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The Disappearance of John Baptiste
Grave-Robber's Case Is 'A Lost Page of History'
Hal Schindler
Published: 08/27/1995 Category: Features  Page: J1

The violent deaths of three Mormon desperadoes at the hands of the law caused a considerable stir in Great Salt Lake City in 1862--yet it was mild compared to the shocking aftermath that began with the arrest of a serial grave robber and ended with the discovery of a headless skeleton three decades later. A posse had tracked Lot Huntington, John P. Smith and Moroni ("Rone") Clawson to Faust's Mail Station, twenty-two miles west of Fort Crittenden (the old Camp Floyd military post).

Huntington was wanted on charges of assaulting former Governor John W. Dawson at Ephraim Hanks stage station in Mountain Dell between Little and Big Mountains east of the city three weeks earlier, and additional charges of stealing a cash box from an Overland Mail Company employee two weeks later. Smith was also named in the theft of the cash box. Clawson was charged with participating in the beating of the governor. All three were headed for California when the posse, led by Orrin Porter Rockwell, caught up with them. Huntington resisted and Rockwell killed him. The other two surrendered.

Back in the city, Rockwell turned his prisoners over to police and was tending to his team of horses when gunfire exploded down the street in the direction the outlaws had been taken. At the scene minutes later he found a policeman standing over the bodies of Smith and Clawson. "They tried to escape," the constable explained. Both outlaws were laid to rest in the city cemetery, and since no one claimed Clawson's body, he was buried in potter's field at city expense. A few days later relatives arranged for his reburial in the family plot in Draper.

Then--the unthinkable. When the coffin was opened, the body was naked. George Clawson, a bitter and indignant brother of the deceased, poured out his anger to Henry Heath, a Salt Lake policeman. "That's a terrible thing to do--to bury a man like that."

Momentarily taken aback, Heath rejoined with: "No such thing! No pauper ever had better or cleaner burial clothing than 'Rone'. I bought them myself!" There could be but one answer; and neither man could bring himself to put it in words. But Heath could--and did--begin an investigation. One that would send a wave of horror through the Mormon community. With Probate Judge Elias Smith's blessing, Heath with several other officers questioned cemetery sexton, Jesse C. Little, who gave them the name of John Baptiste, for nearly three years the cemetery's grave-digger.

Baptiste's wife answered the door of their home on Third Avenue. John was at work, she said, but the officers were welcome to come inside and talk. "There were numerous boxes of clothing stacked around," Heath recalled in an 1893 interview with the Deseret News. "Imagine our shock and surprise when we discovered these were the funeral robes of people buried in the city cemetery for several years past." The discovery held a special horror for Heath, who but a short time before had buried "an idolized daughter." I feared that her grave, too, had been desecrated and that her funeral shroud was among the motley, sickening heap of flesh-soiled linen we found in the grave-digger's hut."

Heath's "investigation" took a desperate turn. He and his fellow officers set out for the cemetery, but the grim-faced policeman now had murder in his heart: "In my breast rankled the unconquerable determination to kill him there and then should my suspicions be confirmed." Confronting the man, Heath accused him outright of grave-robbing, and a terrified Baptiste fell to his knees and sobbed that he was innocent.

"Liar!" Henry Heath shouted, "we found the clothes," he became uncontrollable in his rage. "I choked the wretch into a confession while he begged for his life as a human being never plead before. I dragged him to a grave near my daughter's and pointing to it, inquired: 'Did you rob that grave?' His reply was 'Yes.' Then directing his attention to the mound which covered my child's remains I repeated the question with bated breath and with the firm resolve to kill him should he answer in the affirmative. 'No, no, not that one!'" That answer saved the miserable coward's life.

A city's anger: If it is true that bad news travels fast, word of Baptiste's arrest flashed like lightning through the city and its environs. The boxes of funeral clothing along with a cache of jewelry and other baubles found in the suspect's home were brought to the county court house to be displayed in hopes of identifying the owners.

The business of putting Baptiste safely behind bars was another matter. Constables had difficulty getting him to the county jail in one piece. Had the people gotten to him, he would have been lynched outright, an officer remarked. Another officer recognized the broadcloth Prince Albert suit Baptiste was wearing. A storekeeper named Alexander Carpenter, deceased these 2 1/2 years from the lethal effects of a bullet fired by one Thomas H. Ferguson, was the last owner of that particular suit--in fact, he had been buried in it.

Baptiste's interrogation now began in earnest. Wilford Woodruff made note in his journal that Baptiste admitted plundering graves for more than two years, but that he could not accurately estimate how many he had robbed. He said the devil was in him, which I think was true, Woodruff added. "He said his only motive was to sell the clothing," Woodruff wrote.

Police took the man to the cemetery to identify individual graves he had looted, but so many spectators gathered that Baptiste refused to continue after having identified but a dozen. They will kill me, he said, pointing to the muttering crowd. Take me back to jail. He was bundled off in a wagon to screen him from "excited, indignant people" and returned to his cell. This ghoul who dug graves by day and prowled without conscience among the dead at night--greatly feared death itself.

Policeman Albert Dewey described him as "the most singular human being I ever knew in my life. He hoarded the clothes of the dead about his premises as a miser would his gold," Dewey said. It was not true though that Baptiste sold his plunder to second-hand dealers, contradicting Woodruff's observation; actually the grave robber seldom disposed of any and kept careful watch over his "ill-gotten gains." "Baptiste used his victims' coffins for kindling in the winter," Dewey added.

The personal effects were exhibited at the court house; long lines of citizens streamed past the piles of clothing. "There lay the grave clothes of fifty persons or more, some 20 pairs of little children's stockings [60 pairs of children's shoes] and clothing of all ages, male and female which that man had stripped from the bodies of Saints & Sinners," Woodruff confided to his journal. Woodruff also was apprehensive that he might discover something of his own deceased child among the remnants on display.

Baptiste's background was as addled as his behavior. In the 1860 census, his place of birth was listed as Ireland, while Woodruff marked him as having been born in Venice, Italy, in 1814, and Heath, who interrogated Baptiste, said he was a Frenchman who came to America from Australia. "Killing is too good for him," was Brigham Young's response when told of the ghoul's arrest and the extent of his crimes. It was to be a prophetic observation.

Elias Smith, editor of The Deseret News as well as being probate judge, had written of Baptiste in his journal for Jan. 27: "The monster was arrested and placed in jail, otherwise the populace would have torn him to pieces, such was the excitement produced by the unheard of occurrence." Then, on Feb. 1: "I had Baptiste out of his cell and heard his statements as to how he came to engage in the business of robbing the dead and his confession as to the extent to which he had carried the operation--he had robbed many graves, but how many he could not or would not tell."

Here then was a quandry for the judge. What Baptiste had done and confessed to was a heinous crime, a despicable crime, no question of that. Woodruff at one point--as the parent of a recently deceased child--had fumed that Baptiste had committed one of the most "Damniable, diabolical, satanical, hellish sacrileges. . . ever known or recorded in the history of man." Some guessed he had violated as many as 300 graves.

But fury and anger aside, Baptiste had committed a felony, but not a capital crime. Despite the outraged populace, the grave robber had done nothing punishable by death under the law. With Elias Smith's brief journal note, John Baptiste disappears from the record, public and private. . .at least from recoverable accounts.

A fit punishment? To comfort his troubled flock, Young, speaking in the Salt Lake Tabernacle a week later, reassured them that Baptiste's crimes "did not injure the dead in the morning of the resurrection--all of the dead will be clothed in the morning of the resurrection no matter how they are buried. As to the punishment of the man Baptiste, to shoot or hang him would not satisfy my feelings at all." What Young suggested was banishment. "I would make him a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth. That would be my sentence."

The church leader had already spoken of the matter in private. He told Woodruff that Baptiste ought to be branded as a robber of the dead and "cropped" and placed on Miller's [Fremont] Island--turned out of the community and told if he ever came back he would be killed. That would be a fitting sentence, Young said.

Here again the story becomes confused. Dewey was one of the police assigned to take Baptiste to the island. "We had to promise we wouldn't kill him." The "branding," according to Dewey took the form of an indelible ink tattoo across the forehead: Branded For Robbing The Dead.

Historian Dale L. Morgan wrote that Heath remembered Baptiste was kept in jail three weeks, but Morgan thought it was more probably three months. Dewey recalled in later years that the prisoner was taken to the island in "early spring when the lake was very low." Dewey also insisted there was no ball and chain or gyves of any kind. The question of mutilation was not raised. It is significant, however, that Wilford Woodruff who, as a confidante of Brigham Young, was in a position to know of such things, would mention that Baptiste had been "cropped." That phrase to a cattle rancher means to earmark, or notch the ears; but it had yet another more sinister connotation on the frontier. There are historians who speculate that Baptiste lost more than pieces of his ears to the knives of vengeful Utahns.

The police took him to Antelope Island where it had been arranged that boatmen would convey Baptiste five miles north to Fremont Island. There the surrounding lake water was deeper and the ghoul was less likely to make an easy escape. The island served as a pasture for cattle and, according to Dewey, two Davis County stockmen, Henry and Dan Miller, had constructed a shanty and stocked it with provisions for herders.

In August, Dan Miller visited the island and discovered that Baptiste had helped himself to some provisions and torn down the cabin apparently to build a raft. He also had killed a two-year-old heifer. At that point, Morgan says, Baptiste vanishes from the realm of ascertainable fact. He simply disappears. But that disappearance leaves behind a "whole train of provocative possibilities."

Specter of the lake: Nearly thirty years would pass before a party of duck hunters found a human skull at the mouth of the Jordan River where it empties into the Great Salt Lake. The hunters brought their grisly find to the city and gave it to R.G. Taysum, a Salt Lake Herald writer, who reported the discovery. An unsuccessful search was made for the rest of the skeleton.

Three years later, John Winegar Jr., hunting in the same area, stumbled across the arms, legs, ribs and vertebra of a human skeleton--but no skull. Around one of the leg bones was an iron clamp and chain; at the end of the chain, an iron ball. In a mildly sensational account, the Herald recounted--not too accurately--the gist of the 1862 episode and stated the skeleton was "undoubtedly" that of Baptiste. This seemed to aggravate the rival Deseret News, which huffed, "it is better to hear and shudder over facts than fables." Then, quoting "reliable sources," went on publish interviews with the two retired policemen, Heath and Dewey, who in turn concluded that since Baptiste was not shackled, the skeleton probably was that of a penitentiary prisoner who may have escaped in irons years after Baptiste's banishment.

However, use of the ball and chain was not that prevalent, even in the territorial penitentiary; and escapes in shackles rare. More likely is the possibility that the skeleton was indeed that of Baptiste; who may have made it to the Jordan outlet before he perished of exhaustion or drowning. As for the skull, it could have been knocked free in later years by floating debris on the river. More strange, is the total absence of a public record on the prisoner.

A painstaking search of Salt Lake County Probate Court Minutes and Docket books, as well as County probate files, and the Territorial Penitentiary Warden's Office records, fails to disclose even a mention of the man. As Morgan cogently remarked in his The Great Salt Lake: "The whole episode is almost unparalleled in Mormon history. The Deseret News of 1862 had absolutely nothing to say of Baptiste--nothing but the stenographic report of Brigham's sermon. What of the people who thronged the courthouse; what of the furor that gripped the city? How was it that a newspaper could pass such matters by?

"And how is it Baptiste could be jailed--for weeks, admittedly; for months, almost for a certainty--and leave no trace in the criminal records? How could he be given a judicial hearing and not leave so much as a shadow upon the records of the court? And who, finally, could take upon himself the responsibility for sentencing a man, without trial, to be marooned upon a desert island? Folklore and history alike have turned their face from Baptiste. His story itself has almost sunk from sight. He is a presence on a lost page of history, the only specter of the Great Salt Lake."

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