By Clint Wardlow, UtahGothic.com
Baptiste’s background is as ill-documented as his prosecution. Depending on the source, he was either born in Ireland, Vienna—or worse still, “a Frenchman.” Wilford Woodruff, later Church 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 and Sinners.” Woodruff raged in his dairy, that Baptiste had performed “Damniable, diabolical, satanical, hellish sacrileges.”
Brigham Young, 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.”
Baptiste would have been “torn to pieces” by a mob if it weren’t for the fact he was cooling his heels 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 three hundred.
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 coop.
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 Dewey.
So, did those hunters find the earthly remains of John Baptiste? Who knows? It will probably remain unsolved.
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.