THE GHOULISH GRAVEDIGGER
The Great Salt Lake encompasses nearly 2,350 square miles of northern Utah and is, next to the Dead Sea, the saltiest body of water in the world. Conversely, it is quite shallow, with a maximum depth of just 27 feet. Although its shoreline varies yearly, the lake is on average 72 miles long and 30 miles across at its widest point.
All of this is by way of saying that the known facts about this briny American inland sea are readily available to the inquisitive person. What may be less known is the story of a Salt Lake City gravedigger who was exiled to an island in the lake for his ghoulish crimes against the dead. He disappeared without a trace. But some claim his ghost is still around.
His name was John Baptiste (or John the Baptist in some accounts) and he was one of the first gravediggers (or sextons) in Salt Lake City. All most people knew about him was that he lived at K Street and South Temple in a house consisting of two rooms and a lean-to. It was well-furnished for that era, according to those who knew him.
John was a hard worker, always punctual in carrying out his appointed duties at the city cemetery. The graves he dug were straight and deep. He went about his dismal task with few citizens bothering to notice his comings and goings. Until . . . About three years into John Baptiste's city employ, a man died in Salt Lake City and, of course, was given over to the gravedigger for final interment. Now it happened that the dead man's brother lived in the East. Not being familiar with the Mormon religion, he journeyed to Salt Lake City to see how his brother had been buried. The grave was uncovered. As the casket was pried open, gasps went up from the brother and the few others gathered with him. The corpse was nude. And the body was lying face down - as if it had been unceremoniously dumped in the coffin.
The man's brother was justifiably outraged. He threatened to sue the city, the Mormon church, the state - anyone and everyone who might have had some responsibility for this indignity.
Police immediately launched an investigation that quickly focused on the sexton, John Baptiste. Several men were assigned to maintain surveillance of the cemetery. Soon after another burial, Baptiste was spied pushing a wheelbarrow from the direction of the fresh grave to a storage shed. Authorities stopped him and found a pile of clothing hidden under a layer of brush. The fresh grave was unearthed. This corpse, too, had been stripped of clothing, which was identified as that found in the wheelbarrow.
Baptiste was arrested and his home searched. His two rooms were filled with piles of clothing. He used some of it as curtains, for his windows, or drapes around his four-poster bed. In a cellar below the back room Baptiste had placed a large vat filled with water in which he soaked the clothing removed from the human remains. After it had dried, he would have it laundered by a family across the street. Apparently they never asked where Baptiste had acquired so much apparel. The news of the gravedigger's outrages spread quickly around Salt Lake City. Bereaved, and now sickened, families swooped down on the city cemetery to see if their loved ones had been victimized. When the examination was at last concluded, authorities said be had stolen clothing from corpses in at least 350 graves! All of the clothing still in Baptiste's home was gathered up and taken to City Hall for identification by relatives. A check of city pawnshops found that Baptiste had also sold items of jewelry taken from the graves for cash. That, too, was collected and returned to families. All the articles that he had stolen, and that could be located, were returned to the appropriate caskets.
And what became of John Baptiste, the graveyard ghoul? He was tried and convicted of robbing from the dead, branded and sentenced to exile on an island in the Great Salt Lake, northwest of Salt Lake City. Two islands vie as the site of his exile - the small, barren Fremont Island, or the larger Antelope Island.
Baptiste was cast ashore and told never to set foot in Salt Lake City again. But that was not to be the end of the story.
A few weeks after the exile was carried out, lawmen returned to the island to check on their prisoner. He was gone. A search revealed remnants of a fire and a rudimentary shelter, but the man himself was nowhere to be found. Speculation at the time centered on his having escaped on a raft built from logs and pieces of lumber, or that he may have swum to shore or to another island. In any case, John Baptiste was never seen again. Not in the flesh, anyway, because for decades to come his ghost was sometimes seen on the beaches of the Great Salt Lake, wandering forlornly toward the water's edge, a heap of dirty, musty old clothing clutched to his chest.
Lost in space
The time: Late on a warm night in September 1979.
The place: An abandoned Central Pacific Railroad bed at Sinks of Dove Creek, Utah.
The event: A park ranger engaging in a historic reenactment pulls late-night guard duty. He is as alert and as cognizant of his surroundings as any man could be - yet he is wrenched back in time and hears and sees events that unfolded a century before.
The spectral repetition of scenes from the past is not an unusual phenomenon. At the turn of the century, two English schoolteachers visiting the Versailles Palace's Petit Trianon, outside Paris, claim they were somehow conveyed back in time to the late 18th century. As recently as 1955, mysterious people in the dress of the 1700s have been seen strolling in those same Versailles gardens. Outside the village of Puys, France, near Dieppe, witnesses saw a phantom army reenacting a rehearsal for D-Day in 1951.
All over the world, historical events are said to be repeated over and over again, even though their participants long ago turned to dust. Even if he knew the commonness of these small, spectral dramas, that Utah ranger was in no way prepared for what he chanced upon that night, or what he learned in a later investigation.
The Sinks of Dove Creek, near Kelton in northwest Utah, was the site of one of many labor camps built by the Central Pacific for the Chinese laborers who helped complete the transcontinental railroad. The Golden Spike National Historic Site is southeast of Dove Creek. It was there, at Promontory, that the Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks were joined on May 10, 1869, to form the first direct rail link from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic coast. Within days of driving the final, golden spike, the worker camps that had supported the heroic effort were abandoned. Many of the Chinese migrated back to the West Coast after they found hostility and suspicion, and only menial employment, in the raucous western towns that sprang up along the railroad. The Central Pacific line at the Sinks of Dove Creek was deserted long ago. The county built a road in the right-of-way, yet few but hunters, hikers and campers dared navigate its treacherous length. It was along this railbed that the park ranger and several friends made their camp as they reenacted a march by the Twenty-first Infantry, the army unit assigned to protect the railroad workers, complete with authentic military uniforms of the post-Civil War era.
The re-enactors put up their tents and built their campfires at what they discovered to be an abandoned labor camp for Chinese workers. They even found weed-filled dugouts that had served as the foundations for the workers' huts. With nightfall came the decision of who would pull guard duty - a necessary requirement even if you're "playing" soldier, and nothing more sinister than a stray bobcat might disturb the night. Or so they thought. The park ranger drew the late-night shift, from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Stars shone bright in the clear sky as they seem to do only in the American West. No moon was out. The heat of a high desert day lingered as the ranger shouldered his .45-70 Springfield rifle and paced the old railroad grade. Suddenly the atmosphere changed. Everything seemed out of kilter - as if it were 1869 all over again. The ranger heard the locomotive as a distant rumble. He couldn't believe his ears. Surely he must be dreaming. Yet it wasn't the wind, for the night was still. He peered into the distance and noticed a pinprick of light like that of a kerosene lamp swinging back and forth. It was moving inexorably toward him at a high rate of speed. By now he recognized the far-off roar as that of a steam locomotive pounding along the vanished rail!
Suddenly, it was on him. He could hear the thunderous chugging of the engine, saw the bobbing light - but that was all there was. He saw nothing else and felt nothing as the iron horse passed directly overhead in a great clatter of iron wheels against iron rails and hissing steam.
He staggered back to camp and slumped in front of his tent. Was he going mad? Having a nervous breakdown? The most unnerving part of all was the absolute reality of what he had just experienced. Yet, it could not possibly be . . . or could it?
The ranger gathered up his rifle and marched back to the old rail line. Despite his misgivings, he didn't want to wake the next guard and certainly couldn't abandon his post.
If hearing a phantom locomotive race by was bewildering, the ranger was next to step even further into this enigmatic time bend.
Faint voices and soft footsteps now surrounded him. He couldn't quite detect what was being said, although it seemed the word "A-melican . . . A-melican" was repeated several times. That had a familiar ring. When he lived in San Francisco, the ranger's Chinese landlady had referred to Caucasians in that manner. The ranger was hearing Chinese laborers talk about him, the "A-melican." Somehow these were snatches of conversation from 110 years before! Only now they were talking about him, the "A-melican" walking among them. The voices were soon joined by metallic thuds that seemed to be hammers striking spikes and a "sense" that all around the ranger workers were moving swiftly about, in a rush to finish laying the track. Suddenly, the ranger noticed hundreds of tiny sparks all along the railbed, precisely what one would see when sledgehammers drove home the iron spikes.
When the ranger related the events of the night before to his friends the next morning, be found that his experience was not unique. Some said they had experienced the same, eerie events while camping near other abandoned rail lines.
His later inquiries uncovered the information that stories had been told for decades about phantom trains being seen and heard along what is now the county road on the old Central Pacific line near Sinks of Dove Creek. Many locals refused to use the road for fear they would inadvertently encounter an iron horse out of time. Others who had dared walk that path told the ranger they too had heard the faint voices of Chinese laborers. But these were events only whispered in that isolated region. No one dared say aloud that they were frightened of spectral Chinese and translucent locomotives!
Even when the Central Pacific still ran trains past Sinks of Dove Creek, engineers reported seeing lights in the distance that signaled an oncoming train, though they knew that to be impossible. The engineers threw on the emergency brakes, but the approaching train lights grew in intensity until the phantom locomotive thundered through the authentic train. All the engineers ever saw was the dazzling headlamp, and all they ever heard was the puffing engine.
The young park ranger never forgot his experience on that August night in 1979. He discovered the truth of Shakespeare's maxim that there is more to heaven and earth than meets the eye. There are those souls condemned to repeat over and over and over again their mortal labors, and who will never know the everlasting sleep that is their due.
The stranger came at dawn.
In his plain, long robes and matted beard and hair, the tall, slim man looked like he had stepped from the pages of the Old Testament. With long, deliberate steps he walked down Alta's empty main street. His gaze took in the hastily built storefronts, miners' tents and whiskey palaces. Through narrowed eyes that seemed to bore right through the town's facades, he raised his head to look off in the direction of Rustler Mountain. At its foot lay Alta Cemetery. With an almost imperceptible nod, and just the barest hint of a smile, he abruptly stopped in the middle of the dusty avenue. And waited.
Though it was early morning, it didn't take long for people to gather around the stranger. They asked him questions, tried to get him to reveal his purpose in being there. He said nothing until a sizable crowd had gathered. When he spoke it was to make an offer.
An offer to raise the dead.
Today, Alta is known worldwide as one of America's premier ski resorts, less than an hour's drive from Salt Lake City in the majestic Wasatch Mountains. There are few vestiges of the silver mining boomtown that 100 years ago boasted five breweries and 26 saloons. Its population of 5,000 souls embraced a sizable number of brutal gunslingers, brassy dance hall queens, crooked gamblers and fervid miners.
When the stranger came to Alta, he could not have found a better place to make his bizarre proposal. More than 100 men had been killed in Alta's saloons alone, while untold numbers of others had been killed in street shootouts and mining accidents, or had died of one of the many diseases rampant among frontier settlements. Alta's boot hill was filled with plenty of "customers" for the outsider's unholy proposition.
As the crowd listened intently, the stranger spun his tale. He had the power to raise the dead, he promised. To bring back to life all those loved ones who had too soon been committed to the hereafter.
Murmurs of delight swept through the audience. If there were any cynics that morning, anyone who doubted this strange man's ability to perform Lazarus-like miracles, they didn't voice their skepticism at such a seemingly impossible assignment.
The thoughts of most must have been on the son or daughter, the father or mother, the friend or lover, who now lay beneath the earth near Rustler Mountain. There was no hastiness in the stranger's demeanor. He said he was quite content to wait until evening to perform his marvelous deed. At nightfall he would meet the good citizens of Alta at the graveyard - where they could welcome their dearly departed back into the bosom of the community.
Or should they?
Slowly at first, but with an increasing sense of urgency, townsfolk began speaking of the, shall we say awkwardness, of dead friends and kinfolk turning up on one's doorstep. How might we explain to Dad that his old home was sold and is now a bawdy house? That we're now enjoying with unabashed ardor the loving attentions of a new, and much younger, wife? Or that the rich estate left by Uncle Felix has been spread among a dozen relatives who are now quite reluctant to return their inheritances?
It soon became apparent to nearly one and all that this was just about the worst idea anyone had ever heard. The complications for the living presented by the dead arising from their graves would be insufferable. A committee met the mysterious stranger at the Alta cemetery that night. They asked, begged actually, that he stop his planned "exhumation" and leave town forthwith. It was nice of him to make the offer and all, but the citizens said there just wasn't enough room for the living and formerly living. He shook his head and said it was too late to turn back. He headed into the cemetery. The leader of the citizens' committee held a hurried conference with his cohorts. They dug into their pockets and came up with $2,500 in gold and silver coins.
Would the mysterious stranger go away if he was given the money? He looked around at the taut, anxious faces of the men huddled before him. Nodding, he stuffed the money in his pack, turned on his heel and strode away. The dead were left in peace.
This Utah yarn - for that is what it certainly is - has a curious footnote. One of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" episodes was based on Alta's enigmatic visitor. Titled "Mr. Garrity and the Graves," the show was broadcast on May 8, 1964, from an unpublished story by Mike Korologos, according to the authoritative Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree.
Although the story's location was changed to "Happiness, Arizona," there is little doubt that it was derived from the Alta legend - but with some other interesting differences.
In the TV program, Mr. Garrity (John Dehner) brings a dog back to life after it is hit by a wagon. He then promises to revive the 128 dead people in the cemetery. The town grows apprehensive when it realizes the unfortunate consequences of such an act. Garrity says he will leave . . . for a price. He is paid off and leaves Happiness a wealthier man. With him are the dog he resurrected and the man who supposedly ran it over. Accomplices all. The Serling twist, as usual, comes in the last scene. As Garrity and his coconspirators pass the cemetery, the dead are rising out of their graves. Serling intones, "Exit Mr. Garrity, a would-be charlatan, a make-believe con man and a sad misjudger of his own talents. Respectfully submitted from an empty cemetery on a dark hillside that is one of the slopes leading to the Twilight Zone." Or to Alta, Utah.