrel. The pieces were a perfect match.
When Thomas Edison woke the next morning and told people about the cowboy who knocked on his door in the middle of the night and fired a gun from his window and claimed to be the best pistol shot in the West and called himself Texas Jack, he was shocked to learn from locals that John Omohundro was everything he said he was. If Edison was too busy with his work to pay attention to dime novels, stage shows, and newspaper reports about one of the most famous plainsmen in the world, friend and costar of Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok, the people of Rawlins were not. Edison went to find Texas Jack, only to learn that the scout was up before sunrise, headed south with his party to hunt in the Sierra Madre mountains of present-day Medicine Bow National Forest. Jack hired a local man named Henry "Tip" Vincent to help him guide the party. Jack knew the area, was familiar with the local tribes and their languages, and was confident of his abilities as a hunter and guide—but he knew the men paying him wanted the find the best hunting and the best fishing and the most spectacular scenery Wyoming had to offer, and he knew the best way to ensure the success of the trip was to lean on a local expert. He was told that Tip Vincent was his man.
The three weeks that Jack and his guests spent in the wilderness of southern Wyoming proved that Jack's choice was well made. Reports to Forest & Stream magazine by Dr. Ferber and travel diaries kept by Otto Franc recount daily events like "Tip and Jack go out to look for a shady camp, they come back at 10 o'clock and report a good place 8 miles up the creek," and "Jack and I go out hunting but a thunderstorm soon compels us to return without game; Dr. and Tip come home with plenty of trout." Jack and Tip fell into an easy friendship. Franc describes a typical day's meals: "When we travel we have only 2 meals a day viz: Breakfast & Supper & consequently plenty of appetite; after the meal we light our pipes, sit around the fire & listen to the Indian & hunting stories of Tip & Jack."
With the southern portion of their trek completed, the four men traveled back towards Rawlins, stopping at Beckman's Ranch. While Furber and Franc proceeded into Rawlins, Jack and Tip stayed at the ranch to take care of the pack train. While the other two men emptied a keg of lager in Rawlins, Texas Jack asked Tip if he would come with them for the next portion of the trip: six weeks in the Wind River range. When the full party reconnected in Rawlins the following day to resupply, Tip asked Jack if he could leave the party for two days on urgent business.
"Tip asks for a vacation of 2 days," wrote Franc in his journal. "He is detective for the Union Pacific Railroad & the Co. wants him to follow the trail & if possible to locate a party of train robbers that has committed depredations along the line near Rawlins for some time. He will overtake us at Lanckin's ranch; I loan him my Sharp Rifle as I shall have no use for the same until after we start from the ranch, until then my light Winchester Rifle is serviceable enough for any antelope or Deer that we might meet." Tip took Franc's .50 caliber Sharps Rifle, promising to return it to Franc when he joined the party at August Lancken's place.
Big Nose George, the man whose remains were both interred in a whisky barrel and used to collect cigar ashes by the husband of Dr. Heath, did not accept his fate easily. He first entered a guilty plea, but days later changed his plea to not guilty. In November of 1880, a jury was sworn, and two days later George again changed his plea—back to guilty. A motion was filed for arrest of judgment and sentencing, and the court took this under advisement but eventually denied the motion. Death by hanging was the punishment for those found guilty of murder in the state of Wyoming, and Big Nose George was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881.
Ten days before the scheduled execution, George tried to escape from the local jail. He somehow managed to keep his pocket knife while being put into the jails, and he used the knife to saw through the rivets on the heavy leg shackles that bound him. He waited until the nighttime and hid in a closet, waiting for Robert Rankin, the sheriff and jailer, to walk past. As the man made his nightly rounds, George leaped from the closet and struck Rankin in the head with his heavy wrist shackles, fracturing the man's skull. Somehow, Rankin turned and delivered a blow to the side of George's neck, knocking him against the wall. Rankin was then able to call to his wife for help. Grabbing her husband's pistol and the extra keys, Rosa Rankin entered the cell block, closing and locking the grated door behind her to prevent an escape. With her husband's pistol in her hand, she convinced the outlaw to return to his cell. Her husband was then able to leave the area, and Dr. John Osborne treated his injuries. The local blacksmith was called to re-rivet the shackles onto Big Nose George's ankles—the attempted escape had failed.
That night men began to appear outside the Rawlins jail. At first, one by one, and then arriving in groups of two or three, until eventually, two hundred men stood silently in the midnight air. Inside the jail, the sheriff had laid down to recover from his wounds and likely concussion, and it was his deputy who heard the knock at the door. When he asked who was there, the reply said simply, "Friends." The deputy replied to the friends that it was late and they weren't allowed in the jail, at which the door was forced open, and the deputy and a guard assigned to watch Big Nose George were advised by the four or five men who entered the jail to take a walk. George was escorted from his cell and down the street to a telegraph pole across from the J.W. Hugus Company Store. Someone ran to get Doctor Osborne, who had returned home after treating the sheriff for his injuries, to make sure that the noose did its work.
An empty kerosene barrel was rolled in front of the pole, and George was forced to stand on it while the rope was tied to his neck. The other end of the rope was thrown over the cross-post of the telegraph pole and the barrel was kicked out from Big Nose George's feet. Then the rope broke and George fell to the ground gasping for air. While a member of the crowd dragged a ladder from behind the Company Store, George succeeded in loosening the ropes that bound his hands behind his back. A stronger rope was tied around his neck and he was now forced to climb the twelve foot ladder, which was then yanked out from under him. He finally managed to untie his hands, and as he swung, he grabbed the telegraph pole, clinging to it for his life. No one in the crowd left. Slowly, under his own weight and that of the heavy shackles around his feet, Big Nose George was unable to hold himself to the pole and his grip gave way, tearing off one of his ears in the process. When they were satisfied that he was no longer alive, the crowd faded into the night. The body remained at the end of the rope for a few hours before the undertaker removed it.
At August Lankin's ranch, Texas Jack, Dr. Furber, and Otto Franc waited for Tip to join them. A day passed and then two. Franc wrote in his journal, "we were entertained in right hospitable western style without daring to offer a cent of money in pay. in fact the whole ranch is placed at our disposal so that we almost feel like proprietors of the same instead of as guests. the mountains contain deer & mountain sheep & rock rabbits by the thousand so that we shall have something to pass our time with while we are waiting for Tip." The next day Franc fell ill while hunting alone, and feared that he would die. He had given himself up for gone when, "I heard the clatter of horses hoofs & looming up through the darkness came a man on horseback with another saddle horse beside on a dead run towards me. in a moment he was beside me. this gave me new life & I, forgetting that I was half dead, I jumped in the saddle &, keeping in advance of the other man, I made a bee line for the ranch as fast as my lively pony could run." After a day to rest from the ordeal, Jack and his guests discussed the situation. They could wait for Tip no more. Mr. Lancken agreed to fill in for Tip, helping Jack on the northern portion of the hunt.
The northern hunt filled the next six weeks, and Texas Jack, Gus Lankin, Dr. Furber, and Otto Franc hunted across the expanses of Wyoming, heading towards Wind River and following it through the Wind River Canyon to where it was called the Big Horn River. They hunted and explored the area, carefully watching for members of the Bannock tribe that were rumored to be on the warpath. Jack pointed out to his guests the tracks of ponies crossing the area without the markings of a travois pulled behind them, a sure sign that warriors were nearby. This caution turned to fear when smoke was seen rising to the north, but further exploration revealed that it was not smoke from tribal fires, but steam from the large hot springs of present-day Thermopolis.
"Arriving at the place," wrote Franc, "we find it to be a mammoth hot sulphur spring. it comes out at the foot of a hill where it forms a basin 25 feet wide & of great depth; the water is darkened & very clear, the outlet is a swift running stream 6 feet wide & 2 feet deep it runs 250 yards & falls over a bank 75 feet high into the Wind River, in falling it forms several sulphur pillars of fantastic design, for a great distance around the ground is formed of sulphur sediments showing that the outflow changes its course very often. the water is very hot, so that we could not hold our hands in it. the spring throws out a thousand or more gallons in a minute. on the opposite of the river are the remains of another now-extinct mineral spring. it is in the shape of a dome of transparent matter &of yellow & crystal clear icicles."
With the weather cooling, the group made its way back through the Wind River Canyon, to Lankin's Ranch, and finally to Rawlins where they were told why Tip had not joined them. Tip and Carbon, Wyoming, Deputy Sheriff Bob Widdowfield were called to investigate who was tampering with the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad. Several days earlier, a Union Pacific train reported that a survey crew was nearly struck on the bridge where the track crossed Medicine Bow River. Railroad officials reported that no survey crew was currently assigned to that portion of the track, The next day, the section foreman and his crew inspected the track and discovered that a gang had pulled spikes and removed fish plates, using a long run of telegraph wire tied to the loosened section of track so that it could be yanked away to derail a train and rob it of cash meant to pay rail workers in Rawlins.
Sure that the gang must be close, Tip Vincent and Bob Widdowfield tracked them south towards Rattlesnake Canyon near Elk Mountain. The intrepid lawmen walked into an ambush in the canyon, and Tip was shot no fewer than twelve times in the back as he made for high ground. Members of the gang stole Widdowfield's coat and the boots Tip was wearing. When a search party discovered the bodies, they found an old Army musket next to Tip's body, the new Sharps rifle he had borrowed from Otto Franc taken by the gang. County officials offered $10,000 as a reward for the capture of the men who killed Tip Vincent and Bob Widdowfield, and the Union Pacific Railroad offered to double that amount the week later. Otto Franc wrote of Tip that "his murderer will perhaps never be known or punished as the wilds of Wyoming give abundant shelter to that class of men; the Territory abounds with bands of horse thieves but it is very seldom that one of them is brought to justice."
It is likely Franc would have been right, but for the greed that led the gang to attempt their ill-fated train derailment in the first place. Dutch Charlie Burris was the first to get caught, having gone back to the Black Hills of the Dakotas and shot through the arm in an attempted robbery before being captured and sent back to Wyoming, where a large group of citizens forcibly removed him from the train and hung him from a telegraph pole. Soon enough, another gang member made a fatal mistake. A string of stagecoach robberies in Montana had just culminated in a particularly lucrative heist when a man drinking at a Montana saloon bragged about his wealth and having gotten away with murder down in Wyoming a few years back. Word reached the sheriff in Rawlins, and the stagecoach robber was soon arrested and placed on a train bound for Rawlins and justice. Just as they had done to Dutch Charlie, locals greeted this man at the train station, tied a rope around his neck, tossed the rope over a telegraph pole and told him that they would not hesitate to execute him right now if he didn't confess to his crimes, including the murders of Tip Vincent and Robert Widdowfield. The man hesitated and the rope was pulled tight. His hesitation disappeared. He confessed. He and his gang had killed those men, and his name was Big Nose George Parrot.
The portion of the skull that Dr. Heath had used as a doorstop and then an ashtray for almost seventy years confirmed that the remains in the whiskey barrel belonged to Big Nose George.
Newspapers around the country now told readers about another gruesome memento. Dr. John Eugene Osborne—one of the two doctors who had performed the dissection of George's body and the man who attended injured Sheriff Rankin and made sure George was dead after the lynching—had gone on to serve in the Wyoming Territorial Legislature, had chaired the Territorial Penitentiary Building Commission, and been elected mayor of Rawlins in 1888. He was elected the third Governor of the state of Wyoming, and later as a member of the House of Representatives in the Fifty-fifth Congress.
After the dissection of Big Nose George, Osborne sent the outlaw's skin to be tanned and subsequently turned into a medical bag he carried as a doctor and a pair of two-toned shoes that remain on display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, Wyoming. Dr. Osborne wore them at his inauguration.