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.