On a howling, frigid morning in January, 1862, a group of officers rowed across the Great Salt Lake with a prisoner. The prisoner’s head wept blood where his ears had been severed. The words ‘I robbed graves’ were branded across his forehead. His name was Jean Baptiste.
On Antelope Island, the officers built him a small shack with few comforts, then left him to live out his days among the cattle, marooned in a sea of salt. They claim they did not cut off his head.
A few weeks earlier, Baptiste was making a killing off the recently deceased. A groundskeeper for the Avenues Cemetery, he relied on the lawn’s swells and pockets to obscure him as he exhumed fresh corpses and stripped them of their possessions, which he stuffed into his jacket pockets.
Baptiste would have kept up his gruesome work were it not for the death of a man named Moroni Clawson. Unclaimed by friends or family, Clawson’s body was cared for by the cemetery.
Officer Heath claimed he donated a funeral suit to the man. He had recently buried his own daughter in the Avenues Cemetery and took pity on the poor man.
The cemetery’s caretaker claimed he dressed Moroni before burial. Soon after, a man identified himself as Moroni’s brother and requested to transfer his remains to a family plot. But when they unearthed his grave, they found Moroni’s corpse face down and naked. Appalled, the police set up surveillance in the shadowy hedges of the cemetery and quickly caught Jean dead-handed.
They followed him to his apartment and discovered a “motley sickening heap of flesh-soiled linen.” Standing amongst the many unburied treasures was a woman—Baptiste’s “simple-minded” wife.
Mrs. Baptiste claimed no knowledge of her husband’s grave practices. Jean confessed to a dozen grave robberies, but the apartment’s evidence amounted to three hundred funeral suits (belonging mostly to women) and about sixty pairs of children’s shoes—an odd thing for a childless couple to possess. The officers also discovered chopped coffin wood used as kindling, implying that Baptiste had tumbled the bare bodies back into their holes.
Imagining his own daughter’s body with nothing between her and the cold earth, Officer Heath drew his gun.
For his life, Jean swore he did not touch Heath’s daughter’s grave, and Officer Heath opted not to check.
The officers agreed that the infamous grave robber wouldn’t survive Salt Lake’s prison. They also agreed that death might be too good for him. And so they gave him their own trial, and they rowed him—severed ears, forehead tattooed, head allegedly still attached—across the lake where they placed him in the custody of two shepherd brothers who promised to transfer him to Fremont Island where they kept their livestock. The brothers claimed they did not affix his ankle with a ball and chain.
Six weeks after Baptiste’s exile, the brothers visited the island. They found the shack dismantled, one cow slaughtered and skinned, but no Baptiste.
Many years later, hikers discovered a skull in the island’s brush. A more thorough search uncovered a headless skeleton on the island’s opposite end. Its ankle was clamped with ball and chain. Oddly, the skull and the skeleton didn’t seem to match. And even if they did, how would a head travel across the entire island?
With so many claims and no record to back them up, we cannot know the grave robber’s final resting place. A lonesome head? A skeleton chained? Perhaps he lies at the bottom of the salty sea? Or maybe, after successfully converting shack and cowhide to ship, he continues to mine the dead’s riches with an unwitting but richly dressed wife.
To the voices of the past, our ears are severed.
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