January 13, 2015

The Truth about Liver-Eating Johnson

The Truth about Liver-Eating Johnson


by Gregg Murray

Though the frontispiece, a reproduction of a rare daguerreotype, shows John Johnson resting on the barrel of a rifle with his left hand, we are wise to remember that images from that historical moment are deceptive by their very nature. Johnson was almost certainly right-handed.

—“‘Saddle This Here Hoss’: Notes Toward a New Historicism in the Field of John Johnson Scholarship,” H.H. Clemens, Journal of the History of the American West, Vol. 18, No. 2, (Winter, 1961), pp. 1156-1157.


I arrived in the San Jacinto fresh off an eleven-hour train ride, belligerent with myself for my stubborn designs to experience the West by such an antiquated and uncomfortable method. This transportation was a choice. The errand wasn’t. There are things we do for the terminally ill when their own devices have been compromised, when we alone can offer some modicum of comfort through the darkening vestibule and into the resting mansion of death. I, for one, hail from a long line of university professors, some in the hallowed fields of science or mathematics, others somewhat accursed with an arch curiosity for art or letters, history or philosophy.

The loss of bodily function is a devastating, pride-shattering ordeal. All our ancestors—those not struck down by some premature departure—have endured the misfortune of growing decrepit, incapacitated, bed-ridden. Yet, this affliction is but a light burden when compared to the passing of the mind in one who, like Socrates, wanders beyond the ken of a single night’s discussion, arguing throughout the following day at the Lyceum, asking questions, instructing the youth, and only with the death of another day takes comfort in the hollows of night.

It is with this heaviness, therefore, that I agreed to discover the truth about Liver-Eating Johnson. My dying grandfather Clemens had prevailed upon my nature, not my intellectual curiosity. You see, my mind is ever on dark matter—literally, my primary concern at present is cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). I use the dark matter to hypothesize the position of, for instance, black holes. What interests us, ultimately, is a hyper-functional model of the universe. In any event, with Papa Hervé waiting at death’s door for a response to what constantly troubled his loosening mind, I resigned myself to a tedious yet charitable task. I cleared my calendar for a meeting with the only remaining expert on John Johnson. “Find this young man, this Hiram Salazar. He’ll tell you about LEJ. He’s the only one left who…who…who can adjudge my analyses with accuracy, with dignity. In short, let him hold the mighty gavel.”

I found Hiram regaling an enthusiastic trio of fashionable ladies. His dress bordered on Dandyism, and he held a stylish but functional leather attaché overflowing with legal pads festooned with arrogant penmanship. After exchanging our pleasantries he admitted to being from “Sanlouie,” which I took to mean St. Louis and not a late-19th century brothel, as his costume implied. I decided to cut to the chase, worried that small talk together with excessive drink might prolong his discourse.

“Perhaps you are already familiar with my grandfather’s work,” I said.

Dismissing the cadre of X chromosomes with a flurry of hand gestures, he said, “Don’t be absurd. If not for Hawk-Eye Clemens, little if anything would be known about John Johnson. I’m indebted to his research.” He patted his notes, implying the site where this debt could be calculated, were one so inclined.

“The dust never settles on a legend,” he said. “There is always new evidence which, in the able hands of committed historians, allows us to see with new spectacles. Let us say, the spectacles of truth. In your message, you asked me to set into honest relief an American hero. Very well, I’ll engage you in a private discourse on my doctoral research, provided it remains confined to, if I may, an oral tradition.”

“I should remind you that I’m a scientist, sir, and I have no interest in, well, plagiarizing your diligent studies. I have made this pilgrimage for Hervé.”

He seemed satisfied with this, stood, swiped gently down the front of his vest and thighs of his knickers, and whispered into my ear: “John Johnson was well acquainted with the crudely wrought triggers of early Western firearms.”

Although not the least bit interested in this thesis, I gave a sort of pleasant grunt to signify my rapture. He needed little encouragement, and I—there and then—decided my pain would be the less if he spoke uninhibited and with tacit approval. I sought to ignore, without success, his peculiar habit of indicating quotation by hooking his index fingers as he perorated:

“Of course, John ‘Liver-Eating’ Johnson earned his name from eating the livers of Crow Indians. A vendetta that began with the murder and scalping of Johnson’s pregnant wife has been firmly established as the cause of his peculiar appetite. The landmark research of Thomas and Haskins reveals that the men of the Sante Fe trail, on lighting upon some 250,000 buffalo, with plenty to choose from, were known to enjoy the livers of said beasts. The delicacies tasted better with bile, as well as various seasonings ‘as were available to them.’ Johnson, slight of purse, was not given to extensive culinary preparation. No one disputes this. Rainier, however, describes a well-documented horse theft in which Liver-Eating Johnson, trail-hungry, slaughtered eight Arapaho horses and ‘ate flank meat, mostly.’”

As he spoke, he fingered through the yellowing pages, stopping to corroborate with his gestures of extensive citation. Without the sources at hand, the academic integrity of this lonely practice nonetheless inspired confidence that I could fall victim only to an extravagant and meaningless forgery. If it was his intention, I decided, to act as a sort of Cartesian Evil Genius—to fabricate, indeed, the evidence, the citations, and the thankless work that leads to these citations—I supposed we must all be susceptible. And indeed, would the capable scientist not be just as susceptible as the humanities professor, with all his idealism and mythology? Moreso? Bah. As I wrestled with these musings, he continued:

“Turner, however, sees it differently. ‘Johnson didn’t spare a morsel, eating the horse manes like ears of fire-pitched corn.’ Turner’s account has been questioned as specious by some, but Byers corroborates. ‘The man ate livers. Son of a bitch was insane.’ Rainier’s anomaly, an interview with one Arkansas Simms, while not unacknowledged by the scholarly community, simply doesn’t square with the other accounts. Simms swears over, forgive me, a ‘bull’s nuts,’ that Johnson killed two young Crow Indians, twins, he asserted, and ‘had nothing to do with them livers.’ Finally, Bletchly’s null result looms here. In 1986, Thaddeus Bletchly and a team of skilled researchers hiked to Taos with a satchel of raw human livers. When set in the ‘grimy sun next to a quart of Shithouse,’ Bletchly explained, ‘they practically ate themselves. Beer was gone, too.’ The palatability of raw liver suggested by the Bletchly experiment is consistent with the facts.”

He consulted his notes. I nodded, decidedly more impressed than when he first announced his thesis. Besides, I’ve considered pâté once upon a time and understand that it is regarded a delicacy in some climes.

“In the late 1970s, oral accounts began to surface that Johnson had clubbed to death some 30 Crow braves using the amputated femur of a Shoshone cadaver. As unlikely as this first appeared, the evidence was, according to Adams, ‘Irrefutable. Surprising, but irrefutable.’ Johnson entered the scrape with a handful of ‘goddam useless’ Shoshone, most of whom were quickly dispatched and lay lifeless on the sodden plain. Geoffrey Landstone, allegedly a devotee of Swedish pop group Ace of Base, promulgated his personal dissent, based almost entirely on guesswork. ‘The Shoshone, primarily vegetarians, were simply not strong of bone,’ Landstone writes, ‘the femur is not a sensible weapon.’”

“Well,” I protested.

He proceeded, pointing his index finger in the air. “But Hooks and Stafford make it clear that ‘well-nigh the entire corps of serious scholars’ confirms the Adams report. Moreover, Davis asserts, ‘No one thinks Johnson used the leg on all 30. Just enough to acquire a suitable weapon, such as a rifle.’ With the Davis emendation buoyed by Reason, the history comes into focus. Johnson and the Shoshone, at first cornered in a cave which had offered reprieve from a menacing sun, were taken by surprise. Wood-Watcher, the aptly-named brave on lookout, was the first killed. When Johnson ‘got the hell out of Dodge,’ by which is meant ‘the cave,’ his Shoshone amigos were left to the massacre. Johnson then ‘bladed Wood-Watcher’s right leg and quickly fashioned a club. I think he used this to repel them.’ Just how many Crow Indians Johnson silenced while wielding the bloody appendage continues to be debated, of course, but opponents such as Landstone have, forgive me, not much of a leg to stand on.”

I must admit this put a smile on my face. We shared another laugh at Landstone’s expense, and as my companion sipped upon his mint julep I hazarded, “And isn’t that the way of it, the man, the myth?”

“Well, I’ll tell you something, compadre,” he said, “I don’t get truth-seekers like you every day.” He sullenly admired the embossed silver at the handle of his walking cane. “I have placed trust in you thus far, but this final trust is a matter of faith. Perfect reasoning is the only evidence for what I now relate, though in this labor I am the world’s sole hireling.”

I reminded him that, compelling as his research had been, I had neither intent nor means for presenting his work as my own. He had captivated me, as a man of science.

He grew spiritual.

“Some time ago, Liver-Eating’s remains were transported from California to Cody, Wyoming, for a more appropriate grave. And it was an appropriate grave, in my estimation. But three weeks ago, a wild-haired forensic scientist named Claudius Ashenbrüner—you didn’t hear the name from me—had the idea of digging up ole Johnson. I was in the area gathering hand-me-down tales from the local docents and decided to make a visit, my third actually, to the memorial. Of course, I’m a wanderer by nature and don’t keep the same hours as the so-called “civilized” world, and I had every expectation that I’d be the only visitor with the moon that high. That, and I’d had to hop a fence.”

“So, was…?” I began.

“He was. Ashenbrüner’d already tossed his shovel aside. By the light of his tiny headlamp, he looked like a frantic squirrel with a thousand fingers. I later found out that this Ashenbrüner, since incarcerated for what the newspaper called ‘profanations of the species’ had always been dumb—literally, the man was unable to speak. In the moment I accosted him, this fact did not occur to me as unnatural or alarming. Ashenbrüner held up his hands like the accused, opening wide his eyes and quivering his lip. Then, he did something curious. He reached down and grabbed an evidence sleeve. It contained, I later learned, the bones of Johnson’s right hand.”

My fabulous companion looked about furtively, as though the walls of this establishment had sprouted ears.

“He handed me this sleeve, as it were, of tiny bones and made a threatening motion. I took this gesture to mean—remember that I was as startled as he!—that I take this offering and skedaddle. Which, and I hope you won’t question my logic, I did. It was my safety and not this peculiar bribe that sent me on my way. And quickly.

“But I tell you, things happen for a reason. At night, as I work, huddled before the glowing screen and dogeared textbooks, my curiosity overcomes me. The bones call to me. These past few weeks it has become my custom of arranging them on my desk. Ashenbrüner had indeed been thorough, even in his haste. It was a complete bone model of the right hand. Every piece in its proper place.”

I at once acknowledged the merits of this degree of order.

“It wasn’t until last night, when I felt compelled once more to arrange the bones, as is my recent custom apparently, a sort of relaxation technique, if you will, when I found it. Along the second metatarsal: a deep groove, rubbed from what aficionados affectionately call trigger finger.”

I looked at him incredulously. “He was right—”

“Handed,” he completed my thought, nodding. We shared a silent moment. He had found it. He had indeed. “Your grandfather was right. Old Hervé.”

I suggested we alight into the sun-folding streets for a taste of cigarette smoke, as a sort of denouement to our enlightening meal. My companion was weary, he admitted, but never averse to a post-prandial indulgence. I will not bore you with a précis of the many subjects we touched upon. They are for another story. Hours later, when the bill was settled and the night was upon us, he, like the magicians of old, walked down the lighted street, waved his cane in a sort of flourish, and turned into a barbershop.

That night I didn’t sleep well. After several unsuccessful attempts to reach my grandfather by phone, I began to fear the worst. Admittedly, this feeling was only intensified by the long train ride looming like a misanthropic dentist. As I stood solitary on the sidewalk of the station, I never stopped checking my timepiece and valise. The early morning chill had influenced the more casual, more reasonable traveler to purchase a later departure. Such is my lot.

By the time I arrived in the city, I was too weary for hustle. The sun had paid its respects to the day, the wind bit gently into my skin, and my bones twitched, shocked from disuse. I proceeded at a patient gait. To the ignorant observer on the street, this might have disguised my desire to reach my grandfather’s at once—which couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

I fumbled with the door key. The entrance to the house was silent. Through the kitchen, I saw an orderly slouched on the living room chaise lounge whistling softly through his nose. This was the only illumination. The rest was completely shrouded—literally, the bathroom and hallway were undergoing extensive renovation and I had to duck and stomp and swim to my grandfather’s bedroom through the painter’s plastic.  His eyes were closed. He was tucked to the chin with blankets. The shade had been drawn, but as it flapped the window permitted a sleeve of moonlight that now rested on his cheek. And I knew at once.


Gregg Murray is Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, where he is a contributing poetry editor for The Chattahoochee Review. He has recent poems in DIAGRAM, Caketrain, [PANK], New South, Berkeley Poetry Review, and elsewhere, as well as ones forthcoming from Phantom Drift, The Carolina Quarterly, Birmingham Poetry Review, and Quiddity. Gregg also has a chapbook, “Ceviche,” from Spittoon Press (2014).

Image: The Custer Fight, by Charles Marion Russell (1903). Used with permission under creative commons.

3 thoughts on “The Truth about Liver-Eating Johnson

  • Howdy,
    Interesting piece. Johnston did like livers and hung out with the Crows at the agency during the beef slaughters…of course, he did eat bison livers and more. But not a human. I am putting together a bio on Johnston. Started in 1971. Still collecting. I did just recently got hair and some implements of Johnston’s. Also there is a hat out there. These were collected by the aide to Johnston at the old soldiers home in Sawtelle, California.

    Dorman Nelson

  • It’s interesting that folks merely speculate that Johnson did not like livers and therefore did not eat human livers, all I would like to know, if it can be proven “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” that he did or did not take bites of a human liver. Even today murders have been committed during what’s known as “the heat of passion”, which I have personally been witness to as a police officer. I believe, from what I have read, that it is a high possibility that Johnston a.k.a Johnson, may have actually consumed a portion of his enemies liver, I only wish I could find actuall evidence supporting that he did, or did not, eat any human livers. Not speculation. I also know that it may be impossible to secure any factual evidence to support any speculations.

  • Howdy, if you follow the accounts tall tales and all to the origin of him being named Liver Eating–he stabbed an Indian in the stomach, pulled out his knife and at that moment an 18 year old ran up (a newbie named Jim) and Johnston turned all bloodied with some of the human grist on the knife and offered him some liver pretending to eat it saying the liver is real good! At that time another trapper named George Martin pointed a gun at Johnston and told him to quit it while young Jim was throwing up.

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