The Exile of Jean Baptiste

In the late 1850s a man named Jean Baptiste drifted into Salt Lake City. The immigrant found a job as the city’s gravedigger. In 1862, a flap over the body of a local troublemaker named Moroni Clawson, led investigators to the grave digger. They discovered Baptiste had been stealing clothes and jewelry from the bodies he was charged with burying. In all, Baptiste was thought to have desecrated more than 300 graves. Grave-robbing is a loathsome crime, made even more so by the Mormon belief that buried loved ones will be resurrected on judgement day in the clothes they are buried in. Stealing the clothes and treasures of believing Mormons was an unthinkable act and Baptiste’s crime fed the flames of public outrage.

Although his offense was grave (pun intended), it wasn’t a call for hanging or life imprisonment, so territorial authorities devised an especially cruel punishment—exile. Baptiste was rowed out to Fremont Island, a small cay used intermittently for sheep ranching, and deposited on the shore, essentially left to die on the harsh, exposed island. Weeks later authorities checked the island to find Baptiste had escaped. A small shack on the island had been torn down, leading to theories that he’d build himself a raft to flee. Years later, in the 1890s, hunters found a skeleton with leg irons and some say these are Baptiste’s (although it’s not known if he was shackled when he was left alone on Fremont Island).

Island Life with ‘Heavy D’

jean babtisteDiesel Brother, David “Heavy D” Sparks of the famous or infamous (depending on your take) Discovery Channel Series The Diesel Brothers, purchased Fremont Island in May of last year. The Monster Truck enthusiast has some vaguely stated plans about developing some sort of recreation park (or something) on the island. If only Jean Baptiste had had access to a monster truck during his exile…

Antelope Island

It is possible to visit Fremont island by boat but much easier to view it from the western shore of Antelope Island State Park. Looking around that grim, dead sea, take a moment and consider the fate of the notorious grave robber John Baptiste. Despite the dark nature of your errand, spring is an excellent time to visit Antelope State Park with cooler temps.

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Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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