Salt Lake City, Utah
It is often amazing how things lead to one another. The old argument goes that a butterfly flaps his wings in china and halfway around the world a monsoon hits Florida. More amazing still are the circumstances which often lead to the discovery of something truly outrageous or terrifying. Murder and mayhem may seem like the work of true desperadoes, but such crimes pale in comparison to those that send shockwaves of revulsion and anger throughout communities. And when those communities cry out and extract their pound of flesh, what is left becomes more than the criminal or the crime outlasting even death. They become legend.
In this line of work, I see all sorts of strange things. With more than sixty articles under my by-line, I’ve reported on haunted dolls, factories, urban legends, specters, spooks and all sorts of beasties and things that go bump in the night. However, occasionally, there still are those stories. The ones that make me sit up and take notice and fill me with such a sense of incredulity that they pass from being my normal interest to something of a fascination. I wonder how some stories could possibly be true, only to find time and again that truth is stranger than fiction.
Salt Lake City, Utah, of old was a rough place. After the first settlers found their land and peace, prospectors began passing through the town, bringing with them the types of businesses that attracted a rough and tumble sort. It didn’t take long before the town Elders decided to build their first prison. By 1855, it already held its first nine inmates. Crime was not, however, limited to outlaws.
On December 31, 1862, then-Governor Dawson unceremoniously left his office amid scandal. He had made “improper” advances to a well-known society matron. She informed her friends and family, who pursued the governor, intent on exacting their revenge for impuning her honor. They caught up with him on New Year’s Day and savagely beat him. Three of the men who attacked, Lot Huntington, John P. Smith and Moroni Clawson, were tracked and captured for their part and brought back to Salt Lake City. Huntington resisted arrest and was killed. When the other two were turned over to the police, they allegedly attempted an escape, which resulted in their deaths as well.
Huntington and Smith were laid to rest in the Salt Lake City cemetery, but no one came to claim Clawson’s body. He was buried in the potter’s field. It wasn’t until a few days afterward that members of his family arrived and arranged for his burial elsewhere. The coffin was exhumed, but when it was opened everyone was aghast to see Clawson’s corpse face down in his casket, naked.
Enraged and confused, the constable informed the family that the man had not been buried in such a state, as he’d bought his burial suit himself. An investigation began which led the authorities to the home of the man who’d been the city’s grave-digger for more than three years, John Baptiste. Inside, they found boxes and piles of clothing that several recognized as having been worn by relatives on their burial day. Baptiste, it seemed was robbing the graves. The enraged constable choked a confession out of the frightened grave digger, then dragged him around the cemetery, pointing at graves, and demanding to know if this grave or that had been defiled. The only thing that saved Baptiste’s life that day was, when dragged to the constable’s recently deceased daughter’s grave, he answered that he’d not disturbed that one.
The clothing, jewelry, and other items Baptiste had removed from graves were put on display for relative to come and claim. When all was said and done, it appeared that more than 300 graves had been desecrated, and worse. Rumors began to circulate that it wasn’t just the clothing the grave-digger was after. Although he was married and professed that he’d only taken the clothes to sell, rumors soon began to spread that he was also dabbling in necrophilia. He was also using his victims’ coffins as firewood during winter.
When it was all said and done, the citizens of Salt Lake City wanted the man dead, but his crime, though a felony, did not carry the death penalty. Instead, he was branded across the forehead with the words “Branded for Robbing the Dead” and taken by boat to Antelope Island where another boat would take him five miles out into the middle of the Great Salt Lake and leave him on the shore of Fremont Island, where the deeper waters would discourage him from trying to escape.
In August of that year, authorities visited the island to see how Baptiste was getting along. However, they found no trace of him. According to records, he simply vanished.
Thirty years after the disappearance of John Baptiste, duck hunters discovered a human skull at the mouth of the Jordan River. Three years later, the bones of a man’s arms, spine, and legs were found with an iron chain and ball still clamped around the ankle. While many immediately called this the skeleton of the grave-digger, the two officers who deposited him on the island recalled that he’d not been shackled.
Many believe that he haunts the shores of Fremont Island, and of the Great Salt Lake in general, to this day. He is, according to locals and tourists who have seen him, sighted carrying a bundle of rotted clothing, wailing and shrieking along the southern edge shore of the lake.
Over the years, a great deal of investigation has been done on this case, revealing little evidence but some very interesting facts. While the court records for the time period of the 1862 events appear to be missing, there are numerous newspaper interviews with the arresting officers. There are also no prison records of John Baptiste, but there are some interesting facts about his origin. For a while, he claimed to be Italian, French, or even Australian. The truth, however, turned out to be stranger than anyone could have imagined, as he was discovered to be the grandsone of Sacajawea, the guide of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He was well-educated, but mistreated because of his half-breed heritage.
Still, there are few official records of the man, or of his crime. Salt Lake City has only cursory records of the events, referring to him as a “Grave Robber,” and noting that he’d had his ears cut off as part of his punishment.
Most of the sightings of John Baptiste are recorded in the autumn months, and are reported by both locals and tourists alike. He is always seen around the southern edge shore of the Great Salt Lake. Most often, the months of August through October see a rise in sighting him.
See you in two weeks!
— Scott A. Johnson