What can you say about a mountain man named John “Liver-eating” Johnston who has been dead for 74 years? Among other things, that he was fatter, uglier and a lot less blond than Robert Redford, who portrayed his life in the film Jeremiah Johnson. But that sympathetic portrayal has helped fulfill “Liver-eating” Johnston’s wish to be buried in the Rocky Mountains near Cody, Wyo.
Johnston was a bit of a fraud. His nickname was not earned; he horn-swoggled his way into it by persuading a friend that he had eaten the liver of an enemy Sioux he had killed. But Johnston also gained legitimate fame as a scout, trapper, Union soldier and fighter of the Crow Indians. He died in 1900 in Santa Monica at 78, and his legend was rekindled by the Redford film in late 1972. Last year a seventh grade class at Park View Junior High School in Lancaster, Calif. ran across an old news clipping about Johnston that mentioned his hope of being buried in the mountains. The students gained the cooperation of the Veterans Administration, which named them official next of kin. Then, with help from a Cody museum and Western Airlines, they had the body exhumed from Los Angeles Veterans Cemetery and flown to a picturesque spot in Wyoming for a ceremonious reinterment, which Redford attended. This seemed to make everyone happy—except the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “With precedents such as this,” grumbled the VFW, “no veteran remains safe in his grave.”