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August 1, 2011

The Great Salt Lake Phantom

Utah has a surprising amount of paranormal activity. Much of the classic paranormal events are interwoven with Utah’s unique history, and the legend of the Great Salt Lake Phantom is a prime example. Many have heard of the shrieking phantom who haunts the shorelines and islands of the large saline lake, but very few know the history behind the ghastly appearances.

Life in early Utah was different in many respects. The story of the Great Salt Lake Phantom starts with former Utah Governor John W. Dawson, who had been accused of unbecoming advances on a female citizen of Salt Lake City. A group of three “desperados” decided to enact some justice of their own, catching up with Dawson at the stage station in Mountain Dell. The three outlaws - Lot Huntington, John P. Smith and Moroni Clawson – were tracked down three weeks later by a posse lead by the legendary Porter Rockwell. Rockwell shot Huntington to death and the other two surrendered and were brought back to Salt Lake City and the custody of the local police. Soon after the transfer of the two prisoners, they were both shot to death by Salt Lake City police officers after they attempted escape. Clawson’s body was not claimed, so it was buried in potter’s field at the city cemetery. He was buried on the city’s dime, and one of the Salt Lake police officers purchased burial clothing for Clawson.

Legend says Clawson’s brother George lived out East. When he learned of his late brother’s demise, he went to Utah to collect the body. To the surprise of the authorities and the outrage of George Clawson, when the casket was opened Moroni Clawson was inside, naked as the day he was born and face down. Reportedly George was ready to sue the city and anyone else involved in such a disgraceful act. Salt Lake City Police launched a full investigation, and that was where the story gets truly interesting.

John Baptiste (or in some accounts he is called Jean Baptiste or John the Baptist) had moved to Salt Lake City three years previous. Baptiste was Salt Lake City’s first gravedigger and was known for his strong work ethic. No problems had been unearthed with his work until this point. The police investigation focused intensely on Baptiste. Police went by the Baptiste residence, finding only his wife home. The police also found boxes upon of clothing, all of which belonged to the dead. Henry Heath, one of the police officers, was horrified since he had buried his own daughter not too long before. Heath feared that his daughter’s clothing was “among the motley, sickening heap of flesh-soiled linen… found in the grave-digger's hut."

When police confronted Baptiste, he confessed to the despicable crime of robbing the dead. Some have accused him of robbing the dead of more than just clothing and jewelry, adding further gravity to Baptiste’s crimes. When the news spread around the city, keeping Baptiste safe and in one piece became a hat trick for authorities. The stolen pieces of clothing were displayed for the public to claim, drawing large crowds of horrified grievers.

Unable to convict Baptiste of anything more than a felony, the judge in Baptiste’s trial could not impose the punishment of death so many pressed for. Instead Baptiste was to be banished from the community. He reportedly was branded with the words “branded for robbing the dead” and then left on Fremont Island. The only thing found on the desolate island located in the Great Salt Lake was a shack and some cattle. Officers went to the island several months later, only to find the roof and walls of the shack missing and a cow slaughtered.

Speculation about what happened to Baptiste circulated in the community. Some thought he was successful in making a watercraft and had made it to Montana. Others said he probably drowned in the salty waters, receiving finally his death sentence the law was unable to impose.

Thirty years later, a group of duck hunters found a human skull in the Great Salt Lake near where the Jordan River empties into the lake. Three years later a hunter in the same area came across a headless skeleton, complete with a ball and chain around one ankle. Controversy about whether the remains were from Baptiste or not popped up in the newspapers.

Regardless of the controversy, both Utah residents and tourists have been witness to strange occurrences at the shores and on the islands of the Great Salt Lake. Witnesses have described seeing a man walking along, wailing in pain and agony. The man has been described clutching a wet and rotting bundle of clothing. The south end of the lake, where the unidentified remains had been found, as well as Fremont Island itself have been the sites with the most occurrences reported.

Despite the reported activity, investigations performed by paranormal researchers has generated little to no evidence of paranormal activity. Before anyone decides to conduct their own research on Fremont Island, it is private property. Permission must be obtained from the property owners before venturing onto the island.