Wharton: Grave robber finds redemption on Antelope Island

Published April 19, 2012 11:35 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I love Utah history, which is why I was eager to see a new local independent movie called "Redemption," filmed mostly on Antelope Island and now showing in Utah theaters.

The movie tells the true story of grave digger Jean Baptiste, who worked at the Salt Lake City cemetery in 1862. Salt Lake City police Officer Henry Heath, whose daughter was buried in the cemetery, discovered that Baptiste had robbed several hundred graves. Many of the burial garments were discovered in the small home the grave digger shared with his wife.

Officials tattooed words on Baptiste's forehead to mark him as a grave robber. One report, which the filmmakers used, said the tattoo read "For robbing the dead." Another said the words "grave robber" were used.

Baptiste, who couldn't swim, was banished first to Antelope Island, but the Great Salt Lake waters were shallow enough for him to escape. He eventually ended up at smaller Fremont Island, surrounded by much deeper water.

I knew the story to this point because my late wife, Gayen, researched it for a chapter in our 1998 book It Happened in Utah. According to her research, when two brothers who grazed cattle on the island went looking for Baptiste, they saw that a wooden shed had been taken apart and a cow slaughtered and skinned. The grave digger mysteriously disappeared and was never found. Most figured he drowned but a few people claimed to have seen him in other states.

Tom Russell, who wrote and directed the film, took a bit of poetic license with the end of the story, which I won't reveal other than to say his interpretation worked because it fit the movie's theme.

"This was a good opportunity to tell a story about forgiveness and about forgiving people who are difficult to forgive," explained Russell, who teaches movie fiction production at BYU. "It was also about how a community treats somebody outside of the norm."

The director said he possibly first noticed the Jean Baptiste story in an online article or an old Salt Lake Tribune story. He followed it a bit more. A former student, Napoleon Dynamite director and co-writer Jared Hess, told Russell that one of his ancestors reported seeing Baptiste on the island.

"We discussed that a bit, and I was fascinated by this character," said Russell. "I wanted to write that up and see where it went. The further I got into it, the more interested I was in Heath."

Officer Heath is played in the movie by John Freeman, and David Stevens played the role of Baptiste. But smaller parts by such character actors as Margot Kidder, Barry Corbin, Edward Hermann, Rance Howard (director Ron Howard's father) and Larry Thomas (who gained fame as the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld) help move the story along.

The movie's start is a little slow, but the combination of beautiful Davis County scenery and story line grew on my wife, Nancy, and me as we watched it. The final scene tied everything together.

Russell said that while BYU does not sponsor films such as this one, it is supportive of projects that give its students real experience. Most of the film's crew were students and the producer was Russell's wife Courtney, also a BYU instructor.

As a lover of Antelope Island, I was amazed at how well the filmmakers managed to hide any sign of civilization. It felt like 1862.

Utah history buffs who enjoy a good story might enjoy this thought-provoking tale.

wharton@sltrib.com Twitter @tribtomwharton



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