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History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Outlaw Proved Hanging Was No Sure Thing
Will Bagley
Published: 09/03/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

Reviewing Wyoming's colorful outlaw history, it is easy to understand why Utah's neighbor hasn't executed anybody in a long while. Dying is hard in Wyoming. Take the fate of "Big Nose" George Parrott, whose career as a highwayman was cut short by the citizens of Rawlins. Parrott botched a railroad holdup but ambushed and killed two members of a posse sent to capture him. After the law ran him down, a lynch mob greeted Big Nose on his return to Wyoming. They dangled him from a corral gate and beat a confession out of him before returning him to Sheriff John Rankin.

The law sentenced Parrott to be hanged, but on March 22, 1881, a mob seized him after he attempted to escape. They hoisted Parrott into what they presumed would be eternity, but the rope broke. "Hang him over," someone said, "and make a good job of it this time."

The crowd tried to push Parrott up a ladder. "It is a shame to take a man's life this way," Big Nose observed, and offered to climb the ladder himself. Instead, the mob readjusted the noose and yanked away his sole support. Freeing his hands, Parrott entertained his fans by artfully swinging between the telegraph pole and certain death until he was able to latch onto the pole. Had his feet not been shackled, he might be there still. Big Nose lost his grip, however, and soon was swaying in the night air.

Parrott's hosts thought they had finally got it right. But having cut the body down, they found a pulse. Expecting that if two tries hadn't left him thoroughly dead three would, they ran old Big Nose up the flagpole (so to speak) one more time. A rancher took home Parrott's head as a souvenir, but his wife made him return it. Town doctor John Osborne had the dead outlaw flayed and made a pair of shoes and a medical bag out of Parrott's hide.

When he served as governor, Osborne liked to wear Parrott in the statehouse while cavorting with legislators. Impressed, his constituents sent Osborne to Congress. What was left of Big Nose turned-up in Rawlins in 1949 when construction workers found his skeleton in the basement of Osborne's office.

Diamond "Slim" Clifton was also unfortunate. Slim's head came loose when he was hanged from a railroad bridge in Newcastle. An undertaker reattached it to the corpse, but sewed it on backwards. Horse thief James Keefer was hanged in Lander in 1903. Keefer was so popular no one wanted to be his executioner, so Sheriff Charles Stough made special arrangements. When Keefer stepped on a trapdoor, a string would pull a cork out of the bottom of a bucket of water. When the bucket drained, the trapdoor would fall and launch Keefer into eternity. It was an ingenious solution, but no one had counted on the audience using the bucket as a spittoon, and tobacco plugged the hole in the bucket.

Keefer stood on the trapdoor patiently awaiting his fate, but finally turned to his friend for help. "Charlie," he said, "for God's sake, cut the string!"

Stough stepped up and said, "It's my hanging, and I'll cut the string," He did, and Keefer had stolen his last horse. All this might strike sensitive souls as morbid, but it was effective. Utahn George Parker spent a good bit of his youth in the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary. During his career, in which he was known as "Butch Cassidy," Parker carefully avoided killing anyone and swore he would never be taken alive. At least in Wyoming.

Utah and Western historian Will Bagley temporarily is hiding out in Green River, Wyoming.

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