The Wild West was, as you’ve no doubt heard, a very dangerous place. And some individuals definitely seem to have contributed to that danger more than most. On a revenge rampage that was said to have lasted for a quarter of a century, Liver-Eating Johnson was your worst nightmare if you were a Crow warrior at the time. But when they’ve allegedly killed the wife of a seasoned hunter, what else could you expect?
John Johnson was born not just a long distance from the Western frontier, but an even longer way from the man he was to become. The son of Isaac and Elizabeth Garrison, he came into the world in 1824 not far from modern-day Little York, New Jersey. And eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that Johnson was not his original surname. But we’ll come to that a little later…
In the meantime, Johnson grew up with a violently alcoholic father. At some point, the young man might have decided that anything was preferable to staying at home, and he joined the Navy. Johnson can’t have been very old at the time, though, because he apparently lied about his age when signing up. And so began a life-long love of telling stories.
The young man’s time serving his country on the high seas didn’t end well, however. Johnson went absent without leave after defending a fellow sailor against their own lieutenant. The officer reportedly struck the sailor with a sword, at which point Johnson hit out at the commanding officer.
After hitting the lieutenant, who ended up splayed out on the floor, Johnson was punished by having his shore leave revoked for a month. After this ban was over, though, the young sailor made good his escape. And once ashore, he quickly changed his name.
The name change, it seems, might have been to evade a court martial and possible execution for being AWOL. So at that point, the young Garrison was left behind for good. And as John Johnson, the ex-sailor’s life apparently took some remarkable twists and turns, although there are those who regard some of these alleged incidents as unbelievable.
Johnson would go on to become a frontier legend, but first he had to become a frontiersman. While on the run from the Navy, he joined the Gold Rush in California and Montana. In addition, he became a trapper, hunter, wood-cutter and, perhaps more importantly, a wild man.
Johnson lived in the woods in shacks he built himself, allegedly battled bears, survived myriad Native American attacks and even distilled his own booze. He became the very picture of a mountain man, a 6-foot tall, 250-pound behemoth carrying a tomahawk, knives and guns. So he surely would have struck fear into the hearts of anyone who came up against him.
At the time, America was still expanding. Taming the wilderness west of the Mississippi was treacherous at best and, at worst, deadly. Not only were frontier types faced with unknown territory, unpredictable weather and fierce creatures, but they also weren’t the first humans to have discovered the area.
The native First Nation tribes had settled thousands of years earlier in what in Johnson’s lifetime was considered the untamed west. And, as you can imagine, they weren’t best pleased with these intrusions into their territories. Not only that, but settlers were also invading tribes’ hunting lands and disrupting their trading routes.
Battles between Native American tribes and white settlers and soldiers were common and bloody. Whether over territory, hunting rights or tit-for-tat skirmishes, the threat of a violent death was everywhere. As was scalping. A ritualistic trophy collected by victorious warriors, it was the macabre practice of slicing off a dead foe’s scalp – hair included.
During 1847, while America was slap-bang in the middle of its expansion, Johnson is said to have personally experienced the wrath of Native American warriors. The ex-sailor, it seems, had at some point married a woman from the Flathead tribe. But while he was away working, Johnson’s wife was allegedly butchered by Crow warriors.
No explanation was ever presented as to why this horrendous alleged crime occurred. It was, however, apparently the trigger for what came next. So incensed was Johnson by the killing of his wife, the ex-sailor is said to have gone on a murderous revenge spree of extraordinary proportions.
In revenge for the murder of his wife, who might have been pregnant at the time of her death, Johnson’s retribution would last for 25 years. Leaving a trail of dead warriors in his wake – by some estimates upwards of 300 – the frontiersman’s rampage became legendary and earned him a fearsome nickname.
Johnson had allegedly hit on the perfect way to terrify his Crow enemies: the frontiersman is said to have cut out and eaten his enemies’ livers. Yes, you read that right. And we’re not talking with some fava beans and a nice Chianti here, either. We’re talking raw, straight from the source.
And while all of that would be terrifying enough – cannibalism is always terrifying – there was a further reason why members of the Crow tribe would fear this type of retribution specifically. And it’s all to do with their religious beliefs. More specifically, their views of the afterlife.
Quite simply, for Crow warriors, the liver was an essential organ even after death. They believed that, without it, they couldn’t make a successful transition into the afterlife. And Johnson apparently found a way to use this belief it to his advantage.
Now known for obvious reasons as Liver-Eating Johnson, his fearsome reputation continued to spread. Over the course of a quarter of a century, he allegedly killed, scalped and generally rampaged his way around the west. “As his collection of scalps grew, Johnson became an object of fear,” said historian Andrew Mehane Southerland, as quoted in The Mythical West by Richard W Slatta.
However, it’s altogether possible that none of this was true. There may well have been no rampage, no revenge murders and no eating of anyone’s livers. Johnson’s legend, it seems, could have been entirely fictional. So how on Earth does a story like that get started?
The man himself, it seems, had a theory as to how he came by his gruesome nickname. Johnson appears to have given an interview to a Montana-based newspaper in which he told what he considered to be the real story. And while there most definitely were warriors, deaths and livers, things didn’t go down exactly as described in the legend.
Apparently, Johnson, along with a group of fellow hunters, was ambushed by Sioux warriors in Montana. A battle ensued and the trappers were eventually victorious. Having vanquished the attackers, Johnson stuck his knife into one of the bodies. And what happened next apparently changed the frontiersman’s reputation from fearsome to just plain terrifying.
As Johnson withdrew his blade, a piece of liver seemingly came out with it. As a joke, he claims that he pretended to eat it. According to the book Red Lodge, Saga of a Western Area, in the interview the mountain man said, “I was all over blood, and I had the liver on my knife. The liver coming out was unintentional on my part. I didn’t eat none of it.” The pretense, then, was enough for his companions, and the name stuck.
So, if the nickname was based on a lie, what about the revenge tale? Surely no one would make up something so horrific, right? Well, Johnson was reportedly a man who loved to tell stories of his own bravery, and he enjoyed his fearsome reputation. And despite the scant records that exist from that era, historians have been able to sort at least some of the facts from the fiction.
It seems likely that there never was a revenge rampage against the Crow tribe perpetrated by Johnson. Not only that, but the frontiersman was allegedly on friendly terms with the Crow during the period that he was out west. In addition, researchers have discovered that at the time when his wife was supposedly murdered, Johnson was still in the Navy. Indeed, it’s possible that he never even got married in the first place. The stories did serve one very important purpose, though.
Often, the tales of Johnson’s bravery, such the time he escaped the clutches of enemy warriors and survived by snacking on the severed leg of a man he’d killed, all helped to maintain his legend. Because what we do know for sure is that the man was the very essence of the frontier.
Taking any job that came his way, from gold digging to hunting, trapping, selling furs, hawking wood to steam-ships and selling home-made whiskey, Johnson embodied the fight to conquer America’s western frontier. Surviving harsh conditions, dodging tribal unrest and the dangers posed by nature took a special kind of grit. And the burly trapper had it in spades.
And, as if Johnson’s reputation wasn’t fearsome enough, in 1864 he joined the Army. As had become his habit when enlisting, the ex-sailor once again lied about his age. This time, though, he made himself younger. Aged 39, having told the recruiters that he was 33, he became a Union Army private. It might not come as a great surprise that his army career was also a short one.
Just a few days after signing up, in fact, Johnson once again deserted. This time, however, it seems the reason was to spend his pay packet getting drunk. And that wasn’t the only thing that was different. Perhaps due to a lack of funds, the private somehow then found his way back to the army. Johnson re-enlisted and during the Civil War, he was shot twice… and survived.
Johnson left the Army in 1865 following an honorable discharge. From there, he went back to the frontier and basically picked up where he’d left off. His legend continued to grow, with even more stories arising about his spectacular deeds. Ranging from the poisoning of his enemies to utilizing purpose-built tunnels to attack as if from nowhere, it seemed that nothing could stop him.
Nothing, that is, except age. At some point in the 1880s, Johnson, now in his 60s, became part of civilization. He took a job as a deputy in the Coulson, Montana, sheriff’s office. Being a lawman must have agreed with the veteran, as he later moved to Red Lodge, also in Montana, where he became the town marshal.
Johnson eventually retired to Los Angeles. With the west now won, and his health failing, he moved into a veteran’s facility. Sadly, he was only there a few weeks before his death in January 1900. Death was not the end of this legend, though. In fact, Hollywood, a class of seventh graders and the town of Cody, Wyoming, would all help keep his reputation alive.
In 1972 Warner Bros released Jeremiah Johnson, a fictional movie based very loosely on the real man’s life. Starring Robert Redford as Johnson, the picture was well-received and helped burn the legend into the world’s collective consciousness. And around the same time, a seventh-grade teacher was trying to interest his class in history of the frontier…
While telling Johnson’s story, the teacher, Tri Robinson, happened to mention that the frontiersman had been buried in a location that had ended up alongside a busy road. The students, he told True West magazine at the time, “were outraged.”
Johnson had indeed been interred in a cemetery that subsequently had a road built close to it. So, the seventh-graders decided to try to do something about this situation. They wanted him to be reburied in the area that he’d loved so much. However, returning the mountain man to Montana proved harder than they hoped.
The town where Johnson had last served as deputy sheriff, Red Lodge, turned down the students’ request for a reburial there. His fearsome reputation, it seems, meant that the town had no wish to be associated with him. Undeterred, the seventh-graders even petitioned the government to be made next-of-kin to the frontiersman, which would allow them to legally disinter his remains.
From there, the students received permission to re-inter Johnson in the Wyoming town of Cody, home of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. And as if that wasn’t special enough, Jeremiah Johnson‘s star, Robert Redford and its director, Sidney Pollack, both promised to attend the ceremony. The students had done it!
In June of 1974 Johnson’s reburial took place in Cody. Robert Redford did indeed attend the ceremony; he even helped carry the veteran’s remains to their final resting place, in fact. And with that, the mountain man was closer to home than he had been for more than 70 years. But the legend doesn’t end there, either.
In 2000 Cody’s Firearms Museum received a special gift. A weapon that supposedly once belonged to Johnson himself was donated to its collection. The gun, a .56 caliber rifle made by Hawken, certainly appears to be the real deal. “We know that this is the rifle that [Johnson] carried during his time in the West,” museum curator Ashley Hlebinsky stated on her blog. “He was photographed with the firearm.”
Montana didn’t entirely miss out on Johnson memorabilia, though. In 2002 the wood shack that he built while living in Red Lodge was moved to the town’s visitor center. Penny Redli of the county’s Historical Society told the Billings Gazette that the frontiersman was “Red Lodge’s only claim to fame.” The town even had a parade to celebrate the move.
When Johnson died in 1900, he could have had no idea just how long-lived his reputation would be. With or without the help of Hollywood, the frontiersman would surely have left an indelible mark of his own. Whatever the real truth about the liver-eating, we’re still talking about him over a century after his death. And that’s what we call a real legend.