Among the North Country men who made their mark in the Old West was a native of Boonville, in the foothills of the southwestern Adirondacks. He became a success in business, politics, farming, and law, and played an important role in the development of a wild territory into our 44th state. But it was ties to some notorious characters that brought him a measure of fame.
Jesse Knight was born in Boonville on July 5, 1850, the son of Jesse and Henrietta Knight. His grandfather, Isaac, had settled in Oneida County in the early 1800s and raised a family, among them Jesse’s father. But young Jesse never knew his dad, who left that same year for California, and died of yellow fever on the Isthmus of Panama. (The isthmus was a newly created US Mail route to reach California and Oregon, and a popular path for pioneers headed West.)
Jesse attended schools in Lewis, Oneida, and Fulton counties, and at 17 went to live with an uncle in Minnesota for two years. He moved to Omaha, and then settled in the Wyoming Territory. Within a decade, Knight progressed from store clerk and postmaster to court clerk and attorney. At Evanston near Wyoming’s southwest border, while running a successful law practice, he served as Territorial Auditor.
He also acted as a land sales agent for Union Pacific. Among the properties he sold was 1,906 acres on the Bear River … to one Jesse Knight.
In 1888 he was elected prosecuting attorney of Uinta County, and in 1890, when Wyoming attained statehood, he was voted a member of the state constitutional convention. He was also elected as judge of the Third Judicial District.
By this time, Knight was doing quite well financially and had added to his landholdings. On nearly 1400 acres along the Bear River and more than 800 acres of hills, the judge’s ranch had developed into an impressive enterprise. Within the fenced property, he grew high-quality hay (250 tons) and rye (50 tons), and raised herds of superior-grade cattle and horses.
Irrigation was a key element: two main ditches (one was 3 miles long, 20 feet wide, and 4 feet deep) supplied ample water. The Union Pacific rail line bisected the property, allowing Jesse’s products easy access to markets elsewhere.
Besides his showcase farming operation, Knight’s public career was also flourishing. In 1896, he suffered what appeared to be a setback, failing to win the Republican re-nomination for district judge. Unfazed, he ran as an Independent and won handily. A year later, he was appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Wyoming to fill an unexpired term. In 1898, Knight was elected to a full 8-year term.
His business ventures were similarly successful. Besides the ranch, he owned part of a copper mine. He was also one of only two Americans working with several of Europe’s wealthiest men in developing oil wells in Wyoming. The consortium was valued at $10 million (equal to over a quarter billion in 2011). Jesse had a seat on the board of directors.
In 1902, his prominence was noted in the naming of the Knight Post Office, which served a community near Evanston for 19 years.
On April 9, 1905, though still a young man of only 55, Supreme Court Justice Jesse Knight died of pneumonia. He had accomplished a great deal for any man, let alone a poor, fatherless boy from the wilds of New York. His survivors included a wife and five children.
Among Knight’s legacy are connections to some of the West’s notorious characters. In his capacities as rancher, lawyer, prosecutor, and judge, he dealt with many violent, dangerous men over the years. According to biographers of “Big Nose” George Parrott, it was Judge Jesse Knight who sentenced Parrott to hang for the attempted robbery of a Union Pacific pay car and the subsequent killing of two lawmen who were pursuing him.
It was pretty much an average crime story until Parrott tried to escape from jail before Knight’s sentence could be carried out. The attempt prompted an angry mob to forcibly remove Big Nose from his cell and string him up from a telegraph pole.
John Osborne, one of the doctors who had possession of Parrott’s body, examined the brain for abnormalities. Further dissection of the body led to lasting fame for Parrott’s remains. The skull cap that had been removed was saved, and over the years it served as an ash tray, a pen holder, and a doorstop. A death mask of his face was also made. That aside, now it gets gruesome.
His body was flayed, and the skin was sent to a tannery, where it was made into a medical bag, a coin purse, and a pair of shoes, all of which were used by Osborne. The shoes were two-toned—the dark half came from the shoes Parrott wore during the hanging, and the lighter part was made from his own skin.
Doctor Osborne wore the shoes for years—even to the inaugural ball when he was elected governor of Wyoming! The rest of Parrott’s remains were placed in a whiskey barrel filled with a salt solution, and eventually buried. The barrel was uncovered in 1950, and it was found that the skull cap neatly fit the remains, proving it was Parrott’s body. Other tests later confirmed the results. The death mask and “skin shoes” are now on display in a museum in Rawlins, Wyoming.
In 1903, Supreme Court Justice Knight was involved in the famous case of Tom Horn, a former lawman and detective turned outlaw and hired gun. In a controversial trial, Horn was convicted and sentenced to hang for the killing of a 14-year-old boy. Justice Knight was among those who reviewed the appeal, which was denied. Horn was hanged in November, 1903.
The most famous character linked to Knight was Roy Parker, who was actually Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy. They met when Cassidy was arrested for horse theft, a case tried in “Knight court.” After delays, the trial was finally held in 1894. Cassidy was very popular, and many of his friends were in town with the intent of intervening on his behalf.
A verdict was reached, but Knight ordered it sealed, to be opened on the following Monday, by which time it was hoped many of the visitors would have left town. But Cassidy’s friends were loyal, and high anxiety reigned in the packed courtroom when the verdict was read. To counter the danger, the sheriff, several town officials, many private citizens, and the attorneys all came to court armed. Famously, Judge Jesse Knight carried a pistol, hidden beneath his robes.
The jury pronounced Cassidy guilty, recommending him to the mercy of the court. Knight sentenced him to two years in the Wyoming State Penitentiary at Laramie. A few months before his scheduled release, Cassidy’s sentence was commuted. The term imposed by Judge Knight was the only prison time Butch Cassidy ever served during his lengthy, notorious career.
Photos―Top, Jesse Knight; Middle right, Big Nose George Parrott; Middle left, Shoes of George Parrott … literally; Bottom, Robert LeRoy Parker, aka Butch Cassidy.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.