BY CINDY A. JONES
What better month than October to tell a strange and sordid tale from Utah’s history? This tale stems from the legend that the ghost of Jean Baptiste is said to walk the shores of Fremont Island. Hang on to your seats; this one gets a little wacky!
When Moroni Clawson was shot and killed in 1862 in his attempt to escape from prison, no relatives came forward to claim his body or make funeral arrangements. The chief of police at the time paid for Clawson’s burial in the Salt Lake City cemetery, even purchasing burial clothes for the unfortunate criminal.
A few weeks later, news of Clawson’s death reached relatives. They requested that his body be exhumed to be buried on family grounds. When the grave was unearthed and the coffin opened, Clawson’s body was found to be completely naked.
Baffled police began an investigation, which quickly led to one Jean Baptiste – the sole grave digger for the Salt Lake City Cemetery.
Sure enough, inside Baptiste’s home, police found several boxes of burial clothes, along with shoes, watches, and jewelry. Among them was the suit that the chief of police had purchased for Moroni Clawson. Eventually, police determined that Jean Baptiste had pillaged over 300 graves. He was arrested and jailed.
Given Victorian-era superstitions around death and dying, it’s no surprise that, when news about Baptiste’s thievery spread across the city, residents were outraged. A mob of hundreds gathered at the jail, threatening to assassinate Baptiste. In attempt to soothe emotions, police displayed the clothing and other items at the Salt Lake City courthouse for relatives to claim on behalf of their deceased relatives. Later, all the unclaimed belongings were collected and buried in a single grave in the cemetery.
Even after Brigham Young himself assured worried families that their departed relatives—deprived of their clothing post-mortem—would indeed still arrive in the afterlife fully clothed, none of the attempts to calm the angry citizens would suffice. Baptiste was even being threatened in his own cell by fellow inmates.
Brigham Young decided the best course of action would be to send Baptiste to live out his days in solitude on Antelope Island, so officers snuck Baptiste away in a wagon to the island in the middle of the night. Since the waters around the island were shallow that year, he was soon moved again to the more remote Fremont Island.
Fremont Island sits between Promontory point and Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. The island in the late 1800s was much like it is today: remote and desolate. The Miller family raised cattle on the island and had built a small, unoccupied cabin, where they agreed to let Baptiste live out his days.
A few weeks after Baptiste had been transported to Fremont Island, the Miller family came to check on their herd. They discovered that a heifer had been killed and part of its hide removed. Several beams of wood had been removed from the cabin. Baptiste was nowhere to be found.
The mystery of Jean Baptiste’s disappearance was never officially solved, and the consensus at the time was that Baptiste fashioned a raft and floated away to freedom. Rumors of Jean Baptiste’s ghost roaming the island have floated in and out of local lore for the past 100 years.
What’s your theory?
Who wants to go exploring a remote island in the cloudy waters of the Great Salt Lake?
Are You Superstitious? Here are just a few Victorian-Era superstitions about death
✟ All clocks in the home of the departed were to be stopped after death until the body was buried, to prevent anyone else in the home from dying.
✟ Women often sewed their own burial dresses called shrouds. These items were often part of the wedding trousseaux, believed to be a custom due to the high rate of death during childbirth.
✟ Rain falling on a funeral procession meant the departed would go to heaven.
✟ The sudden, unexplained scent of roses indicated a death would happen soon.
✟ If it rained in an open grave, someone in the family would pass within the next year.
✟ To lock the door of one’s home after a funeral procession was considered bad luck.
What bizarre and sinister stories have you heard?
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