Let it be known that I will happily take suggestions for future blog post ideas. One day, I was scratching my head trying to come up with a topic when a reader casually suggested, “Why don’t you write about Liver-Eating Johnson?” And then I excitedly asked myself, “WHY DON’T I WRITE ABOUT LIVER-EATING JOHNSON?!?!!!!” (I tend to scream when I get excited.) Well, I didn’t have one good reason not to it and I had bo-koodles of reasons to do it.
So, folks, sit down, squat down or lie down, kick your shoes off and make yourselves ‘t home. You are in for one deeee-lightful campfire tale today. Okay, maybe it’s not so much delightful as it is absurdly creepy. But the subject of today’s Campfire Chronicle is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” characters that makes me never tire of learning about the Old West. We’re going to talk about none other than the infamous Liver-Eating Johnson! Woo doggie!
As I so often do, I’m going to point out that fact often mixes with legend in stories of the Old West, and it’s easy to get bogged down in a bunch of conflicting information. I’m going to give you the story behind Liver-Eating Johnson’s unique nickname. Is it true? Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. Either way, it’s a chunk of Old West history that I guarantee you will enjoy!
A Rose By Any Other Name
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Liver-Eating Johnson was neither a delicate flower, nor sweet. He did have a few other names, however. He was born in 1824, with the last name of Garrison. He changed his name to John Johnston after hitting an officer and deserting, during the Mexican-American War. To him, that just seemed like the prudent thing to do at the time. Somewhere along the way, someone accidentally left the “t” out of his alias, which left him as John Johnson. It seems that he answered to most any name, though. (I’ll be using “Johnson,” because that’s what’s on his tombstone.) He was also known as Jack Johnston, Jack Johnson, the Crow Killer, and just the Liver-eater. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the Crow killing, liver-eating part is probably what has piqued your interest.
The Heart, Er, Liver of the Matter
Hold on tight because we’re going to go lickety-split through many details of Liver-Eating Johnson’s life. Shortly after deserting from the armed service, Johnson took his new name and headed west to become a fur trapper. He hired a man named John Hatcher, an experienced mountain man, as his guide. The pair ended up at Hatcher’s cabin in Colorado. Hatcher taught Johnson pert’ near everything there was to know about making it as a mountain man. There’s more to it than wearing buckskin and losing all interest in personal hygiene! Johnson was a quick study. He was good with a knife and a gun, and his photographs indicate that he had absolutely no interest in personal hygiene.
Johnson moved to Montana and met up with a Flathead Indian, who had an available daughter. A trade was made and Johnson had a new bride. Oh, the romance! About a year later, the mountain man left his hot commodity of a bride in the cabin, so he could go trapping for the season. Returning home the next spring, he found his wife’s corpse lying in the doorway of the cabin. “CSI, Mountain Man Edition” determined that she had been the victim of a Crow hunting party. There was also evidence that she had been pregnant at the time of the murder. This would have been sometime around 1847.
It wasn’t long before the scalped bodies of Crow warriors began turning up all over the Northern Rockies and in the plains of Montana and Wyoming. Besides being dead and scalp-less, those bodies shared another characteristic; their livers were missing! Crow Indians believed they needed their livers to pass into the afterlife, so that would have been a real punch in the spiritual gut! And, of course, as news of the killings spread, the story grew. Word on the plains was that John/JackGarrison/Johnston/Johnson had been chowing down on Crow pâté—perhaps with fava beans and a nice Chianti!
Robert Redford, He Was Not
The story goes that Liver-Eating Johnson killed some 300 Crow warriors. He survived ambushes and even escaped capture. Maybe all of that iron he was consuming gave him super-human strength. The all-he-could-eat liver buffet lasted around twenty years. At the end of that time, he is said to have made peace with the Crow. I’d sure like to know how he managed that.
Do you remember the 1972 movie, Jeremiah Johnson, starring one of my favorite pretty boys, Robert Redford? The character of Jeremiah Johnson was loosely based on none other than the old mountain man himself, Liver-Eating Johnson. Now, when I say it was loosely based, I feel I need to put a few more oooos in that loosely. Yeah, it was loooooosely based on him. Redford played the character as more of a gentleman, and less of a sociopath, to be sure.
In later years, the man known as the Liver-Eater served as a sharpshooter during the Civil War and as sheriff of Red Lodge, Montana. When Johnson died in 1900, he was buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Los Angeles. Yet, he had only lived in a Santa Monica veterans’ home for a month, at the end of his life.
Final, Final Resting Place
The City of Angels was an odd final resting place for an old, liver-eating, mountain man. Seventy-four years later, a class of seventh grade students in California found that to be odd, too. The group of pre-teens began a campaign to bring Liver-Eating Johnson home to Wyoming. Meanwhile, some folks in Montana were trying to lay claim to the body, as well, contending that he had spent as much time in Montana as he had in Wyoming. In the end, Wyoming won the rights to the region’s most famous organ eater.
Liver-Eating Johnson’s body was exhumed and relocated to Cody, Wyoming. It was quite the social event! 2,000 people showed up to see the old coot laid to rest . . . again. Okay, let’s get real. I have an inkling that the 2,000 people who showed up might also have been interested in seeing the celebrity pallbearer. Yes, Robert Redford served as one of his pallbearers. It was pretty easy to spot him. He was the dreamy one!
There is a bronze statue of Liver-Eating Johnson on horseback, which overlooks his final, final resting place. I would prefer a statue of Robert Redford, but I digress. If anyone else has any suggestions for a blog idea, I’m all ears. Oh, and I’d be much obliged if you could find someone with a tie-in to Sam Elliott!