Studio Portrait of John "Liver Eating" Johnson, Late 19th Century
September 13, 2023
John "Liver Eating" Johnson is a legendary figure of the American West, perhaps brought to a wider national consciousness by the Sydney Pollack film Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford, but the subject of fascination for decades before that.
He earned his moniker by supposedly cutting out the livers of nearly 300 Crow warriors. Johnson (born Garrison) had married a Salish woman, the daughter of a prominent Flathead sub-chief, and taken her to a cabin on the Little Snake River in Colorado. After arriving in Autumn and supplying the cabin with enough dry goods to last the season, he set out on his own to do some trapping. He returned in Spring to find that she was long dead, little more than bones. And among her bones were a set of smaller bones- an unborn child. There was no mystery as to what happened - they had been the victim of a Crow hunting party.
After the murder of his family, Johnson began a one-man war against the whole of the Crow tribe, killing and scalping warriors wherever he could find them. But he also cut the livers out of his victims - an act of blasphemy to the Crows, who considered the liver essential to gaining entry to the afterlife. Whether he really ate the livers or not is a matter of conjecture, there are many who maintain he did. For this reason, he was also known as both "Crow Killer" and "Liver Eater."
At over six feet tall and over 250 pounds, Johnson was an imposing figure. At some point, it begins to get difficult to parse history from legend. For example, a story goes that Johnson was once captured by the Blackfoot with the intention of presenting him to the Crow in the hope of a reward. Constrained with leather straps and left in a teepee guarded by a young and inexperienced warrior, Johnson managed to escape his bindings and kill the Blackfoot guard with his knife. Then, according to legend, he managed to quietly saw through the youth's leg at the hip, gaining himself both a blunt instrument - he could swing the leg and use it as a weapon - and a food source to fuel his escape.
It might be pointed out that the events of that particular story are sometimes attributed to the Kentucky cannibal Boone Helm, hanged by Virginia City vigilantes along with Clubfoot George, Haze Lyons, and Frank Parish.
Jonson would go on to serve as a sharpshooter in the Civil War, and as a sheriff in Leadville, CO and Red Lodge, MT. He would die in a hospital in Los Angeles in January of 1900, having led a mythic career that spanned the whole West.