Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Welcome Little Stranger

Jeremy Hall and I go way back. When I moved out of my parent's house he was my first roommate. We got a shitty little place that specialized in ripping off college students not too keen for campus living at the University of Arkansas. We were not students, just college aged. We were both musicians playing in various bands around town, but never together. Between the two of us we had one job, one girlfriend, no television, no car, no telephone and a half dozen guitars.

Jeremy is one of those guys with far too much talent and creative drive. He was always writing songs, and they were always good. I burned with jealousy. He wrote so prolifically in fact that he was booted from more than one group for exhausting the rest of the band with too much good material. Over the years Jeremy has married, procreated and continued to produce many many wonderful songs. I still burn with jealousy. He and his wife Holly Hall make up the band Welcome Little Stranger.

When we were looking for music to score Mosquito Kingdom with, I sent out feelers to lotsa folks I used to play in bands with and most of em sent me a disc of material to pick through. Jeremy sent eight. Show off. (Incidentally there are several of his songs in that movie). Recently, he sent me a song that told a weird ass story, nothing new for his music, except this one was a true story. I asked him to write that shit down and donate it here.

Jeremy is today's contributor to the Narrative Music series.

The Governor's Ball

In the last year my wife, Holly, and I have been writing music together. We call ourselves Welcome Little Stranger, after the Victorian tradition of waiting to see if a baby would live before naming the child, which led to gifts bearing the phrase "welcome little stranger" in lieu of a name. For our fourth song, Holly brought to my attention the harrowing and entirely true story of Big Nose George, a Wyoming outlaw of the 1800's who met a particularly gruesome end.

The section men repaired the rails
And threw our plans awry
The lawmen chased us to the hills
We saw them come, we watched them die

George Parrot (George Francis Warden, George Curry, George Manuse, Big Nose George) was a man who met the fate of many outlaws of the last quarter of the 1800's. As part of a gang of road agents, led by a man who called himself Sim Jan, George robbed stagecoaches in Wyoming. The gang consisted of Frank McKinney and Sim Jan, believed to be Frank and Jesse James, Joe Manuse, Tom Reed, Jack Campbell, Dutch "Charley” Burress, John Wells, and Frank Tole. The gang were intending to rob a train by way of derailment, but as seven of the nine lay in wait for the train to come, section men discovered the sabotaged rail and repaired it. A foreman rode ahead to inform the law and a posse was formed to apprehend the gang. Two lawmen found them at Elk Mountain, and were subsequently murdered by Sim Jan's men. The gang then dispersed.

They took me down the Rawlins jail
I split his skull as I broke free
The lynching rope took three hard turns
To make a specter out of me

Frank Tole tried to rob the Black Hills stage line, and was killed. Dutch Charlie was caught, and was on the train to Rawlins. The train was stopped, and Charlie was hung from a telegraph pole. A drunken George Parrot, now in Montana, boasted of the attempted train robbery and murders and as a result was captured and put on a train back to Wyoming. The same mob that hung Dutch Charlie stopped the train to lynch Big Nose George. George, being a coward, begged the mob to allow him to live, promising to tell all that he knew regarding the murders. The lynch mob acquiesced, and George Parrot continued to Rawlins.
George was found guilty and was sentenced to hang. As such, he attempted escape, and fractured the skull of the jailer in that attempt. Fortuitously for the injured man, the jailer's wife appeared with a pistol and forced George back into his cell. Hearing of his attempted escape, a mob formed, and dragged Big Nose George to a telegraph pole, where he was to be hung. The first two attempts to hang George failed, the third was successful.

The doctor stole my corpse away
And with a saw opened my head
He thought he'd find what turned me bad
A reason for the blood I'd shed

George Parrot's body was not claimed, and Doctors John Osborne and Thomas Maghee acquired the corpse in hopes of studying George's brain, wanting to determine the cause of Parrot's proclivity towards criminality. George Parrot's skull cap was sawed off, and no difference was found between the criminal's brain and a "normal" specimen.

They took my skull, they took my skin
And sent it to the tannery
A whiskey barrel full of brine
Is what my cursed tomb will be
They flick their ashes in my skull
Hearing not my phantom call
The bastard made shoes of my skin
And wore them to the governor's ball

It is at this point that the tale takes a gruesome turn, as Dr. Osborne takes the corpse of Big Nose George, and makes a death mask. The mask is unusual in that it is earless, due to George's ears having been torn off during the botched hangings. He then removed skin from George's chest and legs, and sent it to a tannery in Denver, with the instructions to make a pair of shoes, complete with nipples, and a medicine bag. Much to the disappointment of the doctor, the shoes were without nipples, but Dr. Osborne, who would eventually become the governor of Wyoming, and then assistant Secretary of State to President Wilson, wore them with pride on many occasions, including to his inaugural ball in 1893. The dismembered body was stored in a whiskey barrel full of salt solution, which was eventually buried in the backyard of Dr. Maghee. The skull cap was given to Miss Heath, who was the assistant to Doctors Osborne and Maghee, and who became the first female doctor in Wyoming. Miss Heath used the skull cap as an ashtray and a doorstop.

The story of Big Nose George is almost humorous to me, in that it crosses the line of human decency so thoroughly, it reaches an absurd level of macabre. His violent life and death was enough to warrant a song, but the fact that his remains were shown so little regard, that his corpse was no more worthy of respect than that of a slain deer, that inhumanity illuminates what I consider to be a struggle that exists in all man. On one end is the noble pursuit of empathy for your fellow man regardless of his sins, on the other is the more primitive desire to see your enemy destroyed utterly, the need for a person to believe those set against his tribe are less than human. While I feel very little sympathy for Mr. Parrot, considering the actions that led to his demise, I can only hope that our song does his story justice.


jedidiah ayres said...

Incidentally - the Welcome Little Stranger song Governor's Ball can be heard by following the WLS link in this piece.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Great stuff. I'll follow those links even more.