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Davis Journal

The ghosts and monsters of the Great Salt Lake

Oct 06, 2023 12:21PM ● By Braden Nelsen
The newspaper report of the Jean Baptiste story, circa 1893. Courtesy Photos

The newspaper report of the Jean Baptiste story, circa 1893. Courtesy Photos

DAVIS COUNTY—No matter where you go around the world, it seems like there are some places that are just downright spooky. Even the friendliest neighborhoods seem to have that one house that’s always been haunted or a neighbor who’s seen a real UFO, or the list goes on. Here are just a few of the stories around Davis County to send chills down your spine this Halloween.

Though technically just north of Davis, Fremont Island in the Great Salt Lake still holds great intrigue for residents of both Davis and Weber Counties. The story goes back to 1862, and a man named Jean Baptiste. 

Newspaper records from the period reveal that Baptiste had been discovered as a grave robber in the area, and authorities were unsure what to do with him. So powerful were the negative feelings against the man, that they didn’t want to imprison him for fear of riots, violence, and mob rule.

Instead, it was decided that he would be exiled to Fremont Island to spend the rest of his days. A small cabin had been built on the island, and several head of cattle were roaming, belonging to a local Davis County family, the Millers. Baptiste was tattooed on his forehead with the words, “Branded for robbing the dead,” and turned loose on the island.

The mystery arises, however only three weeks after his banishment. In an account delivered by Henry Heath, a policeman in Salt Lake who carried out the sentence, the Millers went back to the island to check on their herd, and Baptiste, but found something strange instead: one butchered heifer and missing timbers from the cabin.

It’s clear that Baptiste made an attempt to escape, and whether or not he succeeded has been the subject of much speculation. The legend has it that he perished in the attempt and that his ghost roams Fremont Island to this day. Accounts have claimed Baptiste’s ghost wanders the island still, uttering unearthly groans, and clutching a bundle of his ill-gotten gains.

Old Briney

Most people know about the famous Loch Ness Monster, or Nessie, who has been sighted in the famous Scottish lake since the Middle Ages. Most Utahns even know about her distant cousin, the Bear Lake Monster, but few people know of Old Briney, the purported monster of the Great Salt Lake.

Unlike the outgoing Nessie, there have only been two recorded accounts of the North Shore Monster, or Old Briney. The most clear of which comes from an article in the Salt Lake Herald-Republican in 1877. The account comes from “night hands” working near the lake shore for Barnes and Co. Salt  Boilers.

According to the account, on the night of July 8, 1877, the men heard strange noises from the lake, which they had heard before. What made them take to their heels, however, was the sight of a creature emerge from the water, "a huge mass of hide and fin rapidly approaching, and when within a few yards of the shore it raised its enormous head and uttered a terrible bellow." 

J. H. McNeil, the only man whose name is attached to the account gave a detailed description of the creature, claiming it was “a great animal like a crocodile or alligator, approaching the bank, but much larger than I had ever heard of one being. It must have been seventy-five feet long, but the head was not like an alligator's it was more like a horse’s. When within a few yards of the shore it made a loud noise and my companion and I fled up the mountain, where we stayed all night. When we came down in the morning we saw tracks on the shore, but nothing else.”

Have you seen the Great Sale Lake Monster?

Great Salt Lake Whales

Another possible explanation for Old Briney, if indeed they exist, would be the legendary whales of the Great Salt Lake. Many people have heard the rumor about the huge marine mammals in the saline lake, but where did it come from?

An article published in the Utah Enquirer of June 24, 1890, is to blame. The article details how a British naturalist and “Scientific gentleman of the whale industry” James Wickham decided it was high time to plop a few whales into the Great Salt Lake. Why? The reason is never clearly stated, but, Wickham apparently had the time, and the means, so, according to the article, he went about it in earnest.

Wickham’s team captured two “southern or Australian whale(s),” and transported them, via rail to the Great Salt Lake where they quickly escaped their pen. Wickham returned to the lake six months later, and reportedly saw that the pair had doubled in size, and were being followed by “a school of several hundred young.”

Despite a subsequent article saying that the Enquirer had published the story clipped from an “Eastern exchange” to show how little people back east actually knew about Utah, the rumor has persisted to this day.