Days 154-156/ Aug 7th-9th – Rawlins, WY: Big Nose George

“Everything’s a hundred miles away,” explained the receptionist in the Carbon County Museum.  “You go shopping, it’s a hundred miles.  You go to the next town, it’s a hundred miles.”

Rawlins existed to fill a void in the middle of Wyoming; the archetypal junction town, it was here only because ‘here’ was so far from everywhere else.  It sits on a rocky saddle of land on the Red Desert plateau, sandwiched between two ranges of the Rockies, and split down the middle by its life-giving artery, I-80.  Cross-country drivers, and holidaymakers heading north to Wyoming’s national parks, often break their journeys in Rawlins, and so did we.

The Great Wyoming Whorehouses book

Rawlins, Wyoming's capital of culture

From the beginning, it’s been a town defined by crime.  In August 1880, ‘Big Nose’ George Parrot arrived in Rawlins in the custody of marshals, under arrest for an attempted train robbery near the town two years earlier, during which he had shot dead two deputies.  He was almost lynched on arrival by an angry mob, but was duly tried and sentenced to hang.  Parrot attempted to escape from his Rawlins jail shortly before his execution date, prompting a second lynch mob to snatch him from the prison at gunpoint and hang him from a nearby telegraph pole.  At a time when cadavers for medical research were scarce, his body was given to three local doctors to experiment on.  One of them, John Osborne, for reasons he never satisfactorily explained, removed Parrot’s skin and had it made into a pair of shoes.  He went on to become governor of Wyoming, and wore the shoes to his inaugural ball in 1893.

Big Nose George Parrot, Wyoming criminal

Big Nose George, before he was made into shoes

They were on display in the Carbon County Museum, tiny, gnarled and two-tone, like golf-shoes for a toddler.  Alongside the ubiquitous displays of 19th-century barbed wire was an exhibit chronicling the life of a second famous local criminal, Bill Carlisle, a lone bandit who held up three Union Pacific trains in 1916.  He wasn’t much of a criminal; one of these robberies netted him just $52, and he was captured the same year and sentenced to life in prison in Rawlins.  He managed to escape in 1919, and robbed one more train before being recaptured and sentenced again.  He was paroled after seventeen years, and pardoned in 1947 and, in a delightfully prosaic third act to his life, became a pillar of the local community and one of the founding members of the Wyoming Motel Association.

Today, Rawlins is a town of motels, clustered at each end of Highway 30 to entice weary interstate drivers, and bookending a typically devastated commercial centre.  Half of the businesses – High Country Pawn, Rhino Linings, an engine repair shop – were closed down, and those that remained were devoted to the sale of either cars or alcohol.

“There’s twenty-three bars in Rawlins,” said Laverne, the tattooed taxi-driver who brought us back into town after one day’s walking.  “I pick up a mixture of everybody, but mostly drunks.  It’s a small town: if they don’t know where they live at, we do.”

We asked her how Rawlins was handling the recession.

“We’re adjusting,” she said, “since everybody literally left to go to North Dakota to work on the gas pipelines.”

Downtown Rawlins, Wyoming on Highway 30

Looking down Highway 30 in downtown Rawlins

One of Rawlins’ few permanent employers is the Wyoming State Penitentiary, out on a lonely road south of town.  It replaced the Wyoming Frontier Prison, whose appropriately terrifying façade, all Gothic turrets and metal grilles, still loomed over the county courthouse at the centre of town, attracting a steady stream of curious visitors, which we duly joined.

Despite its forbidding appearance, it hadn’t always been terribly secure; in 1912, there had been a celebrated mass escape in which 19 prisoners slipped out one Saturday over its wooden stockade wall, to be followed by nine more the following day (the walls were hastily rebuilt, higher and of concrete).  Inside, though, it was as bleak as could be imagined – four stories of miserable six by eight cells, each barely fitting a metal cot, a tiny sink and a seatless toilet, and all looking out onto a bare concrete wall; a heartbreakingly dispiriting visiting room, itself little more than a concrete cell and divided into by iron bars to prevent visitors and prisoners from touching; and a pitch-dark basement shower block seemingly designed to encourage violent assault.

Cell-blocks at Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins

The cell-blocks at Wyoming Frontier Prison

The prison was like a grittier, less sanitised version of Alcatraz.  It had only been closed in the early Eighties, and everywhere were small remnants betraying the details of recent prison life: battered metal trays waiting in piles in the cafeteria, blobs of toothpaste in neat lines on the cell walls where they had been used to hold up posters.

There had been roughly 500 prisoners here at any one time, and some 13,000 inmates in all, but our visit focused – a trifle morbidly – on the fourteen men who had been executed within the walls.  Initially, the preferred method had been by hanging.  After the briefest of hellos, our guide, a beaming girl of twenty, began the tour with a demonstration of the prison’s ‘Julian gallows’, a device designed to spare the conscience of executioners.  The trapdoor was triggered not by a lever, but by a vat of water that slowly emptied until it no longer acted as sufficient counterweight to keep the door closed.  The condemned man had to stand listening to the gurgle of escaping water, and presumably wouldn’t have failed to miss the clumsy metaphor for his own rapidly ebbing life.  There was only a small scale model of the gallows at the prison now, and after the demonstration was completed we walked past its spastically jerking six-inch-high puppet to begin the tour proper.

Exercise yard in Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins

Within sight of freedom in the prison yard

It ended in the ‘death house’, a grid of relatively roomy cells where condemned men were brought to die.  During the Thirties, Wyoming switched to gas as its preferred method of execution – perhaps the water-bills for its byzantine hangings got too high – and the chamber, too big to remove, was still mounted in a corner beside the cells, resembling a large, silver diving bell, complete with thick observation windows.  The guide popped open the heavy metal hatch, and we watched with astonished fascination as the families in the group took it in turns to photograph themselves and their children, grinning with amused delight, sitting in the leather chair where five men had writhed and choked their last.

Carbon County Fair parade in Rawlins, Wyoming

Parade opening the Carbon County Fair in Rawlins


2 Responses to “Days 154-156/ Aug 7th-9th – Rawlins, WY: Big Nose George”

  1. Arthur White Says:

    Seems like there’s a bit of a lag on your posts making it through to the site… but happy birthday in Oct for a post apparently made in Aug…


  2. Lindsay Buatte Says:

    Grew up in Sinclair, Wy. Didn’t realize till I was in high school (Go Outlaws!) how unpleasant Rawlins was. Toss in the ever present wind (always grit in your teeth and corners of your eyes) and you were forced to acknowledge that this wasn’t ever going to be a slice of heaven. This was during its heyday (60’s) with all the store fronts occupied and well tended houses and lawns. We spent most Summer weekends camping in Snowy Range. There were old logging roads but not one campground or any human habitation. Limitless blue skies, pines trees, susurous tall grasses, wild flowers of every description, the gurgle of clear water over stones in the small creek, the flash of the back of a 7″ rainbow trout in a pool, the smell of the campfire and dinner cooking, the joy in your heart and the gratitude in your soul made up for those inconveniences of the town. Sadly, could never have one without the other.
    I’m enjoying your travels and envy your stamina and courage. Be careful and keep on writing. Lindsay

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