Jean Baptiste’s ghost is said to walk the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake.
The story of Jean Baptiste is one of the most intriguing Utah legends, mainly because of the gruesome topic and that there is very little known historically about Baptiste.
The 1860 Census lists him as being born in 1813 in Ireland. However, people who knew him in Australia said he could not speak English very well and had come from Venice, Italy. Some of those who knew him in Salt Lake thought he was a Frenchman. What we know is that he was in Castlemaine, Australia until 1855, when he emigrated to the US on board the LDS Emigration ship the Tarquinia. The Tarquinia departed Melbourne on the 27th of April 1855 and arrived in Honolulu on July 5th, 1855. Baptiste made his way to San Francisco in February 1856 and stayed in California for a few years.
By 1859, Jean Baptiste was living in Salt Lake City, having built a small house near the city cemetery, and married a woman by the name of Dorothy Jennison. It’s also said that he was the choir leader for the ward. This poor woman was not married to him long before he was accused of grave robbing.
On the 16th of January 1862, two men accused of beating the Governor John Dawson were shot and killed by Salt Lake City police. No one came forward to give Moroni a proper burial, so a police officer by the name of Henry Heath paid for his burial, including purchasing a suit for the man to be buried in.
Jean Baptiste’s disturbing secret would have been kept a little while longer had Moroni Clawson’s family not eventually claim his body and ask that it be exhumed and moved to their family plot in Draper, Utah. Upon exhumation and opening his casket they found that not only was Moroni Clawson buried face down, his body was also completely naked.
Moroni’s brother was rightfully upset and instantly confronted Officer Heath demanding to know why his brother was buried in such a disrespectful way. Officer Heath was adamant that this was not the way his brother was buried and knew that to be a fact because he had paid for the man’s burial clothes. Heath immediately went to Sexton Little’s home with a couple of other men, where he offered no explanation and suggested they go speak with the gravedigger Jean Baptiste.
They went to his house and found that Baptiste was working in the cemetery and only his wife was home. While asking about her husband’s whereabouts Officer Heath and the other men with him noticed many boxes stacked about the room with bits of soiled cloth sticking out of some of the boxes. Upon examination, they realized that these boxes contained the clothing of the dead.
Officer Heath immediately thought about his daughter, Sarah Melissa Heath (Feb 3rd, 1852- April 6th, 1861) who was buried in the cemetery (plot #E_13_3_1EN2 ) just 9 months earlier. He rushed to the cemetery and found Baptiste digging a grave. Immediately upon being accused of grave robbing Baptiste is said to have dropped to his knees and beg for his life.
Heath pointed to various graves asking Baptiste if he robbed this one or that and on all of them Baptiste answered yes. He got to the grave of his beloved daughter Sarah and asked if Baptiste had opened this grave as well. Baptiste answered no and Officer Heath and the other men took him quickly to the jail before the townspeople could get their hands on him. Henry Heath later said in an interview that he had made up his mind to kill Jean Baptiste right there on the spot if he had admitted to defiling Sarah Heath’s grave.
After Baptiste was taken to the jail the Salt Lake City the police went back to his house and removed the boxes of clothing, shoes, and other items taken from the over 300 graves he was said to have robbed. City officials weren’t sure what to do with all the items Jean Baptiste had stolen. It was finally decided that the various pieces of clothing and other personal items would be laid out on display at the Salt Lake City courthouse for people to view and claim if they could identify items as belonging to a deceased family member. (The items were later buried in a mass grave in the city cemetery.)
Not much is known at this point what happened to Jean Baptiste as far as court proceedings. There are no court records or any newspaper articles that talk about his crimes during the time they happened except for a sermon given by Brigham Young. The people were in an uproar, demanding that Baptiste is brought to justice. In his sermon, Brigham Young says that he felt hanging or shooting Baptiste would be too easy of a punishment, and life in prison “would do nobody any good”. The only option he felt would be proper was to exile Baptiste to a small island in the Great Salt Lake.
To give you an idea of where Fremont Island is, here is a map:
Sometime in the Spring of 1862, Jean Baptiste was taken by wagon to the larger Antelope island and then by boat to Fremont island. At the time, the island was used by the Miller family to graze their cattle, and so there was a small shack stocked with basic provisions. The Miller brothers would usually go out to the island every three weeks to check their herd. Three weeks after leaving Baptiste on the island the brothers told authorities they had been out to the island and while they did not directly interact with Baptiste, they saw him on the island and noted he had helped himself to most of the food in the shack.
6 weeks after Baptiste’s banishment the brothers returned to the island to find that Jean Baptiste was nowhere to be found, their shack had been partly dismantled and the carcass of a two-year-old heifer was laying nearby with part of the hide cut into strips. They reasoned that he had used the leather from the heifer and the pieces of wood from the shack to make a crude raft and make his way to the mainland. There is no verifiable documentation of Baptiste from this point forward.
In 1890, a group of hunters found a human skull near the mouth of the Jordan river which is at the south end of the Salt Lake, nowhere near Fremont Island. In 1893, a partial skeleton was found, missing its head, with a ball and chain around its leg. Immediately newspapers declared that John Baptiste had been found at last, and this is most likely what started the rumors of the sighting of Baptiste’s ghost.
Henry Heath made it very clear in a later interview that Baptiste was not shackled or chained in any way. He also stated that he heard from a good source that Baptiste had made his way to a mining camp in Montana and had been talking about his experience in Salt Lake City, and his escape from Fremont island.
We may never know what actually happened to the grave robber of Salt Lake City, but I think the odds were in Jean Baptiste’s favor and he most likely made it off Fremont island and disappeared into the landscape.