Weird and Wonderful Utah

Utah's Ghoul

John Baptiste

     
 

 

Some ghouls and grave robbers have carved names for themselves in history. England's Burke and Hare, and Wisconsin's Ed Gein come readily to mind. These historical figures have become icons, inspiring fear, pulp fiction and movies galore. Burke and Hare have been the subject of at least four movies and several books. Wisconsin Ed was the basis for several classic films, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and Deranged.

However, Utah has its own premiere grave robber. A man whose career was equally as bizarre as his three more famous counterparts. His name was John Baptiste. Has our Mr. Baptiste gone on to fame or to inspire pulp artists? No. In fact, John Baptiste is unknown outside of a few knowledgeable Utah folklore nuts. The only art his story has spawned is a song by Bob Moss on his first album, the cult masterpiece Tragic Tales of the West.

What does John Baptiste lacks that other historical ghouls possess? It is certainly not Ed Gein's keen fashion sense. The only difference between the two was that John only wore the corpse's clothes, while Ed donned their skins. Still, both men took to grave robbing as a way to augment their wardrobes.

The main reason John Baptiste is unknown is because Salt Lake officials of the time, Mormon, city and journalistic, took great pains to erase his memory. Some accounts name him Jean Baptiste, so we're not even sure of his real name. No trial transcripts remain; it's doubtful the grave robber was ever tried for his offenses. No record of his punishment exists. Nada. He was either exiled to Antelope or Fremont Island, depending on the source. And after he escaped, Baptiste simply vanished, never to be heard from again. Rumor has it he haunts the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Even that doesn't illicit much excitement. A couple of ghost hunters visited Antelope Island a few years back in hopes of spotting the tormented spirit, but all they glimpsed was a couple of free floating orbs. Pretty disappointing when you're on the hunt for the shade of a genuine ghoul.

However, his story deserves to be told. It is strange even by Utah's bizarre standards. And for once it doesn't involve polygamous Mormon splinter groups or sex-crazed serial killers. John Baptiste has earned an honored place among the infamous in the lexicon of weird Utah history.

 

the Sordid Tale of John Baptiste

Our story begins in January 1862 with shooting of three local hooligans by law enforcement. Lot Huntington, Moroni Clawson, and John P. Smith were wanted for, among other things, the beating of Utah territorial Governor John W. Dawson. A posse had caught up with the three desperados who were making a beeline for California. Huntington was shot by notorious Mormon gunman, Porter Rockwell, when he refused to give himself up to the posse. The other two fugitives, perhaps in deference to Old Port's skill with firearms, surrendered. Clawson and Smith were later gunned down in Salt Lake City by police while trying "to escape."

The three hoods were unceremoniously dumped in the Salt Lake City cemetery. Several day's later, Clawson's relatives showed up to move his body to the family plot in Draper. When the coffin was disinterred, it's occupant was discovered to be sans clothing. The deceased's brother, George Clawson, expressed mucho dismay that his sibling was buried nude. After all, even the corpse of a notorious hooligan is expected to retain some modesty in the state of Deseret. However, officials assured the distraught George Clawson that Moroni had been sporting a full set of duds when planted.

The police investigation of the missing clothes led to the Third Avenue home of one Jean Baptiste, the city cemetery grave digger for three years. John was at work, but his wife let the officers search the home. To their shock, they discovered boxes full moldering apparel pilfered from graves in the cemetery.

The indignant police tracked Baptiste to the city cemetery where officer Henry Heath, admitted in a Deseret News article years later, choked a confession out of the hapless ghoul. This was the first in a long line of unorthodox legal tactics that would pepper the Baptiste case. Under today's legal system the conviction of Baptiste would never hold up, even if officials had bothered to secure one.

Word of Baptiste's crimes shot through Utah and Beehive territory residents were less than pleased with the grizzly details. Boxes of clothing were displayed at the city courthouse so relatives could identify items stolen from the resting place of their departed loved ones. Though a civic minded move, it was not one that calmed the already inflamed anger of city residents. Passions must have been further fanned if the legend is true that the Prince Albert suit Baptiste wore while being hauled to jail was recognized as one a store keeper had been buried in two years before.

Lynch mob fever ran rampant through Salt Lake City, as might be expected. Even Brigham Young jumped on to the anti-Baptiste bandwagon when he said "Killing is too good for him." However, the authorities had a problem. While certainly distasteful, grave robbing was not a capital crime. From this point on no official records hold the fate of John Baptiste. The rest of his story must be pieced together from diaries and sparse newspaper interviews, all given years after the events took place.

Baptiste's background is as ill-documented as his prosecution. Depending on the source, he was either born in Ireland, Vienna, or worst still "a Frenchman." Wilford Woodruff, later Mormon president, wrote in his diary that when the stolen clothing was laid out in the courthouse, "There lay the grave clothes of fifty person or more ...clothing of all ages, male and female which that man had stripped from the bodies of Saints & Sinners." Woodruff raged in his dairy, that Baptiste had performed "Damniable, diabolical, satanical, hellish sacrileges."

Brigham Young, speaking at the Salt Lake Tabernacle a week after the discovery, voiced the opinion that shooting or hanging Baptiste would not satisfy the depth of the Prophet's indignation."I would make him a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth."

Baptiste would have been "torn to pieces" by a mob if it weren't for the fact he was cooling his heals in the Salt Lake City jail, according to the diary of Elias Smith, a probate judge. Smith wrote that Baptiste confessed to him about the logistics of his grave robbing avocation, but would not fess up to how many graves he had ransacked in his two years as a practicing ghoul. Some tallies place the number as high as 300.

What happened to Baptiste after he left his jail cell is a mystery that has become part of Utah folklore. No records from that time exist. Whether he was tried, convicted and sentenced is undocumented. It is doubtful considering the lack of any court records concerning Baptiste. Local folklore, passed mainly by word of mouth, is the major source of surviving stories about the grave robber's punishment.

Legend has it that Baptiste had his forehead branded to identify him as a grave robber and his ears mutilated in a practice performed on livestock known as cropping. After this brand of justice, he was hauled off to either Fremont or Antelope island, depending on the source relating the tale. Not that it mattered, both were deserted, inhospitable places used mainly for grazing cattle. A few months after his banishment, a cattleman visiting the island discovered Baptiste had knocked down a provisions shack, fashioned a raft, and made good his escape.

In a Deseret News interview years after the fact, policeman Albert Dewey confirmed, amended, and added to the Baptiste story. Dewey said that the branding took the form of a tattoo with the logo, "Branded For Robbing The Dead." He neither confirmed or denied the ear mutilation stuff.

Baptiste was hauled to Antelope Island in the early spring, according to Dewey. From there he was ferried to Fremont Island, because of the deeper waters surrounding it, to live out his banishment. In August, Davis County cattleman Dan Miller visited Fremont Island and discovered Baptiste had flown the coop.

Of course, the Deseret News did not cover Baptiste's escape at the time, just as the Mormon-owned newspaper avoided any mention of the lurid case as it unfolded. The spooky tale was only remembered as a ghost story passed on in hushed tones by Salt Lake City denizens. Baptiste was never caught or heard from again. Many reasoned he must have died in the escape attempt. Others claimed to see his specter haunting the South shores of the Great Salt Lake. Baptiste had been promoted to local boogeyman, neither written about or spoken of in polite company. The facts vanished to be replaced by whispered myth.

Thirty years after Baptiste disappeared, a hunting party found a human skull at the mouth of the Jordan River. Three years later, another hunter found a headless skeleton in the same area. The Salt Lake Herald reported that the remains were those of John Baptiste and gave a very inaccurate recap of his story. The Deseret News, now having to deal with an inconvenient newspaper rival, had to write its first account of the Baptiste saga some thirty-three years after the fact. It pooh-poohed the idea that the skeleton belonged to Baptiste and also included interviews with retired officers who participated in the ghoul's arrest, including Dewey.

So, did those hunters find the earthly remains of John Baptiste? Who knows? It will probably remain unsolved.

This much is known, Baptiste's hold as a local boogeyman extraordinaire has faded. Two world wars, the atomic bomb, and the likes of more current local monsters like Ted Bundy and the Lafferty brothers have leached much of the sting from Baptiste's myth. He remains only a spooky, but amusing, footnote in Utah history -- The ghoul Utah has forgotten.

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