Outlaws and Inmates

Today’s audio update: Christian Kallen calls in from the gas chamber.

You look up and see a little scrap of sky,
Dark blue and far off into the night,
Stuck with a lopsided sky that drifts by
With little shivers, very small and white.
—from Romance, by Arthur Rimbaud

A roadside cross overlooking the Wind River Basin.

A first glance at Rawlins is enough to explain what might make you lynch a man (for instance George “Big Nose” Parrott) and turn his hide into not just shoes (as we already knew) but also, apparently, a valise, a cowboy vest, and a coin pouch using (as the historian at the Carbon County Museum explained) “the delicate parts of a man’s body.” A second glance at the town is almost enough to make you skin yourself and sell off the resulting handbag and belt to the highest bidder. Anything to get out of town.

Rawlins is a town whose raison d’être is, first and foremost, incarceration. So Christian and I decide to take a tour of the historic Rawlins State Penitentiary. Our guide (Kathy, we think her name might have been, but we were too nervous to ask twice) is immoderately gleeful about slamming us into “solitary,” “the hole,” and the gas chamber. “There, how does that feel?” she shouts into the cell. And then, “How about we leave you in there?”

This penitentiary opened its doors for business in 1901, and it was not until 1981 that overcrowding forced the construction of a larger, more modern facility on the outskirts of town. Christian and I are both wearing thick coats, but the limestone of which the old institution is built holds not only last night’s cold in its walls, but also last winter’s cold. Even with the furnaces (which produce more smoke than heat) temperatures in the building are never more than 10 degrees higher inside than they are outside. Which means that mid-winter can see the temperature in here plummet to 10 or 15 degrees below zero.

A cell this size housed two felons.

Tiny cells stack one above the other like a vast refrigeration facility. It is the closest thing I know to an abattoir—the same desolate industrial processing of flesh, except in this case it is human flesh. Each 8-by-10-foot cell housed two men (a tiny sink and a dismal toilet are within a nose’s length of the bunks). The showers, which did not see the acquisition of hot water until the mid-1970s, are cruelly located on the north side of the building. To the west, facing the setting sun, which sinks over a bleak rise of sagebrush, are death row, the gallows, and the gas chamber. It is not hard to see why Cassidy and Sundance fled for Bolivia in 1902 rather than risk imprisonment in such a place.

Seeking perspective, we visit Ransom Baker, the historian at the Carbon County Museum, a tall, affable man in his 70s who is a rich source of history and a man of great intelligence and humor. After we are shown the shoes made of “Big Nose George’s” hide (tanned in Colorado and stitched into shoes in Rawlins), we sit down with Ranson and fall under his spell.

“Big Nose” George Parrott (not, as is often said, a member of Cassidy’s Wild Bunch; Cassidy would have been 14 at the time of Parrott’s death) was an inept criminal of dim intelligence. In 1878, in a shootout with officers of the law, Parrott was part of a gang that shot, killed, and dismembered Deputy Sheriff Robert Widdowfield and Henry H. “Tip” Vincent, both Rawlins citizens of high regard.

Two years later, when the law caught up with Parrott (he had drunkenly boasted of the murders in a Montana bar), the outrage of the citizens of Rawlins at the murder of their townsmen was by no means diminished. Before Parrott could be hanged by the law, he was dragged from jail and hanged from a telegraph pole by a gang of masked men (at first try, the rope broke, searing Parrott’s ears off).

Shoes made from Big Nose’s hide, later worn by Gov. Osborne.

The undertaker prepared Parrott’s body for burial. It was said that his nose was so large that there was some difficulty closing the coffin lid. Shortly thereafter, a Dr. John Osborne had the body removed from the casket; made a death mask of the criminal (the death mask is on display at the museum, sans ears); skinned him; tanned his hide to make the valise, coin purse, and shoes; and sliced off the top of his skull to examine the “criminal brain” and for secondary use as an ashtray. Later, at his inauguration in 1893 as Wyoming’s first Democratic governor, Osborne wore the shoes.

Check back Monday for another dispatch from the Outlaw Trail.