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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Bowie Knife Fighter: Liver-Eating Johnson

Liver-Eating Johnson, c. 1876

To readers of this site, Raymond Thorp is probably best known as the author of Bowie Knife (1948), the first book that attempted to assemble the historical record of the iconic American blade. Thorp later wrote another book that achieved some success: Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver Eating Johnson (1958).

John "Liver-Eating" Johnson (1824-1900) was a mountain man of some renown. According to Thorp, after a band of Crow warriors killed his Indian wife, Johnson spent years hunting them down and killing them one by one. After each time killing, he indulged in a grisly ritual of cutting out his enemy's liver with his bowie knife and eating it.

Johnson did, in fact, have a bowie knife, made in Sheffield by Wade & Butcher, with an 11 1/2-inch blade, which is now on display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. However, Johnson, a well-known raconteur, never claimed to have methodically consumed livers in the manner that Thorp describes. According to him, after one fight in which he killed an Indian with his knife, he jokingly invited a fellow combatant to share the man's liver with him just to see his reaction, licking his knife as if he'd already taken a bite.

The following satirical account of the origin of Johnson's nickname was published in the Butte Weekly Miner. I have lost my record of the date this article appeared, but it was probably in the mid-1880s, after Johnson was appointed deputy sheriff in Coulson, Montana.
“Liver Eating” Johnson is a famous character and a sturdy relic of the early days. Many stories of how he came by his aristocratic title have been told, some of which are more or less contradictory. Probably the true version has never before been told, though all of them come back to the original source that he gained some fame from eating an Indian's liver. Some authorities say he did not eat the Redskin's internal organ, but after cutting it out placed the bloody knife in his mouth, so that his face got covered with gore, and led those who were near him when the Redskin died, to believe he had actually eaten raw Indian.

This story has unquestionably done Mr. Johnson and the red gentleman an injustice. An Eastern paper, with the usual correctness with which Eastern journals give the world the truth about affairs Out West, gave a few months ago the only really artistic account of how Mr. Johnson secured his Christian name, if “Liver Eating” can be designated under that head. From the Eastern paper in question it is learned that Mr. Johnson from early youth had a fondness for liver. That this appetite stayed with him, when in early life he moved out to Montana, and that he always declared the liver was the best part of any animal.
Once upon a time, as they say in fairy stories, Mr. Johnson was out hunting Indians, buffalo, jackrabbits, and fool hens on the plains of Montana. The party had run out of provisions and were on the verge of starvation, when Mr. Johnson happened to discover a Sioux Indian on foot at a considerable distance. Mr. Johnson, as soon as he caught sight of the Indian, exclaimed, “There's my meat,” and started for the noble red man.

Mr. Johnson, who was somewhat fleeter than a deer, gained rapidly on the Indian, and as he came nearly up with his prey, he gave several war whoops, which, in the language of the poet, curdled the Indian's blood in his veins, and as a result the action of the Redskin's heart was seriously affected. Mr. Johnson finally reached the Indian's back with his knife and proceeded to relieve the native American of his liver. The Indian up to that moment had never lost faith in human nature and never believed that a man would do such a mean trick behind his back. Mr. Johnson apologized for being obliged to thus unceremoniously help himself to the redskin's private property, and explained that only the exigencies of the occasion justified him in the taking of private property for public use without due form of law, but the Indian never got over it and it is said, according to the Eastern paper, to have died soon after of a broken heart. He was deeply cut up over what he considered an example of man's inhumanity to man.. . .

Upon securing the liver, Mr. Johnson returned to his starving friends, brandishing aloft his trophy. The other members of the party, though starving, were somewhat aristocratic by nature and early training, and declined to eat the liver. They were indignant that Mr. Johnson should offer it to them, knowing, as he did, that it could not be prepared properly owing to the lack of onions and mustard. . . .

The moral of the story is that a dangerous appetite for anything, if indulged to excess, is liable to give a man a peculiar, if not a bad name.
The best article I've seen that separates the truth from fiction about Liver-Eating Johnson is "The Abandoned Scout's Revenge: Origins on the Crow Killer," published in the Annals of Wyoming, Summer 2006, p. 2-17. Unfortunately, it is not available on the Web.

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