04 October 2020

Spooky SLC: John de Baptiste the Infamous SLC Cemetery Grave Robber

SLC Cemetery at night from 11th Ave

In the 1860s, John de Baptiste robbed hundreds of graves in the SLC Cemetery, Part 1.

In Jan 1862 Utah’s “three-week” Governor, John W. Dawson made a lewd proposition to a society lady in SLC which resulted in his being chased down and beaten by a relative of hers.

Warrants were issued for all members of the gang involved in the beating and Porter Rockwell tracked some of them down, killing the gang leader, Lot Huntinton. Moroni Clawson and John Smith were taken into custody but were killed the following morning, allegedly during an attempt to flee police custody.

The bodies of Huntinton, Clawson, and Smith, were all buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Initially, the body of Moroni Clawson went unclaimed and in a charitable gesture SLC police officer, Henry Heath, purchased burial clothing for Clawson.

About a week later Clawson’s brother, George, came to town to exhume the body and rebury him in the family plot in Draper. Upon opening his brother’s coffin he found the body naked.

Clawson and Heath asked the cemetery Sexton about the situation and he suggested talking with the cemetery grave digger, John de Baptiste.

While at Baptiste’s home on 3rd Ave the two noticed boxes containing “sickening heap of flesh soiled linen” and funeral robes of people who had been buried in the City Cemetery for the past several years. Infant clothes and about 60 pairs of children’s shoes were found along with adult funeral robes and men’s shirts, caps, and socks.

Officer Heath was particularly outraged and was concerned about the grave of his daughter being desecrated. Heath immediately confronted Baptiste at the City Cemetery and “choked the wretch into a confession” of robbing graves, dumping the bodies out of their coffins, and using the wood for kindling in his home.

Baptiste confessed to robbing only a dozen graves but the evidence pointed to at least 300 grave robberies over a 3 year period, mostly those of women and children.

After the confession of grave robber John de Baptiste, a 50 ft long table in the courthouse was covered with several hundred funeral suits, shoes, and clothing recovered from Baptiste’s house.

Relatives of the deceased came to identify and claim the clothing. Many of the family members were intent on reclothing their deceased relatives out of fear that without proper burial clothing the religious ceremonies and rites would be incomplete.

Brigham Young addressed the people and told them not to disinter their relatives but to let them be in peace and he promised them that they would “be well clothed in the resurrection.” Ultimately, all agreed that the clothing would be reburied into a single grave site at the SLC Cemetery.

Brigham Young told the people that killing Baptiste was too good for Baptiste and that he wished to banish him and “make him a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth.” So, Baptiste was sent to Antelope Island where he was tattooed with the words “Grave Robber” on his forehead.

On Antelope Island he was met by Henry and Dan Miller. The Miller brothers kept cattle on Fremont Island and they agreed to transport John Baptiste by boat to Fremont Island and allow him to remain there alone with their cattle. They provided him with a shack and provisions every few weeks.

After 3 weeks on Fremont Island, the Miller brothers checked in on Baptiste and he seemed to be getting along quite well and helping himself to the provisions left for him in the shack. But 3 weeks later Baptiste was gone. The Miller brothers found that part of the shack had been removed and one of their cows had been slaughtered and the hide cut into strips. Baptiste had made a raft of the wood from the shack and the hide of the cow.

It is unknown what happened to Baptiste. Some stories indicate that he escaped by raft to Promontory Point where he caught the railroad. Some say he did not even make it out of the Great Salt Lake and must have drowned.

Source: The Saint and the Grave Robber by John Devitry-Smith

An open grave at SLC Cemetery.
Imagine this one filled with previously used burial clothing!

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