In today’s article, we’re hitching up our wagons and headin’ out West, because we’re discussing Liver-Eating Johnson. Now, Liver-Eating Johnson was the epitome of a mountain man. He was a giant of a man, but, as we’ll see, also had a pretty big heart. He was a man of many moods, but the most famous of which was when he was in the mood for a good ole bite of human liver.
Now, let me please preface this article with something I’ve said many times: this story may not be historically accurate. As with all stories from history, embellishments are made and details may be changed throughout the years. We could very well tell the story of a regular dude who lived in the mountains in the 1800s, but that’s not what you readers came here for. Now, that’s not to say that what we’ll discuss today is false. We just can’t be for sure that the details are 100% correct because most of the details have been lost to history.
With that said, our main source for today’s article is “Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson” by Raymond W. Thorp, as well as an article from allthatsinteresting.com.
Liver-Eating Johnson was supposedly born in Little York, New Jersey in 1824. He was not born with the first name “Liver-Eating”, just so we’re all clear. His birth name was John Jeremiah Garrison Johnston. We won’t discuss his childhood, because we know fuck-all about it, but I’m relatively certain he came from the womb with a full beard anyway; as I’m sure all mountain men did.
When he grew a bit older, I assume when he was 5, he enlisted in the Navy. Now, this is where Johnson’s name is altered. There are two main conflicting accounts as to why Johnson’s name went from Johnston to Johnson. One account names this as just a clerical error, but that seems a bit odd that someone would just allow their name to change due to a typo. The other claim is that Johnson struck a naval officer during his enlistment. He then went on the run from the military and, in hopes to throw the authorities off his trail, changed his name to the very original John Johnson. The second of those is a bit more believable to me.
Since his time in the military didn’t work out, he decides to instead go into the awesome fur trapping trade. Which was likely a good choice for him, because he was already a pretty large man at six feet tall and 190 pounds. He travels north to St. Joseph, Missouri and it’s here that he meets an influential person in his life: Mr John Hatcher. Hatcher was an older trapper himself and takes Johnson on as a bit of an apprentice of sorts. However, Hatcher does give Johnson a warning pretty quickly upon meeting him that he should watch out for Native American attacks.
As a bit of background, at this point in American history, Native American tribes had already been pushed pretty far west. The Trail of Tears, which we’ll cover in another article, has already occurred. However, many tribes were becoming hostile or had been hostile for a while, against outsiders. Whether they were white people or other tribe members. Those who read our Billy the Kid articles will remember a bit of this. So, obviously, at this time period, you would likely expect there to be many Native American attacks.
Hatcher’s warning to Johnson was a bit of a premonition because not long after that, the two were attacked by the Arapaho tribe during one of their expeditions. However, the two men, being quite large and...I suppose you’d say “mountainous”, were able to kill the Arapaho relatively easily. Now, this is a pretty formative moment in Johnson’s life as this is when he was introduced to scalping. Somewhat to Johnson’s surprise, Hatcher takes the scalps of the dead Arapaho. He’s then urged by Hatcher to try it himself, and he finds out that he’s pretty good at it. This would be a skill that he would continue to hone.
The two men continued trapping together, and Johnson continued his transformation into a legitimate mountain man. Firstly, he grows to 6’2” and 240 pounds. Apparently, he had a mountain man growth spurt. He also develops a very keen sense of smell. His strength becomes legendary. Allegedly, he can kill a man just by slamming him to the ground. Native American’s even fear his kick. I’m not sure why that’s singled out, but it’s a big deal apparently. One of his friends even claims that he killed two Native Americans with a single kick.
Further evidence of Johnson’s strength comes after he is appointed as a member of the camp police in a Native American camp. This is likely a camp where they rounded up multiple tribes of Native Americans while they would be moved to other lands. During his time as a member of camp police, he broke up a knife fight between a Blackfoot and a Shoshoni. He did this by busting their heads together and killing them.
In addition to being a trapper, Johnson also operated a woodyard that sold wood up and down the Missouri River. During one of his deliveries, he came across a family that had been slaughtered by the Blackfoot tribe. He found that two of the sons were killed and scalped. The 18-year-old daughter had been tortured, raped, killed and scalped. The husband, who was found to be named Mr Morgan, was scalped but still alive. Mrs Morgan was not at the scene initially, but she came looking for her family with a hatchet in hand. She was able to kill four of the warriors and the rest left with the still barely alive Mr Morgan.
Johnson assisted the woman, later to be known as Crazy Woman Morgan, in burying her children and the scalp of his husband. He then built her a small shack to live in. She stayed there safely, not disturbed by the Native Americans, who were terrified of her. This woman will have a part to play towards the end of our story.
In the Spring of 1847, Johnson felt that it was time for him to settle down and start a family. As you can imagine, finding a wife as a mountain man is pretty difficult. So, Johnson decides to travel to the Flathead camp nearby and offers the sub-chief gifts in exchange for his daughter. This actually worked and the sub chief’s daughter, The Swan, was married to Johnson.
The couple moved to Johnson’s cabin and were relatively happy together. I could not find much information stating that they were unhappy, so I assume they were at least enjoying each other's company.
After their honeymoon phase, Johnson had to get back to trapping, so he set out on an expedition leaving The Swan with a pony and a gun for protection. Unfortunately, members of the Crow tribe found her and saw that she was alone. So they broke into the home, attacked her, killed her, and scalped her. They also stole every possession from the cabin including The Swan’s pony as well as all of the other horses.
Now, this next bit of information is a bit difficult to hear. Johnson’s expedition took months for him to complete. All this time, his wife was dead and decaying at his home. When he returns home, he finds a vulture picking his wife’s skull clean. He also sees the remnants of the child his wife was carrying. Johnson finds an eagle feather at the scene, which pointed him towards the attack being committed by the Crows. So, he takes his wife’s and child’s remains and hides them in the forest where they will not be disturbed, and he vows to avenge their murders.
Stories begin to spread about Johnson’s mutilation of the Crow. Bodies are found murdered and mutilated, with their bodies cut below their ribs and their livers removed. Johnson’s friends claimed they knew that he was behind the killings and was eating the livers raw. Supposedly, the Crow believed that the liver was a sacred part of the body and it was necessary to pass into the afterlife; so Johnson wasn’t going to let that happen.
His reputation started to turn to a legend and the name “Crow Killer” and “Liver-Eating Johnson” grew. White women would even threaten their disobedient children with a visit from “Liver-Eating Johnson” unless they behaved.
Johnson continued his quest for revenge. He found a group of 50 Crow travelling toward the Bitter Root Mountains, which was Flathead territory and where Johnson had met his wife. So, Johnson follows them, attacking and killing them one by one. He kills one and finds that he is carrying the scalp of a woman, but not of a white woman. He is then convinced he has killed his wife’s murderer, but he would make sure that all involved would share in the vengeance.
Johnson rode ahead of the Crow to the Flathead camp and found his father-in-law, Bear’s Head. He warns Bear’s Head of the approaching Crow. He also shows Bear’s Head the scalp of his daughter, The Swan. Bear’s Head, obviously infuriated, then tells Johnson that the Flathead warriors will be ready for the Crow attack and both men will finish the vengeance for The Swan’s murder.
The Crow attacked and showed that they were a terrible force, but they were outnumbered by the Flathead. The Crow are all eventually overpowered and killed, securing Johnson’s revenge for his wife and child. He then travels the same road he travelled the first time he brought his wife home, content that he had his revenge.
Johnson returned home and settled in for the winter. He had never buried his wife’s and child’s bones, he had only hidden them in the woods. So, he would frequently make trips to the woods to hold the skulls. However, he was seen on one of these occasions. It was then known that he had committed his acts upon the Crow in revenge for his family’s deaths. As word of this spread, rumours also spread that the Crow were a laughing stock. They were beaten by a single man, and they were mocked for it.
The Crow were a very proud people, as well as incredibly skilled warriors. So, when they heard of the reputation they were gaining from Liver-Eating Johnson’s actions, they decided they needed to do something about it. They held a spring council and decided to send twenty of their bravest warriors to find and kill the Crow Killer. These warriors were sent to different areas in hopes that at least one of them would be able to kill Johnson. Their mission lasted 14 years, and not a single one returned to the tribe.
We’ll discuss a few of the interactions Johnson had with these warriors in a moment, but Johnson claims to have killed each one of them in hand-to-hand combat. One thing that he insisted on was that each one knew before they died that he was being killed by Liver-Eating Johnson.
As the years went on, Johnson’s formidable nature, especially in relation to revenge, became a pretty big talking point. In fact, many of Johnson’s friends approached him for help with their own vengeance. Johnson would almost always assist with these situations, but if he agreed to help anyone, he would always step back at the conclusion; allowing the person to take full credit for the act of vengeance. Johnson felt that revenge was a personal thing that should not be shared.
Johnson continued his trapping career and on one occasion was with a friend named Gue. While they were on their expedition, Gue was nervous that their campfire would draw the attention of dangerous tribes in the area. Johnson had already sensed, with his amazing sense of smell, apparently, that they were being tracked. So, they dowsed the campfire and ran into the woods. While undercover, Johnson found one of the Crow warriors which had been sent to kill him. He kicked him to the ground and stabbed him to death with his Bowie knife.
Gue asked Johnson why this Crow was following him, and Johnson explained the story, saying that this was the 18th of the 20 Crow that had been sent after him. And up to this point, he had killed probably four to five hundred Crow warriors in total. As he’s explaining this, Johnson is performing his signature move of slicing the Crow’s belly, thrusting his hand inside, and removing the liver. Gue begs Johnson not to eat it because it will make him gag, but Johnson gives a shrug and does it anyway.
In another strange Liver-Eating Johnson episode, Johnson is captured by a young Blackfoot chief, The Wolf. The Wolf recognises Johnson and decides that they will keep him and trade him to the Crow tribe for goods and supplies. The Wolf and his tribe decide to have a celebration that evening. While they are celebrating and getting drunk, Johnson is able to loosen his ties and ambush the warrior guarding him. He kicks him broadside and knocks him out. Before escaping into the night, Johnson realises that he needs food for his journey. It was winter at the time so it would be difficult finding food at this point in the year. So, he takes the warrior’s knife and cuts off his leg at the hip and takes it with him!
He uses the leg as his source of food while he makes the terrible trek back home through the snow, half-naked. He fights a mountain lion over the leg and has to escape a grizzly bear. But he finally makes it back home to his family cabin.
Johnson then again meets up with his friend Gue and they set up camp. Now, apparently, in addition to being a giant of a man who could survive winter with an amputated leg and kill you with a single kick, Johnson was also fantastic at baking biscuits. He even had a reputation for it. One day at the camp, he spends all day baking biscuits. While he is cleaning his pan in the river he senses another Native American nearby. He sneaks back to the camp to see a large Crow stuffing one biscuit after another into his mouth. He sneaks up behind the Crow warrior, overpowers him, kills him, scalps him, and removes and eats his liver. This was the 20th Crow that was sent to hunt him down 14 years prior. Oddly enough, the amount of time he was pursued made Johnson admire the Crow.
Johnson again sets out on another expedition with a fellow trapper. It’s a successful expedition, but on their way back they sense that they are being tracked. Or more accurately, Johnson smells that they're being tracked. So, in the evening, they made a large fire to mark their camp, while they hid in the darkness.
Twenty young Blackfoot warriors approach the campsite, but they’re ambushed by Johnson and his friend. The two men are able to kill nearly all of the warriors and the rest escape. All in all, I suppose you can consider the whole expedition a success.
Well, you’ll remember the Crazy Woman Morgan from earlier in the story. She had unfortunately starved to death the winter following the murder of her family. However, on the way back from this expedition, Johnson passed by her cabin and noticed that a grave had been built for her. Apparently, this grave was made by the Crow tribe out of respect for Liver-Eating Johnson. This pushed Johnson to pursue peace with the Crow.
He found the Crow chief, Chief Gray Bear, along with 26 Crow warriors, near the Missouri River. While the chief was taking a drink from the river, Johnson approached him through the bushes, while holding up both hands. Gray Bear was obviously pretty terrified of Johnson, but Johnson tells the chief that he is done with killing members of the Crow tribe, attributing his change of heart to the grave he saw that was dug for his friend, Crazy Woman Morgan. Chief Gray Bear actually accepts his offer of peace, ending the decades-long war between Liver-Eating Johnson and his liver-eating victims, the Crow.
Liver-Eating Johnson then went on to be a friend of the Crow, as well as many other tribes, assisting them with issues they may be facing while warring with other tribes. His career as a trapper eventually came to an end and he found an on-off relationship with law enforcement. However, his health began to fail and he was admitted to a veterans hospital in 1899 and he died a month later in January 1900.
Although I can’t say that this story has a terribly unfortunate ending. However, I will say that Liver-Eating Johnson did experience true tragedy in his life. And that tragedy lasted for decades due to his vengeance. It was near an obsession. And just like the story of Moby Dick, the obsession consumed him, which was truly unfortunate. However, at least he pulled himself back at the end there.
"Crow Killer, New Edition: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson" by Raymond W. Thorp Jr., Robert Bunker, and Nathan E. Bender