Friday, January 23, 2015

LIVER EATING JOHNSON - Meg Mims

In 1972, when Robert Redford hit the screen in the popular western film Jeremiah Johnson, girls and women gushed over the rugged good looks and strong, often-silent actor tramping through the hard wilderness. He'd portrayed the Sundance Kid opposite Paul Newman's Butch Cassidy in that huge hit three years earlier, and also the sheriff in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. Redford looked great on horseback, tramping through the snow, appreciating unspoiled nature. But few knew the real story behind the mountain man John "Liver Eating" Johnson.

First, the film took its sources from Raymond Thorp and Richard Bunker's book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson (1958) along with Vardis Fisher's Mountain Man (1965). Both novels are still in print today.

Johnson was a legend, indeed, since few original sources mention him. There were multiple men named Johnson who lived in the west in that era, but he was distinguished by his nickname. Supposedly, the mountain man was born in New Jersey with the surname Garrison and served on a naval ship in the Mexican-American War. He deserted after striking an officer.

That's when he changed his name to John Johnson and headed to Alder Gulch, Montana Territory, to dig for gold. He may have cut wood and stacked them into cords for steamboats. He stood six foot or six foot two, around 260 pounds without a bit of body fat from all the hard work he did as a sailor, gold miner, wood-hawk, hunter, trapper, scout, soldier, whiskey-peddler, log cabin builder, deputy, guide, constable -- whatever he could do to earn money.

But the real legend of becoming "Liver Eating Johnson" and "Dapiek Absaroka" or Crow Killer began around 1847. Johnson had taken an Indian wife from the Flathead tribe, who was murdered by a band of Crow Indians. Johnson didn't take kindly to that, and hunted them down - cutting out and eating their livers after death. Crow Indians believed the liver was a vital organ on their path to the afterlife, so that was a true insult. The film, however, never mentions that in dialogue.

Several tales of Liver Eating Johnson - that of being attacked by a band of Blackfeet who planned to sell him to the Crow, escaping and surviving by eating the legs of a captor, may be attributed to another and far more notorious mountain man of that era, killer and cannibal Boone Helm. Other famous mountain men include Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Old Bill Williams, James Clyman, John Colter, David Edward Jackson, Jedediah S. Smith, Doc Newell and Jonathan Warner.

Despite his former desertion under a different name, Johnson enlisted in the Union Army in 1864, Company H, 2nd Colorado Cavalry, and received an honorable discharge in 1865. He returned to Montana, preferring solitude, but did serve as deputy sheriff in Coulson and as town marshal in Red Lodge in the 1880s. By the end of his life, however, he spent his last month in a veterans home in Santa Monica, California. Johnson's body was relocated to Cody, Wyoming, from a Los Angeles cemetery after a 5th grade class and the teacher campaigned for it. The bronze statue below stands above Liver Eating Johnson's grave at Old Trail Town.


More Sources:

The Avenging Fury of the Plains: John Liver Eating Johnston. Dennis J. McLelland, Infinity Publishing, 2008.
Tales of the Mountain Man. Lamar Underwood, Editor, Lyons Press, 2004.
Jim Bridger, Mountain Man. Stanley Vestal, University of Nebraska Press, 1970.


Mystery author Meg Mims lives in Southeastern Michigan with her husband and a 'Make My Day' Malti-poo dog. Meg loves writing novels, short novellas and short stories, both contemporary and historical. Her Spur and Laramie Award winning books - Double Crossing and Double or Nothing - are now among the Prairie Rose Publications book list. Meg is also one-half of the D.E. Ireland team writing the Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins Mystery series for St. Martin's Minotaur. Wouldn't It Be Deadly, Book 1, is out now! Book 2, Move Your Blooming Corpse, will be out in 2015. You can find Meg (and D.E. Ireland) on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. 

18 comments:

  1. Very interesting, Meg. What a horrific reason for his name. Not surprising the movie never mentioned the reason. Great photograph of his grave and statue.

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    1. Thanks, Keith! Yup, pretty horrific.

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  2. The movie does show him bending to the body of a Crow he has just killed and when he sits up again his mouth is bloody. That seems to be the most they were willing to show. If you didn't already know the story you wouldn't get it from that.

    The whole thing makes you wonder just what the full truth is and whether we will ever know.

    Good article, Meg.

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    1. I forgot about that scene, Frank! I do remember thinking at the time, "What is he doing??" LOL. good thing they didn't explain.

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  3. Great research! Good stuff! There were some really tough men in those days.

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    1. I must confess, I dug some facts up on Wiki -- and the source books are definitely better!

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  4. Hey Meg: as promised, your Lily meets my Lily on the streets of Cheyenne in Chapter 67 of "Chief of Thieves" (coming from Sunstone Press). Enjoy, swk

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    1. awesome!! I'll definitely have to check that out. :-D

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  5. I've read about Mr. Johnson in the past, but the older I get, the more real it becomes. Not only him, but the other mountain men as well.

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    1. You had to be tough in those days, as Charlie said.

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  6. Liver Eater?! Man, everybody's got a gimmick.

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  7. Oh...gak...what a guy! Great post, Meg. I love learning this stuff, even if it's grody.
    Cheryl

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  8. Oh yes, history can be more fun than fiction. I love posts like this, a chance to learn about people who were such personalities. They had to be to do what they did. Doris

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    1. Thanks, Doris! I'm always trying to come up with some yarn related to a movie, book, or music. It's not easy, but I do enjoy making it fun.

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  9. I've always found this man's history fascinating.

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  10. If anyone is interested in the real story about the life of Johnston, they are invited to visit my website at http://www.liver-eating-johnston.com where they can find 3 books about his life as well as several interesting photos and articles.

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