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Great tales surrounding the Great Salt Lake
Its briny bowels are filled with monster myths

Published: Sunday, Aug. 1 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

Even though the real monster of the Great Salt Lake is its fickle water level, over the years there have been fanciful tales of monsters -- man and beast -- living in the lake or on its islands.

Take grave robber Jean Baptiste, for example. He is believed to have desecrated up to 300 graves during a five-year grave-robbing spree in which he took clothing and jewelry in Salt Lake County that ended with his arrest in 1862.Brigham Young addressed the crimes of Baptiste in a talk in the Tabernacle on Sunday, Feb. 9, 1862. He recommended making him a fugitive and vagabond for his crimes, rather than executing or imprisoning him for life.

After spending about three months in jail, Baptiste was exiled to Fremont Island in the spring of 1862. With so many families upset over his crimes, he had to be taken beyond the vengeance of the community.

Fremont was then known as Miller's Island because Davis County brothers Henry W. and Dan Miller kept a herd of cattle there. With permission and assistance from the Millers, Fremont became Utah's own Devil's Island, though the exile was done in secret to keep Baptiste safe from the enraged public.

There was a shack and some provisions on the island, and when the Millers returned three weeks later, Baptiste was doing well -- and had helped himself to their cattle for beef.

However, when they returned three weeks after that, Baptiste was gone. The wooden shack was torn down and a cow's hide also appeared to have been used to lash together a raft. With the lake level some 8 feet deep around the island, Baptiste had floated away.

Where he went is a mystery.

Duck hunters in 1890 found a human skull in the mud where the Jordan River empties into the Great Salt Lake. Three years later, other hunters discovered a headless skeleton with a ball and chain attached.

Word spread that this was Baptiste, but policemen who helped exile him stepped forward and maintained the grave robber was never chained.

Baptiste was branded with indelible ink (not a branding iron) across his forehead -- "Branded for robbing the dead." (Other tales mention his ears possibly being cut off as a punishment, too.)

There was also a rumored story that a Salt Lake man saw Baptiste in a Montana mining camp and that Baptiste had identified himself as the grave robber when confronted.

Otherwise, no trace was ever found of him and Dale L. Morgan, author of the 1947 book "The Great Salt Lake," referred to Baptiste as the "only specter of the Great Salt Lake." Other writings call him "Monster of the Great Salt Lake."

Myths and legends

In the early summer of 1877, J.H. McNeil of Kelton, Box Elder County, and several other employees of the Barnes and Co. Salt Works company on the lake's north shore reported seeing a huge creature with a crocodile-like body and the head of a horse in the waters of the Great Salt Lake.

This apparently happened at dusk or early evening near Monument Point and the Central Pacific Railroad line.

The creature made a fearsome bellowing noise and charged toward the workers, the witnesses said. They stampeded up a nearby hillside and hid in the brush until morning.

Some believe this creature, dubbed "The North Shore Monster," was nothing more than a buffalo in the lake.

Still, some 30 years earlier a man identified only as Brother Bainbridge reported seeing a monster with a dolphin-like body in the lake near Antelope Island.

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