Unsolved Mysteries in Utah—The Bizarre Case of Grave Robber Jean Baptiste

Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, March 1995

Those who knew and loved young Moroni Clawson were no doubt saddened by his death in January 1862 and may have even witnessed his burial in the city cemetery on the north bench of Salt Lake City. Several days later, however, their private grief turned public. An event had occurred that, according to outraged citizens and public officials, could not pass unnoticed and without severe consequences.

Only weeks before his death, Moroni Clawson had been arrested for participating in the sensational robbery and assault of Gov. John W. Dawson, whose stormy relationship with the Mormons had prompted him to flee the territory. When the young man escaped from the penitentiary on January 17, he was pursued and shot down by a Salt Lake police officer. Since no one came forward to pay for a proper burial, Henry Heath of the city police department purchased, with his own money, Clawson’s burial clothes. After witnessing the burial, Heath was surprised to learn a week later that, while uncovering the grave to move the body to a family cemetery, George Clawson, Moroni’s brother, had discovered that the corpse was completely naked!

Heath quickly organized an investigation of the strange occurrence. Finding no evidence at the grave site, he continued his inquiry at the home of gravedigger Jean Baptiste. His wife invited the officers into the house. While there they noticed a stack of boxes in a corner of the room. One of the officers peeked inside a box and found neatly folded burial clothes. Upon further investigation it was discovered that Jean Baptiste had collected nearly 60 pairs of children’s and adult’s shoes, clothing, and personal belongings by robbing some 300 graves. He was arrested and sent to jail.

When news of the lurid discovery spread throughout the city, residents expressed both their horror and loathing of the crime. Mobs gathered at the jail, threatening to lynch the grave robber. Hundreds thronged to the city courthouse during his trial. In reaction to the situation, Brigham Young assured worried residents that the bodies of their loved ones would rise up in the resurrection wearing the original clothes in which they were buried. Meanwhile, police officers tried to correct part of the problem by putting all the burial clothes found in Baptiste’s home in a large box and burying it in a single grave in the cemetery.

Still, the question of what to do with Jean Baptiste remained. Shunned even by his fellow inmates, he was not safe within or outside prison walls. Arguing that the prisoner’s safety could not be guaranteed, city officials had Baptiste secretly placed in a wagon at night and taken across the Antelope Bar to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. He was soon moved to the more remote Fremont Island in order to prevent his wading ashore to the mainland.

Jean Baptiste’s life in exile on Fremont Island was short-lived. Only three weeks after his arrival cattle herders came to the island to survey their animals. They discovered that a heifer had been killed and its hide tanned for leather. Lengths of wood had been torn from a small ranch house on the island, presumably to construct a raft. Leaving behind only these small traces of his existence and possible escape, Jean Baptiste was nowhere to be found.

The mystery of the eventual fate of Jean Baptiste has never been solved. When hunters found a skeleton with an iron clamp around its leg near the mouth of the Jordan River in March 1893, an article in the Salt Lake Tribune retold the story of Jean Baptiste and speculated that the skeleton belonged to the unfortunate convict. The Deseret News contested this theory by recording the statements of police officers Henry Heath and Albert Dewey confirming that Jean Baptiste was not wearing a ball and chain around his leg when he was placed on Fremont Island. This controversy added yet another puzzling element to the Jean Baptiste story. Even today the bizarre tale of his grave robberies and island exile remains a mystery in the annals of Utah history.

See: In addition to contemporary newspaper accounts, Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1947).