Monsters: The Ghost of Jean Baptiste

The salt flats of the Great Salt Lake Desert are a swath of glittering white against a ferocious blue sky – at least, it was on the day we visited. The starkness of the landscape was like a confrontation. We suddenly remembered that we were small and humble creatures, squeezed into a little car that bounced over the hill from Nevada, around the curves of Wendover, and zoomed out onto the endless flat nothingness of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The scope of the void made me dizzy.  We drove and drove and drove* and then we drove some more, and eventually the white salt became the shallow waters of Great Salt Lake and the low scrubby hump of Antelope Island.

In 1862, that roadless landscape must’ve felt like endless to three men who were running from the law, fleeing to California. They had robbed a mail employee and one of the men, Moroni Clawson, was wanted for his involvement in the murder of a governor. But, before they could cross the salt flats, the three were caught and shot and buried in the Salt Lake cemetery. When Clawson’s family came to exhume the body – to move it from the potter’s fields to the family plot – they discovered the body was naked.

Feeling that even a murderer should be given the respect of a clothed interment, the Clawson family complained, only to be told that Moroni had been fully dressed when he’d gone into the ground. A short investigation lead to the house of grave digger Jean Baptiste. Jean was away at work, but his wife let them in and allowed them to search the home, where they found boxes and boxes of mouldy clothes.  It seems Jean had a fondness for the fashions of the dead.  A tally of the goods led officers to believe he’d robbed over 300 graves.

When word spread that the gravedigger was also a grave robber, residents were enraged. Brigham Young said, “Killing is too good for him,” while Wilford Woodruff claimed Baptiste had committed “damniable, diabolical, satanical, hellish sacrileges.” Lynching was a possibility. When Baptiste wore a suit to his trial, it was recognized as one owned by a shop keeper who had been buried two years before, and I’m sure that didn’t help his case. But even though the community wanted Baptiste to be executed for his theft, grave robbing was not considered a capital crime. He could not be executed for his pilfering.

There are no court records that speak to his fate, but he was apparently tried, convicted, and punished, albeit in a less-than-conventional way.  His forehead was marked with the sentence “Branded For Robbing The Dead”, and his ears were cut off. After a few months in jail, where other prisoners shunned him and attacked him, he was banished to either Antelope Island or Fremont Island, both of which were uninhabited. But a few months after his banishment, a cattle rancher visited the island to discover Baptiste’s shack knocked over, wood missing, and a calf killed for its hide. Baptiste was gone.

The newspapers of the time did not report Baptiste’s escape, but gossip grew into myth, and myth grew into legend. Had he built a raft and sailed away? Had he drowned in the lake, or had vengeful citizens kidnapped him to exact justice? Some claimed that a skeleton with a ball and chain around its leg was discovered on the south shore, while others claimed that a ghost now wandered along the waterside.

I wonder what kind of man he was. As a grave digger, it was probably no fearful thing for him, to unearth a coffin and take what had been left there. Did he look at the theft pragmatically, and tell himself that the corpses had no use for material possessions? I doubt anyone could foresee that the juicy, grisly details of Baptiste’s story would overshadow those of the killer whom he’d buried, and that public opinion would forget the murderous deeds of one man while building a myth around the other.

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*Today’s useless trivia moment: The I-80 crosses the salt flats and it just goes on and on, super straight and super flat, with only white space around you. It’s like driving across a blank page. Wikipedia says, “The longest stretch between exits on an Interstate Highway is located between Wendover and Knolls, with 37 miles (60 km) between those exits.” Telling ghost stories helps make the trip go faster, I suppose.