Or The Legend of John Baptiste

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This is perhaps one of the strangest tales in all of Utah.

The Great Salt Lake covers more than 2300 square miles in the northern region of Utah and is one of the world's saltiest bodies of water. It is also a very shallow lake for its size, plunging to depths of only 27 feet in its deepest parts. While these may be the facts behind the lake... there is also a legend. It is a story of a Salt Lake City gravedigger who was exiled to an island on the lake for his ghoulish crimes. He disappeared on that island without a trace. Although many claim that his ghost still walks today...

In times past, the practice of "body snatching" was regarded as one of the worst violations imaginable of the dead. In many cases, the remains of the dead were used for medical experiments, were robbed or in some cases, even worse degradations occurred. Such practices were of the most horrifying and sickening sort.  Necrophilia, the most reviled of all sexual perversions, is pleasure derived from sexual intercourse with a corpse. It represents posthumous indignity of the most twisted sort. Necrophilia is thought to be fairly rare but it has been recognized since ancient times. It was often thought that the death of a loved one could lead to the practice.

Legend says that King Herod continued to have sex with his wife Marianne for seven years after he killed her. In a case that was prosecuted in the 1760’s, Sir John Pryce embalmed his first wife when she died and kept her in bed with him, even after he married a second time. When his second wife died, she too was embalmed and placed in the same bed. His third wife, however, wanted no part of his gruesome hobbies.  Historically, Necrophilia was a frequent theme in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. In 1886, a criminal named Henri Blot was arrested for raping a number of disinterred corpses. A gravedigger who was also arrested for this offense, justified his perversion by saying that he could find no live woman to yield to his desires, so he saw no harm in giving his affections to dead woman instead.

In 1931, a bizarre case took place in Key West, Florida. A man named Carl van Cassel fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Maria Elena Oyoz, who was dying from tuberculosis. Although she would have nothing to do with him when he was alive, he exhumed her body when she died and first placed it in a mausoleum. Later, he took the body home, dressed it in a wedding gown, and took to sleeping with it. This continued for seven years before he was discovered. A court hearing was held, but it was clear to the judge that the law would not cover this bizarre set of circumstances. As he was not to be convicted, van Cassel even had the nerve to ask for Elena’s body back! The judge ordered it buried in a secret location and van Cassel disappeared a short time later.

While there have been several hauntings linked to grave robbery, one case may have even been linked to Necrophilia as well. It was certainly not recognized as such in the region of Utah in the 1800’s, but today, the story of Jean Baptiste has some pretty strange sexual undertones to it. There is little doubt that in the modern school of thought, this unusual gravedigger was helping himself to more than just the corpse’s clothing.

John Baptiste was one of the first gravediggers ever employed in Salt Lake City in the late 1800‘s. He lived in a two-room house with a lean-to at the corner of K Street and Temple and he was believed to be well-off and lived comfortably. He was also known to be a hard worker and punctual, always carrying out his appointed duties at the city cemetery. He was a quiet fellow though and had few friends, so most people never paid much attention to him as he went about his work.

About three years after Baptiste came to work for the city, a man died in Salt Lake City and was, of course, buried by the gravedigger in the local cemetery. A short time later, the man's brother came to Utah from the east. He was not familiar with the Mormon religion as his brother had been and wished to have his sibling returned to the east to be buried in the family plot. His wish was granted and the grave was uncovered. The casket was pried open and the corpse inside was discovered to be nude and lying in the coffin facedown, as though it had been dumped there.

Needless to say, the brother was outraged and city officials began an immediate investigation. The investigation focused on John Baptiste and several men were assigned to keep him and the cemetery under surveillance. Soon after another burial, Baptiste was seen pushing a wheelbarrow from a nearby storage shed to a freshly opened grave. Authorities stopped him and found a pile of clothing hidden in the bushes. The corpse had been removed from the grave, his clothing removed, and was now being moved from the storage shed in the wheelbarrow.

Baptiste was arrested and his home was searched. His house was filled with clothing! He had used some of it for drapes and furniture covers and in the cellar, a large vat was placed for boiling the clothing of the dead.

The news spread and local citizens descended on the cemetery to check on their deceased loved ones. Authorities believed that he had stolen clothing from more than 350 corpses! All of the clothing from Baptiste's home was taken to City Hall for identification by relatives. They also went to local second-hand stores, where they learned the gravedigger had sold large amounts of jewelry for cash.

And what became of Baptiste? He was tried and convicted of grave robbery, was branded with a hot iron and exiled to an island in the Great Salt Lake, northwest of the city. There has been some dispute as to where he was sent, either to barren Fremont Island or the larger Antelope Island. Regardless, he was put ashore there, never to return to Salt Lake City again. But this was not the end....

A few weeks later, lawmen returned to the island to check on the prisoner, only to discover that he had vanished. A search discovered the remains of a fire and a small shelter, but no Baptiste. Some believe that he may have taken his own life and others that he built a raft and escaped, but no matter, he was never heard from again. Or was he?  It has been said that Baptiste still haunts the shores and beaches of the lake today. The stories claim that he has been seen walking along the water's edge, clutching in his hands a bundle of wet, rotted clothing.

The Great Salt Lake is located just northwest of Salt Lake City. The ghost of John Baptiste is alleged to walk the shore on the southern edge of the lake.

© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.

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