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The Legendary "Liver Eating Johnston"

Updated on August 26, 2015

Liver Eating Johnston was what people called this giant of a mountain man. Although he was fearless, violent, alcoholic and strong as an ox he never ate a human liver. The bizarre moniker came about as the result of a tall tale where he allegedly stabbed a Sioux Indian during a battle sometime around 1868. When he withdrew the knife there was a piece of the man’s liver still on the blade. Johnston supposedly showed his comrades and jokingly stated, “Anyone want a chaw?”

The man stood over 6 feet tall in his stocking feet, weighed about 280 pounds…and he became a legend. Johnston was a “jack of all trades” who worked many different jobs during his lifetime. He was a hunter, miner, Indian fighter, trapper, bootlegger, farmer, sailor, teamster, guide, scout, deputy, Union Private and trader among other things.

Many believe the fictional movie Jeremiah Johnson was based on his exploits, however many events in the movie never happened and historical data was often wrong. But that’s Hollywood for you. In any case, Johnston had an explosive temper and he lacked self control which got him into trouble more than once.

This is the first known photograph of Johnston as a mountain man. He was a scout during the 1876-1877 Sioux campaign in Montana Territory.
This is the first known photograph of Johnston as a mountain man. He was a scout during the 1876-1877 Sioux campaign in Montana Territory.

His real name was John Garrison Johnston. Born in Little York, New Jersey in July of 1824 it’s believed he was of Scottish or Irish descent. His childhood was unpleasant to say the least. His alcoholic father, Isaac, frequently farmed him and his siblings out to neighboring farms to work off his drinking debts. As soon as he was old enough, Johnston took off for the sea and found work hunting whales on a schooner. That remained his profession for over a decade.

Eventually he grew tired of whale hunting and enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the Mexican War. But his career was cut short when an officer struck another seaman with a sword and Johnston stepped in and knocked him out cold with a blow to the neck. Johnston was restricted to quarters for a month. But as soon as restriction was over he went ashore and headed west. He was now a deserter so he changed his name to Johnston from Garrison.

Johnston then decided to join others caught up in the mad rush to the California goldfields. It was around this time he met J.X. Beidler who became his lifetime friend and partner. The pair was like two peas in a pod. They both had a penchant for whiskey and violence. Johnston, like his father, was an alcoholic.

During the Civil War Johnston joined the 1st Division, 2nd Colorado Calvary, 4th Brigade, H Company. As a Private he became a scout. Being 39 he lied about his age saying he was 33. Johnston deserted again less than a week later. However, this time he eventually returned. He was reassigned and in 1864 Johnston was wounded in the leg and shoulder during the battles of Westport and Newtonia in Missouri.

At the end of the Civil War he was honorably discharged at which time he headed for the Montana territory gold fields to fight Indians. It was said when Johnston left the gold fields he went to Fort Benton and splurged all of his money on whiskey.

Broke, he signed on as a teamster delivering supplies to miners. Johnston’s old pal Beidler joined up with him there and the two went into business cutting and selling wood on the Missouri river. The profession was dangerous under any circumstance, but where Johnston and Beidler set up camp was smack dab in the middle of Sioux land. In the summer of 1868 alone, seven woodcutters were killed. They were constantly attacked by Sioux warriors.

After taking a short break the two went back to work. Johnston made money anyway he could. He was frequently seen selling Indian skulls to passengers on passing steamboats. He continued trapping and hunting well into his 60’s.

The Sioux were a constant thorn in Johnston’s side. They often stole his beaver traps and pelts. There are several accounts as to how Johnston outsmarted his foes. Sometimes he made a camp appear as if he had left in haste and left poisoned meat behind for them to eat. One story tells how Johnston dug a tunnel underneath his cabin. When three Sioux waited inside for him to return, Johnston used to tunnel to come up underneath and shot one through the floorboards. The other two grabbed their fallen friend and fled.

Johnston managed to insert himself in practically every Indian conflict which arose. He served as a scout for the famed General Nelson A. Miles and was present when legendary Chief Joseph was captured. But, eventually Johnston became tired of this lifestyle and sought another line of work.

In 1868, Beidler showed up again and together they peddled bootlegged whiskey to Indians for the next half decade. Much of their trade was done in a territory the settlers referred to as “Whoop Up Territory.” Few, if any white men, dared to venture into this domain. To do so was considered suicide.

But, that didn’t bother Johnston. The Fierce Indians who made the territory their home considered Johnston crazy and a bad spirit. Therefore they more or less left him alone. By this time the fearless mountain man was entering his 50s and he decided it was best to give up the bootlegging game. He chose being a guide in southern Montana as no one else knew the territory better than him.

In the following years Johnston sometimes returned to a few of his former occupations such as hunting, scouting and trapping. But he also ventured into other areas of employment. For a while he ran a stagecoach line on and off and even became a lawman in what is now Billings, Montana. Because of legends surrounding his name he was often asked to join up with traveling wild west shows which were becoming popular at the time. However, he wasn’t much for crowds and preferred the solitary life of the mountains. He soon gave up the entertainment business and returned briefly to his lawman job.

Johnston, now beginning to feel his age, decided he might try going into retirement. He built a cabin in the mountains around Red Lodge. But not wanting to just sit around doing nothing he took a job as Sheriff. He retired at the age of 70 when the aches and pains from his old war wounds forced him too.

In 1899, Johnston moved to a veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles, California where he died on January 21, 1900. He was buried in California for many years but it was later decided to move his body to Cody, Wyoming. The area was one of Johnston’s favorite places.

Today, campers and woodsmen have claimed to smell the scent of pipe tobacco drifting through the woods. Several reports of a ghostly grizzled old man leading pack mules down a trail have also been made.


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    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 6 years ago from sunny Florida

      Great hub...I secretly (no longer, now) wished I had lived in those wild and wooly days. Of course I s'pose I would have only wanted to see this Larger Than Life fellow from interesting this history stuff...thanks for sharing

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thank you. I write them as fast as I can find somebody to write about.

    • Little two two profile image

      LyttleTwoTwo 6 years ago from Canada

      Great hub again ... I love these old west, old time stories. Keep em coming. Your on of the few I return to read up on.