Emmett grew up in Utah and was telling me about how there’s a handful of scabby islands in the Great Salt Lake and that one, Antelope Island, is this mountainous, salt-encrusted national park that doesn’t look too exciting, but! It was once home to a dude who was exiled there, and there’s a spooky legend that has built up around him. Especially among the littlest Utahns.
In 1862, a guy named Jean Baptiste was convicted of stealing clothes and other stuff from the dead, which his job as a gravedigger offered him lots of opportunities to do. It had been going on for a while when he was finally busted: A young criminal was gunned down by the cops and, when no one came forward to claim the body, was buried in an outfit donated by one of the officers. But when the boy’s brother finally showed up to move the coffin to a family cemetery, he found that the corpse was naked. Baptiste’s house was searched, and the clothing, shoes, and personal belongings from over 300 graves were found.
The Mormon community was horrified and furious. But annoyingly, I am sure, grave-robbing was not a capital offense, so they couldn’t kill him. For his crime, Baptiste was tried and initially sent to prison, but even his fellow inmates utterly shunned him (for doing, it seems, the worst possible thing you could do? taking clothes from dead people? surely there’s nothing worse than you could do to, I don’t know, an alive person?), and it was decided that he wasn’t safe in custody or out of it.
That’s when King Brigham Young himself stepped in and vowed to make the grave-robber “a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth”—Baptiste was tattooed with the words “BRANDED FOR ROBBING THE DEAD” (!!!!) and transported by a wagon in the dead of night from the prison to Antelope Island, to live there in exile forever and more. Not long after, he was moved to the deeper waters of the more-remote Fremont Island, to prevent him from wading ashore.
Three weeks later, cattle herders who showed up on Fremont Island to survey their livestock found that a heifer had been killed and its hide tanned, and that some lengths of wood had been broken off of a fence. No trace of a living Baptiste was found anywhere on the island, but they didn’t find his corpse either. The theory was that he built himself a raft out of cattle-fence and hustled on out, but no one ever heard from him again, so who can say for sure.
However, these facts were not well dispersed among the community, the topic having been considered taboo by the Deseret News. All the townspeople had to work with were vague whisperings of a missing fugitive and no body. As such, the local legend seems to end at Antelope Island, Baptiste’s last publicly known location, where he allegedly stayed and became a professional boogeyman, with continual claims throughout the 20th century of him showing up at the south shores of the Great Lake to steal kids and rob graves and wreak havoc.
(Apparently an immortal boogeyman, if Brigham Young was his living contemporary in the mid-1800s. Or maybe he haunts it in ghost mode. I guess he probably knows all the industry secrets of how to become a ghost after you die, if he was a grave digger.)
After 30 years, a headless skeleton in leg chains was discovered by a nearby river, and a human skull was found not far from there around the same time, and so rumors circulated anew about the missing outlaw. Supposedly, though, Baptiste wasn’t in chains when he was dropped off on the island. Maybe he committed another crime, though, and was incarcerated and escaped AGAIN? Was it him? You don’t know!
So we know he’s definitely dead by now, but the fact that Baptiste was never heard from again is inspiring, I say. Like, sure, maybe he drowned in his escape or whatever, a la the Alcatrazers. But MAYBE he got away successfully and enjoyed a fruitful life of crime in Tombstone, Arizona, or something, far away from that mean old Brigham Young and his keen judgmental eye, and he found happiness there and it was great.
So yeah, without a body to confirm anything, I can’t blame the kiddies for letting their imaginations run with this story: It’s fun to think of all the possibilities. I like the idea that he died on the island and dug his own grave and buried himself.