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‘A Man Among Men’
[Updated with Reader Notes] Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker
1958, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 190 pages
Reader Notes, 2015
When reviewing a nonfiction book on a subject I have not researched, I take the contents at face value. The review below reflects this. Now that I have embarked on researching the Liver-eater's relationship with the Crow Indians, with the aid of two modern Mountain Men from that region of the Rockies, we have agreed that every account in this book, which will serve as a general outline of the subject's life, will be checked against the dozens of sources Ishmael has provided for my reading, will be questioned in my notes, and then later examined critically by the three of us, on the ground, with Shayne serving as the team skeptic.
In that light, Crow Killer will stand as our representative Folklore account of the subject, which will then be demythologized with the various tools and disciplines the three of us bring to the study, which is scheduled to come to its peak of expression in September 2016 when the three of us attempt to walk in the moccasin prints of a man, who assuredly, was one deadly character. This is the base inference I am operating from, that no matter what the facts—known and unknowable—about Liver-Eating Johnson's life, that, based on the rough character of the men who respected, feared, and even recoiled from him, that the Liver-Eater—even if he did only take the bite out of the single Sioux liver before a band of men who insisted on seeing it done to uphold the myth—was, at the least, a man to be feared, and very possibly, a monster.
Original Review
First off, Crow Killer is a tale of research. The methods used by the authors to interview and cross reference accounts from a handful of old Mountain Men, with military and historical documents is very similar to that used by early anthropologists and folklorists. The book is well footnoted and has a pleasing narrative style.
Since I was a boy I have been fascinated with the lives of the American Indians who faced the Anglo onslaught, and of those few solitary men who formed the spear tip of invasion. Ironically, as with many taboo men, such as British explorer Richard F. Burton, the act of rejecting Western Civilization, and migrating to its margins on a kind of vision quest resulted in two tragically inclusive phenomenon:
1. An adoption of aboriginal survival methods
2. The exploitation of those learned skills by the western militaries that followed these trailblazing outcasts to exterminate and/or marginalize the natives.
No life exemplifies this process better than the life of John Johnston, who became known to the Native Americans as Dapiek Absoraka [Killer of Crows], to settlers and the military as Liver-Eater Johnson, and to his fellow Mountain Men as simply ‘Liver-Eatin’’.
Johnson’s tale is one of never-ending primal war. As a severe loner, possessed of a number of physical gifts, he took to the primal lifestyle of the Indian warrior like no other. By modern standards Johnson was a complete psychopath. Indeed, his contemporaries thought he was insane. The Indians though—friends and enemies alike—revered him as a great man, a warrior among warriors.
The most sophisticated Stone Age hunting societies to ever exist on earth confronted Johnson when he ventured out into the wilderness to make a solitary living. These were societies in which every man was a warrior. Indian warriors bested European, American and Mexican soldiers with regularity over 300 years. However, the alienated loner, the fearless reject who strikes out into enemy territory without a cultured need for ritual preparation or purification, is a very special person, uniquely minded to absorb the primal lifeway of the Native and become a kind of ‘super-primitive’. Hunters like Johnson who rejected the herd-like Anglo-American society looked with favor upon the pack-like Native society. As with the old Appalachian Frontier of Lewis Wetzel’s time, the Rocky Mountain Frontier of Johnson’s time was uniquely suited for the life of solitary predation.
Johnson’s one aim seems to have been to prosper and buy an Indian wife, which he did. He refused before and after his marriage to ‘The Swan’ to have relations with other women, and seems never to have known a white woman. The Swan, pregnant with his child, was murdered by ten Crow braves. What followed was decades of Crow killing—along with the legendary eating of their livers—by Johnson. Both Johnson and the Crows—most of whom deeply regretted his wife’s murder—prosecuted their war with a level of honor that was fantasized about by medieval Christian bards, but which was apparently only attained on the American frontier—if only in spots.
Crow Killer is a mediation on how a man becomes larger than life in his own time through his lone actions—not as a politician, pop culture icon, or celebrity. Contemporaries of Johnson such as Davey Crocket and Buffalo Bill Cody were charlatans who cashed in on the legend of actual frontier killers like Johnson, who was remarkable for his lack of self-promotion. As much as we might—as Johnson’s best friend Del Gue often did—cringe at his cannibalism, he is notable for his extreme sense of honor, and most particularly his commitment to protecting and avenging women, Indian and white alike, from and on those who would prey upon them.
Johnson actually lived by the code of such mythic men as Achilles, Lancelot and King Author. But with Johnson, we have his photograph, the words of friends and enemies as to his specific exploits, down to exacting detail. Most of all, we have the knowledge that this most remorseless avenger, who killed hundreds of warriors from a half dozen Indian nations, made peace with his enemies. He was renown as a chief of three tribes. Even in his old age, when he knocked the snot out of a couple of ‘tenderfeet’ who had harassed him in a mining town, an old Cheyenne chief came to his aid. The chief had many warriors and was on good terms with the sheriff, who was fixing to arrest Johnson—who would not be arrested but had also prided himself on never having killed a white man, and was therefore in a quandary. Chief Hanging Kettle said to the Sheriff, Bill Greiner, who took exception to Johnson smashing two men’s heads together for bumping into him, “This is the killer of Crows. He is the Great White Chief of the Shoshone. His victims are strewn in all of the mountains and plains. My grandsons, great warriors, were not born when he took the trail of the Crows, and my sons were but boys….Dah-pih-ehk will kill you with one hand. White law man you are only a papoose [baby in bundling board].”
Johnson would be considered a racist today, as he used the term ‘red nigger’ to describe enemy Indians. Of course, he referred to himself as ‘this hyar coon’. When called upon to drive off a black cowboy turned contract killer, by his former Crow allies, they, after witnessing the encounter, observed that this was the first black man Johnson had laid eyes on. Notably, he had not used the n-word but respectfully addressed the man.
The Mountain Men lived and worked alone, and in twos and threes. Most died alone, slain and scalped by an eager young Indian brave. To survive as a Mountain Man one had to be far more deadly than the Indian Braves who beguiled the soldiers who hid in forts, and the cavalry that blundered across the land. The average Mountain Man had to kill an Indian every couple of years just to survive. There were about a dozen famous Mountain Men that were known to have slain dozens, even scores, of Indians. There was only one Mountain Man known to have killed hundreds—nine with his bare hands before numerous witnesses. When a Mountain Man was dishonored or slain by Indians two actions were taken by this loose confederation of anarchist loners, ‘put out the word that we gather to avenge our friend’, and ‘make sure Liver-Eatin’ comes’. These fewer than 100 men slew many times more Native American warriors with knives, hatchets, and bare hands, than the entire U.S. military establishment did over the same time period, and they essentially did ‘as Indians’.
In Crow Killer Johnson is exposed as the most prominent Stone Age man for whom we have a name and an image. This book may be read as an account of war, warrior virtue, applied field-craft, an ethnic cleansing tragedy, or according to the one anonymous Indian brave who spied upon Johnson as he spoke to the bones of his wife and unborn baby in the brass kettle he had purchased for her house warming gift, as a cautionary tale. Many Natives believed Johnson was a messenger from The Sacred, a bloody-bearded reminder that a greater power sets down some among us, who, if mistreated, might become a living punishment. To the warriors who faced the twilight of their lifeway, Dapiek Absaroka was at once a harbinger of doom and the justification-by-way-of-personification of their highest virtues, which included mercy and reverence.
The few Mountain Men who outlived their own era, like Johnson, missed the Indian way of life that they enabled the pathetic U.S. Army to extinguish. In his old age he grew sick, and rather than become a burden he left for a Los Angeles hospice for old soldiers. Like Johnson and his old mentor ‘Hatcher’—ironically from today’s vantage—aging Mountain Men saw California as the place for a man to die when there was nothing left worth doing.
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