Wyoming Frontier Prison

Wyoming Frontier Prison

Wyoming’s first state penitentiary, now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison, is located a couple of miles from the campground we are staying this week. During a lunch break we decided to drive over and take the tour.

In December of 1901, the prison opened and consisted of 104 cells (Cell Block A), no electricity or running water, and very inadequate heating.

Throughout the prison’s operation, approximately 13,500 people were incarcerated, including eleven women. Overcrowding was an almost constant concern, and the first of several additions to the penitentiary was completed in 1904, adding 32 cells to the west end of the original cell block (Cell Block A). 

The addition of the second cell block (Cell Block B) in 1950 temporarily relieved the overcrowding, and also included solitary confinement cells. 

A maximum security addition (Cell Block C) was completed in 1966, but the addition only included thirty-six cells and was reserved for serious discipline cases.

The prison also used different execution methods. The first two executions were carried out using the “traveling” Julien Gallows which were used to hang Tom Horn in Cheyenne in 1903. 

Under the gallows. Note water can and counter weight

In 1916, the penitentiary completed the addition of a “death house” which consisted of six cells to house inmates on death row, and a unique indoor version of the Julien Gallows.

 The building also housed the gas chamber when it was chosen to replace hanging as Wyoming’s execution method of choice in 1936.  

From 1901 through 1917 the prison had a broom factory, but inmates burned it down during a riot. The factory was rebuilt and operated as a shirt factory which brought in twice the revenue to the state. In 1934, a federal law was passed to prohibit the sale and transportation of prison manufactured goods from one state to another, which resulted in the loss of significant revenue when the factory closed. In 1935, the factory began operating as a woolen mill which won the “Navy E” in 1942 for the superior quality blankets produced by the prison for the military during World War II. In 1949 the prison changed production one last time, producing license plates until the penitentiary closed in 1981.

One of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever heard was about one of the prison inmates, George Parrott, a stagecoach and train robber also known as Big Nose George.

Big Nose George

According to WyoHistory.org:

In August 1878, Big Nose George and his gang, which included Dutch Charley Burris, planned a theft from the Union Pacific Railroad pay car near Como, Wyo., east of Medicine Bow. At that time, the UPRR carried cash via the pay car monthly for its own company payroll. The bandits loosened a spike in the rails, wrapped it with telegraph wire and hid in the sagebrush, planning to tug the spike and dislodge the rails to derail the train so they could abscond with the money. But sharp-eyed railroad employees spotted the wobbly spike, repaired the damage and alerted lawmen before the train arrived.

Big Nose George and his men fled to Rattlesnake Canyon at the base of Elk Mountain, about 25 miles southwest of the crime. Carbon County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Widdowfield and Union Pacific detective Henry “Tip” Vincent tracked them there. The outlaws killed them. The murders occurred Aug. 19, 1878.

Big Nose George and his gang were later reported to have stolen several thousand dollars in cash from a Miles City, Montana Territory, merchant named Cahn when, in the spring of 1879, Cahn accompanied the military paymaster’s wagon train from nearby Fort Keogh to Bismarck, Dakota Territory. Cahn was traveling to the East on a purchasing errand; the soldiers were headed to the Northern Pacific Railroad to retrieve funds to be distributed at the fort.

The outlaws eluded capture for a while, but it appears Dutch Charley was caught early in 1879. Tensions ran high in southern Wyoming along the Union Pacific Railroad; people were incensed about the murders of the lawmen.

On January 23, Charley was being transported from Laramie to Rawlins for trial when the locomotive stopped for coal and water at Carbon. There, a mob boarded the train, dragged him off and hanged him from a telegraph pole. He was not considered worthy of burial in the Carbon Cemetery, where Deputy Widdowfield was laid to rest. Dutch Charley’s unmarked grave is located somewhere in the sagebrush outside the cemetery boundaries.

On Sept. 13, 1880, Big Nose George was arraigned in Rawlins. He told his lawyer his name was George Francis Warden, reported his birthdate as being in April 1843 in Dayton, Ohio.

He first entered a guilty plea, and then changed his plea to not guilty. On Nov. 16, 1880, the 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 denied the motion on Dec. 15, 1880. At that time, death by hanging was the punishment for those found guilty of murder. Big Nose George was sentenced to hang on April 2, 1881.

Ten days before the scheduled execution, Big Nose George tried to escape from the local jail. He had used a pocket knife to saw through the rivets on the heavy leg shackles that bound him and struck jailer Robert Rankin in the head with them. Rankin’s wife, Rosa, discovered the attempted jailbreak and managed to close the outside door, thwarting Big Nose George’s plans. She fired her husband’s revolver in the air, and men came running to help.

Big Nose George’s hands were tied behind his back, and a noose secured around his neck. The mob made him stand on an empty kerosene barrel and tossed a rope over the crossbar of a telegraph pole. But the rope broke. The bandit fell, begging to be shot. Instead, the lynch mob replaced the noose and made him climb a 12-foot ladder. This time, with the repaired leg irons weighing him down, climbing was difficult. Finally, he choked to death. One report estimated a crowd of as many as 200 people gathered to watch.

No one came forward to claim the body. Dr. Osborne, who had been asked to be present during the hanging to ensure the outlaw died, and another Rawlins doctor, Thomas Maghee, a Union Pacific Railroad physician and surgeon, claimed the corpse for medical study. 

Osborne made a death mask and had the outlaw skinned and made shoes out of it. They were kept by Osborne, who wore the shoes to his inaugural ball after being elected as the first Democratic Governor of the State of Wyoming.

Maghee studied the criminal’s brain. Big Nose George’s skull was cut into two pieces. Maghee gave the top half to his protégé, Lillian Heath, who later became Wyoming’s first female physician, and is said to have used the cap as an ash tray, a pen holder and a doorstop.

Cast of Big Nose George’s skull

The lower skull half was buried in a whiskey barrel with the rest of the outlaw’s bones. In 1950, the whiskey barrel was discovered in Rawlins when workers were excavating for a new department store at Fifth and Cedar streets, and the skull halves were briefly reunited and then split up again. The skullcap is now housed at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the lower half of the skull is stored at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins.

I did say it was a bizarre story.


Sure beats a regular sandwich for lunch.