Jean Baptiste was employed as the first grave digger for the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The first mystery is who WAS Jean Baptiste? When asked, sometimes he would say he came from France, and other times he said he came from Germany. A straight answer about who he was and where he came from was never given. His job was to dig the grave for the deceased person to be placed in. That is where his job description ended, but where his mysterious story begins.
Many young boys who used to run by the cemetery at night reported seeing lights and a man digging. It wasn’t until years later that these mysterious sightings were confirmed and explained.
It started with the townspeople thinking they saw Jean Baptiste wearing their deceased loved one’s clothes around town. Most of them shrugged it off as coincidence. The death of Moroni Clawson in January 1862 set off a chain of events that would etch the name of Jean Baptiste into the pages of Utah’s Mysteries and Urban Legends forever:
A few months before his death, Moroni was arrested for being a part of the robbery and assault of Governor John W. Dawson. On January 17th 1862, Moroni attempted an escape from jail, and was shot and killed by a Salt Lake City Police Officer. Because no relatives came forward to claim his body and pay for a proper burial, Henry Heath of the police department purchased burial clothes for him, and had him buried in a small part of the Salt Lake City Cemetery.
After word reached Moroni’s family that he had been killed and was buried in Salt Lake, they came to town to claim his body and have him moved to a family burial site in Coalville. Upon extraction of the body, Moroni’s brother George discovered that his brother was completely naked in his coffin.
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An investigation began, and because of the already growing suspicions of Jean Baptiste, police were led to his home. There they found stacks of boxes in the corner of his room with over sixty pairs of burial clothes, including children’s and adult’s shoes, clothes, and personal belongings. Investigation led them to believe that he had robbed over 300 graves! He was immediately sent to jail.
The townspeople were outraged, and flocked to the Salt Lake City Cemetery to check on their deceased loved ones. Accounts at that time say that the cemetery looked like a mole hill with all of the bodies and coffins being dug up. There are two different accounts as to what happened to all of the clothing found at Jean Baptiste’s home: The first account says that they were laid out for the townspeople to come and claim their loved one’s clothing; another account says that they were all placed in a large box and buried in a mass grave at the cemetery, with leader Brigham Young assuring them that their loved ones would rise up in the resurrection wearing the original clothes they were buried in.
Jean Baptiste went to trial, and was immediately found guilty. He was so hated, that he would not be safe in prison with other inmates who only sought to hurt him. He was placed in a wagon late at night and banished to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Because officials worried he could escape from Antelope Island, they placed him even further out on Fremont Island. Some say that he had the word “Grave Robber” or “For Robbing The Dead” branded onto his forehead.
This is not where his story ends, but where the mystery begins. Three weeks after being banished to Fremont Island, cattle herders went out to check on their cattle. They discovered one of their heifers had been killed and its hide tanned for leather. A small ranch house had been torn apart, and some of its wood was missing. Jean Baptiste was nowhere to be found. Most believe he made a raft and escaped.
Nobody knows what happened to Jean Baptiste after his apparent escape. In March 1893 a skeleton with a ball and chain around its ankle was found on the South shores of the Great Salt Lake. Some claim this must be the skeleton of Jean Baptiste, but officers Henry Heath and Albert Dewey, who were a part of the group banishing him to the island, claimed his ankles were never bound. Many have claimed to see a man wandering the South shores of the Great Salt Lake with a ball and chain bound on his ankle, only to see him disappear into the night.
If this skeleton wasn’t that of Jean Baptiste, what DID happen to him after his escape? Did he run off to a far off town and live the rest of his life under an alias? Did he drown while trying to escape, and his body is still out there? The BYU film department has recently created a movie about Jean Baptiste. You can see the trailer HERE. Join them on their facebook page for updates and information on where to see this movie.