Monday, May 6, 2013

The Real-Life "Monster' of the Great Salt Lake ...

      Fremont Island, as viewed from two miles away on the dry sandbar, under water now since 2009.

By Lynn Arave

Is there a monster of the Great Salt Lake?
Jean Baptiste, an infamous grave robber exiled to an island in the lake in the spring of 1862 by Brigham Young is the most likely monstrous candidate.
Baptiste is also likely the GSL's biggest mystery too.
What happened to him some months after his exile to Fremont Island was never discovered.
Did he escape? Did he drown? No one knows and will likely never know.
Here's a look at the grave robber and what is known:

--Jean Baptiste probably spent about three months in the county jail. Even if he had someone to post bail, he obviously could not have been freed for fear of his own safety, with much of Salt Lake City in an uproar over his many thefts.
    LDS Church President Brigham Young wasted little time in publicly addressing the Baptiste case, on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1862, in the Tabernacle.

He explained that robbing the dead was not a new thing. He said he believed the practice was quite widespread in Europe.
    He also said it was believed that Baptiste had been robbing graves for as many as five years in the Salt Lake area. He said that he had no intention of opening any other graves to see if they had been robbed.
  ``I gave them as good a burial as I could. . . . I for one am satisfied. I will defy any thief there is on earth or hell to rob a Saint of one blessing.'' He promised that everyone will be well-clothed in the resurrection.
    President Young's key comments on Baptiste were: ``If you want to know what I think about , I answer, I am unable to think so low as to fully get at such a mean, contemptible, damnable trick. To hang a man for such a deed would not begin to satisfy my feelings. What shall we do with him? Shoot him? No, that would do no good to anybody but himself.
    ``Would you imprison him during life? That would do nobody any good. What I would do with him came to me quickly, after I heard of the circumstance. . . . If it was left to me, I would make him a fugitive and a vagabond upon the Earth. This would be my sentence, but probably the people will not want this done.''
    Details on Baptiste's hearing and trial are sketchy.

 Dale L. Morgan, historian and author of the well-respected 1947 book, ``The Great Salt Lake,'' said it was amazing how little trace Baptiste left on court records.
    Morgan found traces of Baptiste's judicial hearing but nothing of his trial, if he ever had one, and sentencing.
    President Young did seem to get his wish. The authorities apparently decided that they could not release Baptiste in Salt Lake City, for to do so would mean instant death for the robber, and they meant to give him a chance for life - somewhere beyond the vengeance of the community.
    He was banished to a desert island in the Great Salt Lake.
    Which island was it? There is some confusion over the answer. At least one history book, ``East of Antelope Island,'' incorrectly says Baptiste was banished to Antelope Island.
    Over the past century there have been many to repeat this error, but there also is a logical reason for the mistake: Baptiste was taken to Antelope Island en route to his exile on Fremont Island.
    This banishment occurred early in spring 1862, when the Great Salt Lake was very low. When heavy spring rains hit later and the snowmelt of the previous winter started, the lake was destined to rise dramatically, almost 3 feet that year.
    Albert Dewey and four or five others took Baptiste to his exile, with the firm promise that they would not kill him en route. A wagon had little problem driving across the briny lake in knee-deep water to Antelope Island.
    From there he was rowed five miles north to Fremont Island, then known as Miller's Island. Henry W. and Dan Miller, stockmen from Davis County, kept a herd of cattle on the island.
    With Miller's permission and assistance, Fremont became Utah's own version of Devil's Island.
    The Great Salt Lake was at an elevation of about 4,203 in 1862 and on the way to its highest level in the 19th century. There was no possibility of Baptiste wading away from Fremont because the minimum depth around the lake would have been about 10 feet.

                      Some animal bones on Fremont Island in 2008.

(The depth would have almost nine feet deep even along the wide sandbar that runs south toward Antelope Island.)
    There was a shack and provisions on Fremont, called Disappointment Island by John C. Fremont because of its lack of game and water.
    The Millers and others returned to Fremont three weeks later to check on their cattle and Baptiste. He was getting along well and had helped himself to their cattle for beef. A well provided fresh water on the island.
    However, three weeks later, Dan Miller returned to find Baptiste gone. He had torn the roof and sides of the shack down, killed a 3-year-old heifer and cut portions of the hide into thongs and undoubtedly made a raft to escape from the island.
    What happened to Baptiste? There are many theories:
    1. He died on Fremont Island: Given the missing materials necessary for a raft, this is unlikely, especially because his body never was found. Others lived on the island later, and all of its acres have been well-scoured. In fact, even the lost brass cover for John C. Fremont's telescope was found years later on the island by Jacob Miller.
   2. He drowned in the Great Salt Lake: Baptiste's escape would probably have taken place in late May, a time when sudden spring storms can make the Great Salt Lake one of Utah's most dangerous bodies of water. He might have drowned before reaching the mainland. Even though it would have been impossible to sink in the lake in 1862 because of a buoyancy from the salt and mineral concentration, drowning was very possible.

               The Wenner graves on Fremont Island came decades after Baptiste.

    There is uncertainty as to whether Baptiste had a ball and chain on when he was exiled to Fremont Island.
    Policeman Henry Heath and Albert Dewey both denied in their 1893 report to the Deseret News that Baptiste was chained at all.
    Duck hunters in 1890 found a human skull in the mud where the Jordan River empties into the Great Salt Lake. In March 1893, duck hunters in the same area found a headless skeleton with a convict's ball and chain attached. This discovery was hastily heralded as the being the remains of Baptiste.
    This conclusion led to the Deseret News Page 1 story of May 30, 1893, that interviewed police who maintained that Baptiste had no ball and chain on during his exile and so the skeleton likely was that of another of several escaped convicts from the territorial prison who did have a ball and chain on.
    ``There was no ball and chain or shackles or gyves of any kind on his limbs. He was absolutely untrammeled,'' Dewey said.
    It does seem strange, though, that Baptiste would have been set free on Fremont Island without some kind of restraint, especially because given the buoyancy of the lake he could have floated to the mainland even without a raft.
    Baptiste was also said to be branded only with indelible ink and not with hot irons. The words: ``Branded for robbing the dead'' were supposedly written across his forehead in ink, according to Dewey. Some reports imply that his ears were cut off as a punishment, but no one knows for sure, and this mutilation issue was not raised in the news reports of 1893. It seems unlikely he was not branded in some way so future visitors to the island would know who he was.
    If Baptiste's crimes really did outrage Salt Lakers as much as records imply, branding a fugitive, cutting his ears off and turning him loose on the island better fits the punishment of the day than merely turning him loose to fend for himself.
    His banishment to the island was apparently done in secret, though. Some historians have criticized the lack of any reports at all in the Deseret News on Baptiste's exile, but such would have given away his location and he likely would have been accosted on Fremont Island and killed.

     The view to Promontory Point from the northern tip of Fremont Island at Castle Rock.

  3. He floated to Promontory Point: If Baptiste knew anything about geography, he probably would have tried to float north. It's only a couple of miles from the north shore of Fremont to the mainland. However, wind and current usually force objects floating in the lake more toward the south. This lends credence to the headless skeleton being Baptiste's, if indeed he did have a ball and chain.
    The sparsely populated Box Elder County likely held Baptiste's best chance for escape from Utah, especially because he might not be recognized as easily there.
    One rumor says a Salt Lake man met Baptiste in a Montana mining camp years later and that he identified himself when confronted. However, who met him, when and where are never mentioned. Also, if he was branded, how could he have gained anonymity anywhere?
    Still another rumor is that he got on a train in Box Elder County and went to the coast, lived in San Francisco and later Southern California, where he died. But there was no railroad in the area until seven years later.
    Baptiste's grisly and mysterious tale is one that Hollywood could have a heyday answering in a movie production.
    Much space has been given to writing about the ``Monster of the Great Salt Lake.'' If there ever was a monster, Baptiste is the best real-life candidate.
    As Morgan so colorfully concluded in ``The Great Salt Lake'' --``Folklore and history alike have turned their face from Jean Baptiste. His story itself has almost sunk from sight. He is a presence on a lost page of history, the only specter of the Great Salt Lake.''

(-Distilled from an article by Lynn Arave in the Deseret News.) 

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  

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