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